IN THE PAST 150 years, the songs historically known as “Negro spirituals” have worn many costumes. They emerged, of course, from the Deep South during the days of slavery, when songs such as “Every Time I Feel the Spirit” or “Wade in the Water” were first sung by anonymous psalmists wielding hoes or pulling cotton sacks. Since that time they’ve been dressed in the style of the European art song, sung as grand opera, or even faithfully mimicked by well-meaning white folk singers.
The spirituals entered the mainstream of American culture through the performances of the Fisk Jubilee Singers from Fisk University in Nashville who, fresh out of slavery themselves, toured the North in the 1870s. In the 1950s and ’60s, the old standards were resurrected, and slightly rewritten, as marching songs for the African-American freedom movement and then echoed across the world as anthems for human rights from South Africa to Northern Ireland to Eastern Europe.
After all that, the spirituals can probably even survive being remade into “smooth jazz,” which is more or less what happens to them on Bobby McFerrin’s new album Spirityouall. Readers of a certain age might remember McFerrin as the guy who, in 1988, conquered the known pop music universe with an airheaded ditty called “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” The tune was so infectious that it should have had a warning label from the Centers for Disease Control, but instead it dominated radio, won some Grammys, and, to McFerrin’s eternal horror, was used as theme music by the George H.W. Bush presidential campaign.
McFerrin’s been doing penance ever since. He really is a talented guy with a wide-ranging and versatile voice and an old-time scat singer’s gift for improvisation. But he wasn’t faking the feel-good optimism of his signature song. That unrelentingly positive spirit of “Don’t Worry” floats through everything he sings and, to my ears, sets up some serious cognitive dissonance with the spirituals.
The spirituals are tragedy. That’s what makes them great art. They unblinkingly confront the abyss of suffering that is the universal human fate. “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.” It doesn’t get any starker than that. The horror in the songs comes from digging deep into the very specific pain of the slave experience, in which separation of mother and child, for instance, was an everyday thing. And that depth is what makes the music’s appeal universal and cathartic.
Of course, the spirituals are Christian art, so tragedy can’t have the last word. The genre can really be summed up with two lines from a song: “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, glory hallelujah ... Nobody knows but Jesus.” It’s precisely because the singer is so submerged in the pain of crucifixion, and able to join that pain to the suffering of Christ, that the music can make a convincing case for the resurrection. That “affirmation in the negative” is what makes the spirituals great theology. You could almost call them a body of apologetics with a backbeat.
To his credit, McFerrin seems to realize that he may not have the chops to carry the full weight of the tradition, and he does avoid the bleakest songs, like “Motherless Child” and “Nobody Knows.” But even on his “Wade,” the waters are remarkably untroubled. One of McFerrin’s own compositions on the album, “25:15,” a gutbucket take on Psalm 25:15, actually gets closer to the ethos and aesthetic of the spirituals than do his renditions of the traditional songs.
However, all quibbles aside, McFerrin at least deserves our gratitude for giving new audiences a chance to hear and think about this great tradition.
Danny Duncan Collum, author of the novel White Boy, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort.