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Despite their masters’ efforts to silence it, slaves brought to the Americas from Africa kept their music alive. And when it evolved into the spiritual, they had developed a genre that would influence almost every other musical style to this day.

So says Dr. Raymond Wise, whose musical focus—gospel—is among the spiritual’s descendants. Wise addressed the significance of African-American sacred music Nov. 8 at Bluffton University, where he was guest musician for a weeklong celebration of gospel that coincided with Spiritual Life Week on campus.

A composer, arranger and gospel historian, as well as a minister, from Columbus, Ohio, Wise said he realized his study of gospel for a Ph.D. program at The Ohio State University would have to start with the music of Africa.

There, he said, virtually every important activity—especially worship—has been accompanied by music, and dance. The advent of the slave trade in the 16th century didn’t stop the Africans’ singing, not only because "that’s who they were," Wise pointed out, but also because they realized early on as slaves that singing could help them escape reality and endure anything.

Song was praise to God as well, a celebration that so excited the singers that their masters, fearful the slaves would rise up, prohibited them from gathering and singing, the Baltimore native said. Many music historians, he added, believe that the tune of "Amazing Grace" was one that John Newton, the hymn’s writer and a former slave trader, had heard the Africans singing.

Owners of slaves also thought they had to be converted to Christianity, said Wise, noting the use of the biblical admonition to servants—that they obey their masters—to make slaves more docile.

The slaves added forms of African culture to music they heard in white worship settings, where they had to be in special galleries, or even outside, with an overseer present, Wise continued. For instance, he explained, they adapted line singing—in which a line would be said, then sung—by "raising the line" with vocal embellishment.

Their drums and dancing had also been forbidden, but the slaves got around those prohibitions by clapping to simulate drum rhythms and by standing in a circle and shuffling to a beat, said Wise. Their masters may have taken everything else away, he said, "but they did not take the songs out of their hearts."

Those songs came to be known as spirituals—work songs whose beat helped slaves work more effectively, and songs that communicated both praise to God and messages to each other about escape and freedom. "Wade in the Water," for example, told runaway slaves to stay in water so dogs wouldn’t catch their scent, Wise said.

As the spiritual evolved, it branched out in secular, theatrical, artistic and academic, as well as sacred, directions, he noted.

In the secular world, it begat the blues, jazz, ragtime and, eventually, rock ‘n’ roll. Mick Jagger has said the Rolling Stones were inspired by listening to the blues, he pointed out.

On the theatrical stage, the spiritual first took the form of minstrel singing, which made fun of slaves but also helped preserve their singing, Wise said. The evolution continued from there to vaudeville and then to musical theater.

The artistic turn brought spirituals to the concert stage as art songs, accompanied by piano and orchestra, while in the academic realm, they were popularized by choirs from the first African-American colleges, such as Fisk University’s Jubilee Singers. Their 1871 tour raised $20,000 for the financially strapped Nashville campus, Wise related, after they started singing spirituals that moved listeners to give. Male quartets began forming on those same college campuses around the same time, marking the birth of barbershop quartets, he added.

In the sacred sphere, the spiritual’s evolution played out as former slaves were moving north around the turn of the 20th century, Wise explained. Most well-educated African-Americans were able to hire musicians for their churches, he said, but in smaller congregations that couldn’t afford their own musicians, the performers were the same people who played in jazz and blues clubs Monday through Saturday. They melded their genres with church music to form gospel, he said.

That process was part of what he described as a pattern in which church music is deemed too secular, then becomes successful in the commercial world and is tweaked into a form acceptable again in the church. After its creation, gospel went secular and singers such as Aretha Franklin and Lou Rawls changed it to soul music, whose evolution has continued through contemporary, rhythm and blues, hip-hop and rap, Wise said.

"Every time people fuss about music being too secular, we’re on the verge of a new style of music coming forth," he said.

Wise is associate minister at Faith Ministries Interdenominational Church and a faculty member at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, both in Columbus. He is also president of Raise Productions, a gospel music production company he founded in 1985 to provide educational training for gospel artists and the community.

While at Bluffton, he also spoke at a chapel service; delivered the keynote address during a gospel-themed conference; and directed a 200-voice combined choir during a Nov. 12 gospel concert that wrapped up the weeklong event, titled "Blended Voices: Music and Worship in the Gospel Tradition."


Bluffton public relations, 11/11/11