Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Negro Spirituals in America

History Book Club of Rockport
Wednesday, April 29, 2015
History of American Music:
Negro Spirituals

Fisk University Jubilee Singers, ca. 1908
L to R: John Wesley Work, Noah Walker Ryder. Alfred Garfield King and James Andrew Meyers.

Thurman, Howard, Deep River and The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death, 1975, Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, Reprint 1990

Howard Thurman (November 18, 1899 – April 10, 1981) was an influential African American author, philosopher, theologian, educator and civil rights leader. He was Dean of Chapel at Howard University and Boston University for more than two decades, wrote 21 books, and in 1944 helped found a multicultural church. Thurman, along with Mordecai Johnson and Vernon Johns, was considered one of the three greatest African-American preachers in the early 20th-century.

            “Life has its own restraints.”  Thurman wrote.  Imagine these privileged white men who came to America with land grants, or who bought land after they arrived, and built plantations to profit from the rich soil of America.  To do this work, they bought slaves.  Slaves planted and harvested the cotton, the sugar cane, and all the crops that made their owners rich. 

            Africans were taken from their tribes and brought to America.  They lost their native languages, their customs, and of course their freedom. 

            They took Christianity, the religion their masters practiced so solemnly, but they took it their way, and created a religious tradition that was purely African-American.  They drew upon their native skills to tell stories and pass them along.  People who had been prevented from learning to read and write by their masters drew upon an oral tradition, so that they scooped up huge parts of the Bible and made it their own, creating thousands upon thousands of songs which were uniquely theirs.

            These slaves compared their lives to the struggles they learned from the Old Testament, and these songs expressed their despair, their sadness, but also the hope for the Promised Land of heaven, and often the hope that one day they might be free on earth.

            Some of their songs were meant to convey hidden meanings, like when slaves longed for the time when they could take the Underground Railroad to Free states or to Canada.

            When Thurman wrote “life has its own restraints” he was thinking about the time of emancipation of the slaves.  When the Civil War ended in 1865 and slaves were freed, it was the end for many wealthy plantation owners.  Suddenly all those slaves were free.  There was no one to do the work and owners were forced to sell off their farms and move out of their big white mansions.

            Thurman wrote:   “Unless there is a great rebirth of high and holy moral courage, which will place at the center of our vast power an abiding sense of moral responsibility, both because of our treatment of minorities as home and our arrogance abroad, we may very easily become the most hated nation on earth.  No amount of power, wealth or prestige can stay this judgment.”

            In Deep River, Thurman quotes Langston Hughes in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” when he recalls

            Deep River, my home is over Jordan;
            Deep River, my home is over Jordan.
            O don’t you want to go to that Gospel Feast
            That Promised Land where all is Peace?
            Deep River, I want to cross over into camp ground.

            Thurman found this to be the most intellectual of all the spirituals.  It thinks of life in terms of a river.  Early singers, slaves, viewed the river as the last and most formidable barrier to freedom. To slip over the river from one of the Border States would mean freedom in a new country. But to think of life as being like a river is full of creative analogy.  It is the nature of the river to flow; it is always moving, always in process, always on its way.

            We are climbing Jacob’s ladder’
            We are climbing Jacob’s ladder;
            Every round goes higher, higher.

            Thurman asks if you have ever heard a group singing this song. The listener is caught up in the contagion of a vast rhythmic pulse beat, without quite knowing how the measured rhythm communicates a sense of active belonging to the whole human race; and at once the individual becomes a part of a moving host of mankind.  This is the great pilgrim spiritual.

            Out of the picture the slave singer thinks of the story of Jacob, and Esau, and the dream of a ladder stretching to Jehovah in heaven. The song gathers in its sweep all the concentrated urgencies of human dreaming, Thurman writes.

            In The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death, Thurman examines Negro spirituals as a source of rich testimony concerning life and death, because they are the voice of a people “for whom the cup of suffering overflowed in haunting overtones  of majesty, beauty and power!”

            Thurman quotes:
            Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,
            Nobody knows my sorrow.
            Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,
            Glory, Hallelujah!

            Did all this in the spirituals serve as a kind of soporific, making for docility and submission? Were slaves manipulated by religion?  No, Thurman agrees that religion did serve to deepen the capacity of endurance and the absorption of suffering.  But it taught a people how to ride high to life, to look squarely in the face those facts that argue most dramatically against all hope to fashion a hope that the environment, with all its cruelty, could not crush.

            Untutored people used native artistry and genius to create a concept of God from the Bible.
            Finally, he writes:
            I got a robe,
            You got a robe,
            All God’s children got robes.
            When we get to heaven
            We’re going to put on our robes,
            We’re going to shout all over God’s heaven.

            In the slave’s heaven, there will be no proscription, no segregation, no separateness, no slave-row, but complete freedom.  The heart-tearing madness of separation of families at the auction block.  Wives sold from their husbands to become breeders for profit, children separated from parents and from each other. It would not be like that in God’s heaven.

            Most African-Americans today can trace their heritage back to these slaves.  The slaves developed the distinctive music of those spirituals, but the African-American genius for music which flowed through their veins went on to develop jazz, the blues, funk, boogie-woogie, doo-wop, stride, the jitterbug, hip-hop, rap, rock-n-roll,  rhythm and blues, and more.

            The men who brought these Africans to America to run plantations looked at them as only part human; even early Americans looked upon them as little different from mules or other beasts of burden. 

            Much has improved in the lot of African-Americans in this country, but there is much, much room for improvement.  There are still many people of other races—white, yellow and brown—who look down on the black race.  In spite of all the progress, in spite of the tremendous achievements of people like Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr., Colin Powell, Condaleeza Rice, Crispus Attucks, Jackie Robinson, W.E.B. DuBois, Ella Fitzgerald, Thurgood Marshall, of course Barack Obama, and many more, there are people, both black and non-black who see only the differences and actively strive to keep the races apart. 
          But, just like the great river of Langston Hughes and Howard Thurman, time moves on and more and more whites and blacks will intermarry, more blacks will earn a place of leadership and admiration.  In the course of that river, older Americans who are still locked in the ideas of segregation and racial inequity will die off.  Already I have seen young white people who simply do not see blacks as my generation was taught to see them.
         And all through this, the tremendous talent and strength of African-Americans to create music of all sorts will flourish, and with it, bring them to the Promised Land.


Wed. May 27, 2015: The History of Inequality.  Wealth and Poverty, Property Ownership [Proposed by Rick Heuser] Look at the 18th century in Europe-- the Czars and the Serfs; the King of France and the sans-culottes; The Soviets preached of a land of equality-- how did that work for them?  How have societies dealt with inequality through the centuries?   

Wed. June 24, 2015: The Future of Europe [Proposed by Rick Heuser] Based upon what you know, and what you learn, where is Europe going?  Will it soon be wrapped up in one tight ball, with no borders, everyone using the same Euro (€)?  What about all the guest workers, unassimilated laborers from other continents?  What about the growing numbers of Muslims?  

Wed. July 29, 2015: History of the American Family. [Proposed by Richard Verrengia] How has the American family changed since Pilgrim days?  

Wed. Aug. 26, 2015: The History of Food in America. [Proposed by Janos Posfai] Let’s explore what Americans have considered a square meal, starting with Native Americans (Indians), and including Pilgrims, then people arriving from other parts and classes of England, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, Italy, Russia, African slaves, China; look at regional foods from the South, New England, the West, Midwest.

Wed. Sep. 30, 2015:  Charismatic leaders in History. [Proposed by Janos Posfai] What were the keys to Hitler’s, Churchill's, Mussolini's, FDR's successes? Keen perception of public moods? Oratory abilities? Character, firm ideology? Connecting to the people? How did they deploy their charisma? How could Napoleon manipulate the masses without TV ads? Why were people so perceptive to a madman in Germany? Intriguing and recurring questions.  

Wed. Oct. 28, 2015: Show Trials in History. [Proposed by Janos Posfai]   Read how nations and leaders have used a well-publicized court trial to serve another need, like demonstrating power, making peace, deflecting responsibility, etc.
Examples: Trial of Socrates; Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms; Sacco Vanzetti; Nuremburg War Crimes Trials; Julius and Ethel Rosenburg; Trial of Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu;  Saddam Hussein in Iraq;   Stalin’s NKVD show trials; Trials in Stalinist Hungary like Cardinal József Mindszenty, oil executives, L. Rajk. 

Wed. Dec. 2, 2015:  No meeting


Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Today is Lenin's Birthday

     V.I. Lenin (1870-1924) 

Today, April 22, is Lenin's Birthday.  He'd be 145 today.   It is also Earth Day, and it is not a coincidence.  It's regrettable that the Communists of the world seem to think that they are champions of preservation of the earth, because in the USSR they were very sloppy stewards. However, every year, even today, long after the USSR is gone, Russians observe his birthday with volunteer clean-up events.


Lenin's Subbotnik, cleaning up the Kremlin grounds, 1920

     The Soviets celebrated Lenin's Birthday with Subbotniks all over the Soyuz (Union).  A Subbotnik is usually on a Saturday (Subbota, in Russian) and it's a day when good Soviet citizens are expected to get out and clean up a park or a neighborhood, and they offer their labor for free. 

      We lived in the Soviet Union when Leonid Brezhnev was General Secretary.  It was 1981 when we arrived, and 1983 when we left.  The Soviet Union at that time was seedy and threadbare, from Riga to Khabarovsk, across 11 time zones.   It was a country nearly on life support, struggling to fight a war in Afghanistan.
     Yet, the USSR had a vast array of nuclear weapons, and they could blow us to kingdom come.  

     They still can.
     I had few interactions with the upper echelons of Soviet heirarchy, but here is one little story:

The Red Fleet Comes for Drinks

Soviet Admiral Chernavin, Head of the Red Fleet, proposes toast in our living room.
To his right is Mrs. Chernavin, to his left is Vice Admiral Navoytsev. Back to camera in uniform at right is American Navy Vice Admiral Walters.
The Soviet Navy Comes to the House for Drinks.    The annual meeting between senior officers of the U.S. and Soviet navies took place in Moscow in 1983.  We had a very nice dinner at the Soviet Navy’s reception hall, hosted by the Chief of their Navy, Admiral Vladimir Nikolayevich Chernavin. 
            Our return entertainment would normally have been held by the Ambassador at his quarters, but we were showing our displeasure with the Soviets then about their invasion of Afghanistan, and so we had the party at the residence of the naval attaché (me). 
            Now, normally, when the senior Soviet naval officers attended a party, they came without their wives. 
            As I was telling Marty, my wife, about this upcoming event, so she and our maid, Lyudmila, could prepare for it, I said, “Don’t worry, they never bring their wives.” 
            And of course, women don’t have to worry so much about entertaining men, because men don’t care all that much about the flowers, or other decoration, and that sort of thing. However, my wife cares about all that, and she and Lyudmila put on quite a nice spread, with a big roast turkey, and lots of fancy hors d’oeuvres
            In Moscow, the walls always have ears, and the Soviet Navy must have taken my statement to my wife as a challenge, because on the night of the reception at our apartment, all the senior Soviet Navy officers, from the Chief of their Navy on down, brought their wives. 
            You could tell that a lot of these admirals’ wives don’t get around the party circuit in Moscow much, because they spent a lot of time admiring everything in our apartment…. They’d back up to a curtain and, with their hand behind them, give the fabric a good “feel.” They’d quietly flip a plate over and look at the maker’s mark on the bottom, if they could do it without being noticed. 
            Now, during this time when we were displeased about Afghanistan the Russians would attend our parties, but leave 20 or so minutes later. 
            At this party, though, Admiral Chernavin, who is a very urbane, educated, literate and gentlemanly submarine officer, made a toast to our Ambassador, who was there, and to our Navy.  Chernavin is a tall, trim guy—not at all like the short, stubby little Admiral of the Fleet Sergei Gorshkov, who headed the navy for over 20 years.
            The whole group stayed for an hour, and they drank, and ate, and seemed to have a grand time, as did the visiting admirals from our Navy. 
            At some point, we noticed that we were running out of vodka, because everyone was drinking it so earnestly.  I sent out to borrow vodka from apartments of other diplomats in the building, including our general.  
            I managed to get a few more bottles, and if those Soviets would not have left when they did, we would have had a real problem:  out of vodka.  And to run out of vodka in the embassy in Moscow is a pretty sorry situation. 

Another story: The Bulgarian National Day Reception.  We didn’t spend a lot of time with the Bulgarians, but all the attachés were invited to the various National Day celebrations at embassies.  We invited everyone to ours on the Fourth of July.
                 We really valued our visits to the communist celebrations like this, because it often gave us a chance to see and perhaps talk with the top officials in the USSR; they usually didn’t visit American or western embassy events, because we were officially giving them the “cool” treatment because of their actions in Afghanistan.

Gorshkov [on cover of Time, 1968.]

               I saw Fleet Admiral Sergei Gorshkov, surrounded by lesser admirals, and I asked my boss, Brigadier General Charlie Hamm, if I could take him over and introduce him to the venerable father of the Soviet Navy.
              Charlie, when he had met Gorshkov, told him that he had received his commission in the Air Force the same year (1956) that Gorshkov had taken over command of the Soviet Navy.

              Gorshkov nodded and asked an aide to fill up his glass because this was an occasion for a toast.  Russians love toasts.
              We toasted Soviet-American Friendship. Then I talked a bit with Gorshkov, mentioning the Incidents at Sea Agreement which had recently been completed between our two navies. At this, the little guy reached up and tapped me vigorously on the ribbons on my uniform blouse, saying it was up to you [The U.S.Navy] to uphold this Agreement.

             That Agreement probably saved our navies from some escalation over the years... and it certainly accounted for a lot of vodka to be consumed at the annual meetings our two navies held.

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Thursday, April 2, 2015

1912-2015 End of a tree, and a new start

End of an era in Rockport’s Millbrook Meadow

1912-2015. Atlantic Tree arborists from Gloucester cut down 103-year-old willow in Millbrook Meadow.

            Over a century of history came crashing down in Rockport’s Millbrook Meadow Thursday (April 2) when arborists cut down two fine old willow trees.  The trees had become dangerous—long past their expected life, the large upper boughs were prone to fall off at any time.   Arborists estimate that the large willow in the center of the Meadow was planted about 1912, when William Howard Taft was President of the United States.

            Removal of the two large willows is part of the program for restoring the Meadow planned by Rockport’s Millbrook Meadow Committee.  Restoration is set to begin in 2016.
            For two years, a group of people in Rockport have been on a campaign to save what they call “Rockport’s Green Jewel”. 
            Millbrook Meadow and Mill Pond, a beautiful four-acre spot right in the middle of Town, is badly in need of restoration.
            When the Town finally got a new dam to replace the one that blew out in a violent rain storm 1n 2006, a few people started to see the clues.  The beautiful Meadow and Pond were slowly slipping away.
            The Pond had become filled with sediment over the years and now it was so shallow that cattails were starting to fill it, and fish could no longer live in the shallow water.
            The willows were losing huge boughs, and had reached the end of their lives. And the Mill Brook was often flooding its banks and turning the Meadow into a muddy, sloshy mess.
            Millbrook Meadow Committee began a campaign to restore this precious parkland.  With money from Lura Hall Phillips, a fund left in trust specifically for the Meadow, they began.  Town Meeting voted more money, and then the people of Rockport voted an additional amount from Community Preservation funds. 
            Working with the Department of Public Works, they hired a contractor, and began the long process to restore the Meadow and Pond.
            Now, the contractor’s engineers and scientists have poked and prodded, tested and sampled, to find out just what was needed to bring the park back to vibrant life.  They have prepared a Master Plan which describes the many tasks that will restore the park, and now they are at work on the actual design to do the work.
            The actual restoration of the Meadow and Pond is planned to begin next year, if the Town can raise the money for the work.
            Millbrook Meadow Conservancy, a sister organization formed to look after the Meadow and to raise funds, began a fund drive last fall, and so far have raised over $28,000.  
            Now a local donor who prefers to remain anonymous has offered a dollar-for-dollar challenge match of up to $25,000 for all new donations received between March 1 and September 14, when Rockport Town Meeting will vote on appropriating vitally-needed Community Preservation funds for the Meadow project.
            If donors respond generously to the challenge, the Conservancy will raise an additional $50,000 toward the total project cost, which is now estimated to be just under $1,300,000.
            Rockporters will have a chance to see what is next for Millbrook Meadow at a public meeting Wednesday, April 15 at the Rockport Public Library’s Brenner Friends’ Room, from 7 to 9 p.m. Millbrook Meadow Committee will unveil the Master Plan for the Restoration of the Pond and Meadow.
            This restoration will include dredging the Pond.  It will call for rebuilding the Mill Brook, making it wider, and making it bend, so that it won’t flood so often, and will be friendlier to eels, fish, frogs, turtles and aquatic plants.
            It will improve the drainage in the Meadow. It will remove the alien invasive plants and plant new, native species. In order for people to explore the forested parts of the Pond, and look at the wildlife in the wetlands, there’ll be a path on both sides, and a wooden walkway between them.
            There’ll be a new play area for children, and the Frog Pond will be dredged and rebuilt.
There will be new plantings around the Frog Pond that make it into a quiet place to enjoy nature.
            It will plant new trees, including replacement for the fine old willows. A gently sinuous path along the side of the Meadow will be built, with low-level lighting and water for watering gardens.
            For more information about the plans for the Meadow and Pond, visit  or contact any member of the Conservancy or Millbrook Meadow Committee. 

Worker makes the final cut to take down old willow by banks of Mill Brook in Rockport. In distance, another tree cutting truck has been removing the large old willow in the center of the Meadow.  Photos by Millbrook Meadow Committee.

Contact: Samuel W. Coulbourn, Chair, Millbrook Meadow Committee, 978-546-7138