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The Art of the Negro Spiritual: From Cotton Fields to Concert Hall
An Interview With Soprano/Researcher Randye Jones
By Anne Freeman, The Aspiring Songwriter®
(more articles from this author)
2003-02-04
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Randye Jones, a soprano and music researcher, is engaged in a research project aimed at discovering, cataloguing and promoting Negro Spirituals to concert vocalists, composers and colleges, in an effort to include Negro Spirituals in America’s art song repertoire. Randeye received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Music Education from Bennett College, Greensboro, North Carolina, and her Master of Music degree in Vocal Performance from Florida State University, Tallahassee. She served as a music cataloger for the Florida State University Libraries before accepting a library manager position at the George Washington University, Washington, D.C. Ms. Jones continues to perform, teach, and conduct research privately in the D.C. metro area. I hope you enjoy learning about this subject as much as I did!

[The Aspiring Songwriter] Randye, please start by giving us some background about yourself.

Randye Jones I’m originally from Greensboro, NC. I attended Bennett College, also in Greensboro, where I studied Music Education. Then, I went to Florida State University in Tallahassee. I studied vocal performance, and got my Masters Degree from there. As far as my research interests are concerned, I guess they primarily started in Florida State. One of their instructors was a musicologist, Dr. Dominique-René de Lerma. He was at FSU as the Housewright Scholar during my first semester. His area of research was Black Music. I took a class with him, and he inspired my interest in researching Black Music. I am a singer, and I had seen relatively little information out there about using Black Music in the voice studio. I decided to see just what was available, how it was available, and to try to put it into a format that other vocalists could use.

[The Aspiring Songwriter] That’s how you started your research, because you couldn’t find material yourself?

Randye Jones That’s correct.

[The Aspiring Songwriter] Can you tell me about some of the specifics of the “Art of the Negro Spiritual” research project? When did you start and what kind of information are you gathering?

Randye Jones I actually began the research in March of 2002. I’m trying to find out what resources are out there that specifically focus on the art songs that have been set using Negro Spirituals as their sources. What I’m discovering is some of the history of the music. What are spirituals? How did various composers which songs to set?

As part of the project, I want to find as many recordings as I can and as many scores as I can. Then, I plan to include an analysis of the music. It will be based on what songs I as a singer, or I as a teacher, would want to select to perform or teach based on the song’s technical difficulties. In other words, “What would I learn from the song as a singer or be able to help my voice student learn?”

Most importantly, I want to focus on the element that is the difference between a spiritual and other art songs. This music is sacred music that was born of a terrible oppression. The singer must never forget this when he or she is singing it. The singer must ask, “What is it in this music that touches my heart, that makes me want to sing it?” All of these are the kinds of questions that I want to answer through the research project.

[The Aspiring Songwriter] So, you’re looking at what the Negro Spiritual says to you as an artist as well as at what it can say to your audience?

Randye Jones Yes.

[The Aspiring Songwriter] Randye, you mentioned the term “art song.” Would you explain what an art song is?

Randye Jones An art song is a song that a composer has written for performance, generally by a trained singer on a concert stage. For the most part, I don’t think that a lot of people look at art songs written using Negro Spirituals as their source as “real” art songs, simply because of the fact that many of the composers who have written them are Black. I think that many people have the perception that these songs don’t have the technical merit to be considered art songs. I think that judgment is often made by people who have not examined the music, be they Black, White or whatever. Some of the music that is out there is so challenging … if you listened to them and didn’t know what their source was, you would not question whether they were art songs.

As far as the criteria for an art song, I would say:

1. Has someone made an effort to compose it, whether they used a Folk song source or not; and

2. Is it for use by solo voice, usually with piano

[The Aspiring Songwriter] Are art songs performed typically as part of a larger type of presentation, or is it a standalone event?

Randye Jones It can be either. It can be standalone or it can be part of what is called a “song cycle.” A song cycle is a collection of several songs that are related, either because they are all set from poems by the same person, or there is something that unifies them, a certain theme that unifies them.

There is a work that I perform in my recitals. called Cantata, composed by a gentleman named John Carter. He uses a series of spirituals, “Peter, Go Ring Them Bells,” “Let Us Break Bread Together,” “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child,” and “Ride On, King Jesus.” He binds them together using his own compositional style into what I consider a song cycle.

Some cycles are very large works, and you would likely not hear the entire work performed in a single evening. You might hear them on a recording, but you would often hear selections from that particular cycle in performance. I have not yet found a song cycle using Negro Spirituals using a large song cycle form like that, where there might be 25 songs in that cycle. That doesn’t mean that they’re not out there, I just haven’t found them yet.

[The Aspiring Songwriter] Randye, I take it that the art song and the various presentations of art songs are important of body work for a professionally trained vocalist.

Randye Jones That is correct. When you perform in a recital, or in a competition, quite often you are expected to have a certain level of competence in art songs, including German lied, which are German art songs; French melodie, French art songs; and Italian songs. American art songs are now becoming a standard part of a vocalist’s repertoire, especially here in the United States. What I am trying to develop is the idea that when you are looking at American art songs, that you’re not limited to just white, male composers. There are a number of women composers and African American composers whose works would make excellent additions to a singer’s repertoire.

The Spiritual art songs have a quality and a dramatic sense to them that really challenges the singer, not only to be technically correct, but to carry the emotion of the piece, along with the technical performance. The style is very different in a number of respects from what you would normally expect with other art songs, how you would expect them to be performed. I think that there is a challenge there to singers … how do I present this in a way that is genuine? It’s difficult not to stereotype what you think a spiritual is going to sound like, yet still give a presentation suitable for a concert performance.

[The Aspiring Songwriter] Would you give me some examples of what would typically be used today as an American art song?

Randye Jones Works by composers such as Lee Hoiby, and Samuel Barber. In fact, I have performed a number of Barber’s works in the past. When I’m not performing all Spirituals, I will include other American composers in my program. There are African American composers, as well. William Grant Still has a very nice song cycle, “Songs of Separation” that I perform. If you listen to it, stylistically you would not necessarily be guess that he was a Black composer. Also, although H.T. Burleigh is probably best known for his settings of spirituals, he wrote a number of other art songs. These are just a few of many American composers.

[The Aspiring Songwriter] If you are able, through your research, to catalogue Negro Spirituals that you think could be used as American art songs, what would be the next step to happen to bring them to that place, to be included in the American Art Song songbook, so to speak.

Randye Jones When you’re training people to be teachers, one of the expectations is to take classes in vocal literature and vocal pedagogy. I running a survey right now on my “Art of the Negro Spiritual” website, asking people how much they use Negro Spirituals, either in their performance or in their study. I also ask people who are training students in their college level vocal pedagogy class, if they even have exposure to Negro Spirituals as art songs. Unfortunately, of course, the answer often has been no, they have not had exposure. And, even if the teachers said yes, they got some exposure to Spirituals, the response has been overwhelming that the exposure did not help them, or that the exposure only helped them somewhat. In other words, they did not receive enough information for them to go confidently into the voice studio and, knowing the repertoire, be able to say, “I have this beginning student, and this Spiritual would be perfect for that student,” or “I have an advanced student, I really want to challenge him or her vocally, so this would be a really wonderful piece to present.” So, I would like to see vocal pedagogy classes include these works seriously, not just a brief class, and then push on to something else.

Also, I would like to see the vocal competitions, especially those sponsored by the National Association of Teachers of Singing, allow students to include certain Spiritual art songs in their competition selections. When those kinds of things happen, then students are encouraged to consider them.

One thing I’ve noticed quite a bit in the survey was the comment, from both Black and White, that non-Blacks feel uncomfortable singing Negro Spirituals. I think that, just like any other Art style, just like any other music style, there is a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it. It you do it right, it doesn’t matter what color you are. It doesn’t matter what style of music it is, whether it’s instrumental or vocal. If the person is presenting that piece of music correctly, and they’re putting their heart into it, there is no reason why they can’t perform it.

As a concert artist, even an African American one, I would still be expected to stand up and sing Schubert or Poulenc. If I want to be considered a serious singer, a classically trained singer, I must be able to sing from the wide range of standard vocal repertoire. They don’t care what color I am. So why should I care what color they are if they are presenting a Spiritual art song in the style and with the intent of the music?

[The Aspiring Songwriter] Randye, how would the spirituals that you are researching and cataloging be translated into scores and vocal exercises and lessons for trained vocalists? Would this have to happen in the college classroom? Or, is it something that would happen through composers? How do you envision this rolling out?

Randye Jones It’s almost like a chicken and the egg thing. If you make the music readily available to students, they’ll be more inclined to purchase it. But, if no one purchases it, the publishers are not going to make it available. So, I guess the idea would be to create the demand first, and then hope that the music publishers will make it available, or republish it if the song has gone out of print. That if people are asking for this music, if libraries are asking for the music, if teachers are asking for the music, if students are asking for the music, the publishers would want to make this music available. So, my first step is to try to encourage the students to ask their teachers for this music. “I went to this performance and I heard this song. I want to do some of this.”

As an African American, that is basically what I had to do. I went to an all-Black women’s school, but I still had to ask them, “When do I get exposed to this work?” Because, they were just like the white teachers. They were trying desperately to get their students ready to compete or to perform the German art songs, the sacred music, and so forth, that is standard. So, they weren’t really concerned about trying to expose me to spiritual art songs or any other music, by Black composers, because that’s not what the standard repertoire was. What I’m trying to do now is to encourage people to look at this music, and if they think that it’s worthy, present it. I’m not asking that if it’s not good music , do it anyway just because it’s Black composed. No. Give the music and the composers out there fair consideration.

I just did a recital two weeks ago that I would be honored to present anywhere, because the music was a challenge to me, and the audience was moved by it. I had to work my butt off to get that music ready because some of it was so difficult. The songs are so wonderful when prepared correctly, and if the singer’s heart and soul is in it. If you bring the audience in and they all enjoy it, then it makes it worthwhile for the performer to go back and find more of that music. So, by answering your question in a round about way, I want to get teachers and students and vocalists exposed to the music.

[The Aspiring Songwriter] Is that the purpose of your concert series right now, to bring exposure to this community to the Negro Spiritual as an art song?

Randye Jones Yes, that’s exactly the purpose.

[The Aspiring Songwriter] If organizations want to book you to do a recital of Negro Spiritual Art Songs, how would they reach you?

Randye Jones They can reach me through my webiste, The Art of the Negro Spiritual at www.artofthenegrospiritual.com, via email at : research@artofthenegrospiritual.com or by calling me at 202-904-3635.

I also have a website called Afrocentric Voices in Classical Music . It’s a well used site because it contains bios of singers and composers of vocal music. Singers represented there include Leontyne Price and Marian Anderson, and composers such as H. T. Burleigh.

[The Aspiring Songwriter] When you finish your research project, or get it to the point that you have a body of work that you want to present, how are you planning to present it and to whom?

Randye Jones I am developing an e-book that is currently posted on the Art of the Negro Spiritual web site. As sections are finished, I will put up portions of the book on the site. For example, I now have a bibliography up on the site, but the web version will not be annotated. If somebody wanted to get general information, the e-book will be available to them. If they want to get specific information, pictures, and such, they would need to purchase the book, or purchase it for their library. I do not have a publisher at this point, but I will be looking for one.

[The Aspiring Songwriter] What is your target for completing your research for publishing?

Randye Jones I have a target of two years. I would think two years for now. I have one more recital in April 2003 that will become a part of a recording scheduled for release in June. Then, I will get very seriously involved in the book. The E-book will be progressive. I will add information as I’m working on the publication. The final publication will not only be a book, but it will include a recording so people will have samples to hear various pieces performed. Right now, I’m the only one performing on the recording. But, who knows? By the time the book is ready, I might have talked some other vocalist into singing with me. I think that you need to hear other voices, male and females of various voice types singing.

[The Aspiring Songwriter] Randye, if people have resources, information, or have interest in the project in any way, such as music publishers with Negro Spirituals in their catalogue, can they contact you?

Randye Jones Of course. I’m always glad to talk to people about it. And, they may have information that they want to share with me. I’ve had a number of contacts from people who have visited the website. In fact, I’ve learned of a gentleman in the D.C. area, whom I looking forward to meeting, because he has a number of 78 RPM recordings that I want to listen to and perhaps try to make reference to my book. So, whether they are looking for information or have information that they want to share with me, I would certainly be glad to hear from them.

[The Aspiring Songwriter] This sounds like a very exciting and worthy project, Randye. Some final questions. What impact do you feel the inclusion of the Negro Spiritual will have on America’s art song repertoire? How will that affect what professional vocalists like you are doing in that music community?

Randye Jones I think that will expand our options as far as what we choose to sing. I think it will open up a lot of things as far as what we listen to and what we’re sensitive to from a technical stand point. What do we think of when we are listening to this music? What do we as Americans think of our own music? Because, the Negro Spiritual was the first American Music. The Africans, when they were brought over as slaves, brought their musical traditions with them. They were exposed to European music and they melded the two together into something uniquely American. I think that when people start listening to this music, just like when they embraced Jazz and Popular music, that they will look at this Sacred music and say, “This is our music, too. We need to listen to it, and absorb it and accept it.” I think we will all benefit from that.

[The Aspiring Songwriter] Randye, I wish you all of the best with this project, “The Art of the Negro Spiritual.” Please check back with us again as you progress.

Randye Jones Great! Thanks.

The results of the first survey taken on the Art of the Negro Spiritual website will be posted the first week of February. A new discussion board, ANS Talk, now resides on the website.

Visit www.artofthenegrospiritual.com, e-mail research@artofthenegrospiritual.com, call 202-904-3635, or write Randye Jones at PO Box 645, Temple Hills, MD 20748. Visit Randye’s award winning website, “Afrocentric Voices in Classical Music” at www.afrovoices.com for Bibliographic Sources, biographies of African American composers and vocalists, a vocal music discussion list, music links, a forum discussion, search engines,

Visit the African American Art Song Alliance at African American Art Song Alliance . Founded in 1997, this is the home of interchange between performers and scholars interested in art song by African-American composers. Here you will find information and links to assist with your discovery of our contribution to song.

Visit the National Association of Teachers of Singing at www.nats.org . NATS is a nonprofit organization dedicated to encouraging the highest standards of singing through excellence in teaching and the promotion of vocal education and research.


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