American Spiritual ‘Deep River’ Gets New Life

The spiritual “Deep River” can attribute its success to Harry Burleigh, the son of a former slave who, from the late 19th to mid-20th century, made his living as a composer and professional baritone singer.

The onetime assistant to the great Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, Burleigh produced a concert arrangement of “Deep River” that would have a significant impact on the presentation of it and other spirituals on the concert stage.

And on Saturday, Nov. 7, at 8 p.m., Washington Performing Arts and the PostClassical Ensemble will present “Deep River: The Art of the Spiritual” at the University of the District of Columbia – a multifaceted program that will blend on-stage narration, historic film footage, audio recordings and live vocal performance into one transformative evening that’s sure to entertain, educate and enlighten all who attend.

Joseph Horowitz, the writer and director of the program and the executive director of PostClassical Ensemble, explained the impact that Burleigh had on spirituals.

“Before Burleigh, the music we call ‘spirituals,” if it was sung in concert, was sung by chorus,” he said. “Burleigh was the first person to present spirituals as art song, with a single singer and a piano. So, if you’ve heard Paul Robeson or Marian Anderson sing ‘Deep River,’ they’re singing Burleigh’s version.”

The director for the two choirs that will perform, Stanley Thurston, said there’s been a recent resurgence in terms of the interest of the history of and stories behind the spirituals.

“I thinks organizations like Washington Performing Arts, whose membership is more diverse in terms of race, has a lot to do with why we’re there’s been an increase in the spirituals and we’re experiencing new arrangements that are more interesting and more fun to sing,” he said. “The younger generation, both in high school and college choirs, want to sing this music. And they can use social media, like You Tube, to see interpretations of this musical genre from earlier choirs and singers.”

While the music of former slaves was once referred to as “Negro spirituals,” Thurston said it’s more correct to refer to the repertoire of music as “American spirituals.”

“People like Burleigh and then Anderson and Robeson brought ‘Deep River’ and other spirituals to the concert stage, and with those performances, people slowly began to acknowledge that the spirituals were more accurately an American art form,” said Thurston, who lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, and who remains excited about the attention that the spirituals are now receiving.

WPA President Jenny Bilfield, clearly exuberated after her organization was recently honored for Outstanding Contribution to Arts Education at the 30th Annual Mayor’s Arts Awards, said District residents can expect to see more innovative programming like the one on Friday evening.

“Last year we put on a big tribute that recognized the 75th anniversary of Marian Anderson’s performance at the Lincoln Memorial (Easter Sunday, 1939),” Bilfield said. “Many people knew her as an opera singer but she also performed gospel music and the spirituals – two different art forms.”

“This time we wanted to find a way to focus on the spirituals as a social art form and show how the spirituals have evolved from their origins to the modern day. And with contemporary soloists like Kevin Deas, a renowned bass-baritone and master at interpreting the spirituals on our stage, and with our two talented choirs, we believe this performance will help us reach both our normal supporters and a new audience as well,” she said.

“This is a true collaboration – it’s a complicated program but one that we’re truly excited about,” she said.

The WPA will examine the Art of the Spiritual in future performances Nov. 22, Jan. 9, Jan. 20, Feb. 13, Feb. 21 and May 1. For more information, go to washingtonperformingarts.org or call 202-785-9727.

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D. Kevin McNeir – Senior Editor

Award-winning journalist and 21-year Black Press veteran, book editor, voice-over specialist and college instructor (Philosophy, Religion, Journalism). Before joining us, he led the Miami Times to recognition as NNPA Publication of the Year.

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