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The Plantation Heirs: Songs of Deliverance

by Nick Boone

NickBooneA few years ago, I attended a festival in the tiny town of Loachapoka, Alabama, not far from where I live in Auburn. It was one of those “olden times” celebrations where they have blacksmiths, women spinning yarn, and, in this case, horses turning a mill that made syrup from sugar cane. It was October, leaves were falling, and aromas from large black cooking pots filled the air as the smoke from them rose toward the sky. I was having a nice time. I watched a blacksmith make some hooks, and I was planning to go get some of that great-smelling food, when I was struck by the sound of pure emotion in song.

Now, I wasn’t really in the mood to listen to gospel music. I had a couple of people with me whom I was speaking with, and I was hungry. But the music stopped me in my tracks. I made my way over to the concert-area where I saw women and men in old-time clothes–long dresses, overalls, boots. They were African-Americans, and they were singing songs like “Ezekiel Saw A Wheel,” and “Wade in the Water.” Immediately, I was transfixed by the performance. It was excellent singing sprung from raw emotion, mixed with just enough theatrics (the costumes) to be effective. But the essence of the music was its emotion. You could dress up like old-time slaves or share-croppers and sing all you want: if you don’t express the intense emotion of joy in the midst of oppression, then no amount of costuming, or technically perfect singing, will be effective.

They call themselves The Plantation Heirs. They are all from the Auburn, Alabama area, and they are perhaps the best singing group I have ever seen perform (and I attended Harding University). Never before have I heard such depth of emotion turned into such wonderful music. They talk about their name, saying that they are indeed heirs of the plantation. That’s where they came from. That’s where the music comes from–long days of hard labor in cotton fields; years of servitude in conditions which never improve; relatives taken away by death; husbands, children, wives sold away to another place without notice; the need for hope, for escape to a better place.

W. E. B. Dubois, a famous African-American scholar of the early twentieth century, called these spirituals “sorrow songs.” While white folks typically saw the spiritual music of the African-American as jubilant, and ignorantly blissful in its rhythms, Dubois showed that, underneath, even the most jubilant sounds in these spirituals sprang from deep suffering and dissatisfaction with life on Earth. The Plantation Heirs, though, call their music, “Songs of Deliverance.” Indeed, the songs often speak of freedom from oppression, physical and spiritual, and they are full of hope. Both characterizations are right. The songs, in my view, can be characterized as full of longing. The sorrow over earthly suffering is palpable, and the desire for a better place, for deliverance from evil of all sorts, is powerfully communicated.

The songs come from the plantation. They sing strictly in a capella–the only instrument available to the field hand was his voice. Anyone familiar with the history of slavery will recognize in the songs codes, or double meanings. For instance, the consistent language of “crossing over” either into “the kingdom,” or “Canaan,” or “campground” all were used as coded messages that signaled not only the desire for heaven, but sometimes the means of escape from the plantation. However, the real spiritual meaning of the songs is not simply superficial; it runs as deep as any hymn written by Fanny J. Crosby or Isaac Watts. The songs are powerful expressions of longing, sometimes directed to God as pleas, but often just simply meditations or reflections on the suffering and immanent mortality of the singers themselves.

Two kinds of spirituals are most typical: songs of earthly longing, and songs of heavenly longing. The song “Balm in Gilead,” is a beautiful expression of hope in the midst of sorrow:

There is a Balm in Gilead

To make the wounded whole.

There is a Balm in Gilead

To heal the sin-sick soul.

The song obviously springs from suffering, from a people of meager means, but the call to holiness is still powerfully made. The gospel, and its responsibility, is for all:

If you cannot sing like angels,

If you cannot preach like Paul,

You can tell the love of Jesus

And say he died for all.

Sometimes the songs express a genuine surprise and corresponding joy over the fact that Jesus, “King Jesus,” would care for them. “Jes Come From de Fountain” exclaims: “Did ever you see the like before? / It’s Jesus preaching to the poor!” No matter how rich or how poor, every Christian should remember that we are all poor in spirit, and we should express such joy over Jesus coming down to preach the good news of salvation to us.

In a few songs, such as “Go Down, Moses,” the despair and sorrow over pitiable earthly conditions is expressed through righteous indignation. It doesn’t take much interpretative skill to understand who the singers mean by “Pharoah.” The connections between the Bible story and the historical situation is clear. Every pounding refrain of “Let my people go!” reminds us today, not only of the desperation and the understandable anger of the people in slavery (both in ancient Israel and nineteenth-century America), but also of God’s desire that justice be done in the world everywhere and at all times.

While the righteous anger of “Go, Down, Moses” is clear, the beauty of the Christian message of peace and joy, even in the face of suffering is equally apparent. In a wonderful spiritual, “Down By the Riverside,” the singers proclaim: “I’m gonna lay down my burdens / Down by the Riverside / To study war no more.” There can perhaps be no greater Christian response to intense suffering and cruel injustice than those words–to hope for God’s eternal rest, and to hold no thought of revenge or anger in your heart towards your enemies.

The songs of heavenly longing are also powerful. They simply express a longing for home. Too often in today’s America, we are comfortable in this world. These songs are an important reminder that we are “aliens” and “strangers” in this land (1 Peter 2:11), and that our true home is with God in heaven. These songs express a wide range of emotion. “Deep River” swoons in anxious anticipation of the inevitable “crossing over”:

Deep River

My home is over Jordan

Deep River

I’ve got to cross over into campground

“Steal Away” also expresses a sense of sorrow over death’s approach, but confidently claims faith in Jesus. The singer will “Steal away to Jesus” because she “ain’t got long to stay here.”

Some spirituals are more unambiguously joyful in the face of death, such as “Good’a News, de Chariot Is’a Comin,” where the singers exclaim, “I wanna go to heaven in the morning.” And wonderful songs like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “I wanna Die Easy When I Die,” are humble expressions of hope. They are simple, sincere pleas to God that he have mercy and grant them peace in their last moments on Earth.

The Plantation Heirs are wonderful a capella singers. My text, of course, doesn’t do justice to the music. Even the music on CD cannot fully communicate the experience of seeing and hearing the group in person. If the group lacks any technical skill, the depth of feeling they exude more than makes up for it. The music on the CD communicates well that depth of emotion, but in person the emotion comes through even more powerfully.

I encourage everyone to consider purchasing a Plantation Heirs CD. Admit it–you need some variety in your a capella Christian music collection. The Plantation Heirs have two CDs. You can purchase one for $14, or both for $28 (this price includes shipping). Please send your money, cash or check, to Ernestine Robinson, 2200 Wrights Mill Rd, Auburn, AL 36830. Ask for either “Songs of Deliverance” or “Songs of Deliverance II.” I recommend buying both. The group may consider taking a trip away from Alabama if you want them to sing for a special occasion. You can contact Ernestine Robinson by phone at (334) 821-8771, if you want to have The Plantation Heirs sing at your event.

Following are the songs on each DC:

“Songs of Deliverance”

1. Kum Ba Ya

2. King Jesus is’a Listenin’

3. Everytime I Feel the Spirit

4. Old Black Joe

5. Good’a News de Chariot Is’a Comin’

6. Swing Low Sweet Chariot

7. Oh Freedom

8. Ezekiel Saw A Wheel

9. Nobody Knows de Trouble I’ve Seen

10. Go Down Moses

11. God is a Good God

12. I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray

13. I Wanna Die Easy When I Die

 

“Songs of Deliverance II”

1. Down by the Riverside

2. Steal Away

3. The Lord has Laid His Hands on Me

4. Hush, Somebody’s Calling My Name

5. Jes’ Come from de Fountain

6. I’m a Rollin’

7. Balm in Gilead

8. He’s Comin’ By and By

9. Live So God Can Use Me

10. Were You There?

11. What a Wonderful Child

12. That Pretty Little Baby

13. Wanna Go to Heaven in the Morning

14. Medley: Deep River – In Bright Mansions Above – Swing Low Sweet Chariot

 

     Nick Boone is the grandson of Buford and Maude Smith and teaches at Harding University.




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The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

John 10:10