Black Gospel Music Expert Discusses Timelessness of Christmas Spirituals, Which Differ From Christmas CarolsDecember 8, 20172 min read
Robert F. Darden, professor of journalism and founder of Baylor’s Black Gospel Music Restoration Project, treasures the rich sounds of Christmas spirituals, which differ from Christmas carols.
“So many of the spirituals are written in what has been performed as and what scholars call the ‘eternal now,’” Darden said. “If you read the lyrics as they were transcribed, many of them are in the present tense.”
To illustrate his point, Darden referenced the spiritual “Were You There?” in which the lyrics read, “It causes me to tremble.” Darden said that since slaves in America were not book-educated and struggled with the concept of time, the Bible was a contemporary account of what was going on for them. In their minds, they conflated Abraham in the Bible with Father Abraham Lincoln who was going to free them, and associated Harriett Tubman with Moses and the Ohio River with the Jordan River. Darden said the powerful resonance in these spirituals is unmatched because of the passion of the people who sang them.
“When you hear the Christmas spirituals, you’re hearing people who (believe) this is a real live event,” Darden said. “Go tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is born, not was born. That gives them more of an immediacy and a power than songs that are in the past tense.”
Darden also said that slaves had a more intimate understanding of the nativity story because they identified with the conditions into which Christ was born. They understood what it was like to come from a foreign land to a place where they were despised and enslaved in the same way that Christ was born as a refugee child with people seeking to kill him.
“The spirituals reflect a people who believe they’re in the middle of the Bible story. I think that gives them a power that’s hard for others to match and why the Gospel artists, who would later record these songs, tried to capture that and keep that immediacy and intimacy that I think a lot of Christmas carols don’t have,” Darden said.
Darden said the modern world still needs Christmas spirituals. While commercialism gets people excited and inspired for the holidays, people in 2017 need something that will help them reflect on what truly matters about the season. They need something that will not only remind them of history but will also evoke the sensation of gratitude for a needed savior.
“By noticing and listening to the words of the spirituals, you see how they focused on what really matters," he said.
Robert Darden, M.A. Professor, Journalism, Public Relations and New Media
Darden is a professor in the department of journalism, PR & new media. He directs Baylor's Black Gospel Music Restoration Project.