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    PloughCast #26 Why You Should Chant Psalms and Sing Spirituals

    Why We Make Music, Part 2

    By Peter Mommsen, Susannah Black Roberts, Brittany Petruzzi, Paul Buckley and Stephen Michael Newby

    March 29, 2022
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    This episode digs into the Psalms as the songbook of the Bible, and why Black spirituals should be sung by everyone, not just Black churches.

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    About This Episode

    Peter and Susannah chat with Brittany Petruzzi about her interview with Susannah in the current issue of the magazine, “Chanting Psalms In the Dark.” During the past year, Brittany went permanently blind as the result of a brain tumor, and in the midst of that diagnosis, she started a psalm-chanting YouTube channel. Inspired by her love of and need for God’s word as well as her musical theater background, she discusses this project’s origins and future.

    The three of them also talk with Paul Buckley about the challenge of incorporating psalm chanting into Protestant worship, and how ingraining psalms into your life can allow them to show up for you when you need them.

    Then, Pete and Susannah speak with Stephen Michael Newby about the tradition of Black spirituals, about the absolute necessity of racial reconciliation, and about the role of music in that reconciliation.

    They discuss how spirituals work: their theology and their practice of bringing the events of Scripture into the immediate lives of those who are singing them.

    • I: Brittany Petruzzi and Paul Buckley: Chanting Through Blindness
    • II: Brittany Petruzzi and Paul Buckley: Why Chant the Psalms?
    • III: Stephen Michael Newby: The Music of Reconciliation
    • IV: Stephen Michael Newby: How Spirituals Work

    Recommended Reading

    Transcript

    Section I: Brittany Petruzzi and Paul Buckley: Chanting Through Blindness

    Susannah Black: Welcome back to The PloughCast! I’m Susannah Black, Senior editor at Plough.

    Peter Mommsen: And I’m Peter Mommsen, editor-in-chief of Plough Quarterly. Today, we’ll be talking with Brittany Petruzzi and Paul Buckley who are going to try to convince you that you should be chanting psalms to advance the plot of the world.

    Susannah Black: And then we’ll be talking with Stephen Newby, who will talk to us about what it is that we do when we as the whole church, Black and White, sing spirituals together. First up, Brittany and Paul.

    I’m very pleased to welcome now, our two guests. Brittany Petruzzi is a freelance theater artist who lives in Kernersville, North Carolina. Paul Buckley is the former director of worship and music at Grace Presbyterian Church in Ocala, Florida, and he now teaches for the Theopolis Institute on psalm-chanting and other musical issues, and he’s currently editing a psalter for the Theopolis Institute. Really pleased to have you guys both on, in part, because I really want to introduce you to each other. And it’s not that we did the entire music issue so that I could introduce you to each other, but I’m very pleased to be able to finagle that. It surprises me that you guys haven’t met yet because you’re in a lot of the same world and you are both psalm-chanting aficionados, as you might say.

    Brittany Petruzzi: It’s true. I’m really surprised also.

    Susannah Black: Why don’t we start here? Brittany, you have a piece in this – you have an interview that I did with you in this current issue – talking about a project that you got started on about a year ago. Do you want to describe that project and the circumstances that led up to it?

    Brittany Petruzzi: Yeah, so the project is called Canticlear, and what I’m trying to do is to produce clear and beautiful recordings of the psalms, mostly in chant, but also through-composed settings and doing those for the entertainment or enjoyment, I guess I should say, and edification of the Lord’s people. And it came about because I have quite a varied musical background, but really all those things came together in this project when the Lord gave me the appropriate kick in the pants of giving me a brain tumor the size of a tennis ball behind my forehead that put me in the hospital over Christmas of 2020, and into basically all of that winter, I was recovering from it and it left me blind. So lots of changes, but what it did, I had this idea to embark on this project early in 2020, when Alastair Roberts started his daily Bible reading and commentary.

    I thought, man, somebody should totally do this for the psalms, but it turned out to be super hard. So, I put that on the back burner a little bit. And then when I was afforded the time by excessive rest and recovery needed for having significant cranial surgery, I embarked on the project and the goal is to eventually get it to one psalm a week. But as I quit piano when I was twelve, that is proving to be quite the hurdle. So as I practice, hopefully we’ll get up to one a week. Now it’s one every two or three weeks.

    Susannah Black: And so just to let everyone know, they can find the Canticlear project on YouTube. And it’s spelled C-A-N-T-I-C-L-E-A-R. So, if you just like search that in YouTube or search Brittany’s name, P-E-T-R-U-Z-Z-I, you’ll probably find it. Paul, you have another angle on psalm-singing. This is something that you’ve been working with for as far as I can tell your whole professional life, but can you describe the circumstances under which you got interested in the psalms and what it’s been like to try to bring those more into the life of the church, primarily in a Protestant Presbyterian context today?

    Paul Buckley: I think that the first person whose work I read that talked about singing the psalms, chanting the psalms was James Jordan, who was, along with Peter Leithart, the two brains behind Theopolis. But before Theopolis its previous incarnation was Biblical Horizons. And this is something that James Jordan and his associates were writing about a long time ago. And I didn’t need much convincing. I hadn’t heard it done, but I thought, well, that just seems perfectly obvious, God’s given us a song book in the Bible. Everyone says that, but no one does anything about it or at least no one is doing anything about it in the churches that I was part of as a denominational mutt growing up. But what he said made sense to me. I think that the first place that I heard the psalms and a lot of other stuff being chanted was probably at the Orthodox cathedral near downtown Dallas., The first Orthodox service that I ever went to was a Saturday night service. And the whole thing was song. There was nothing merely spoken. I remember that the impression I had as I walked out of it that night was, so you can sing the Bible too. Because so much of the service was biblical. Not just biblical in the sense that it rhymes with Bible, but there were biblical texts being sung in addition to songs, the Song of Simeon straight out of Luke 2 et cetera, et cetera. And that made a big impression on me.

    Susannah Black: Brittany, your experience with this is also a little bit James Jordan, I think. Do you want to talk about what you were drawing on when you started your project and not just that, but also you have quite a bit of musical theater background as well, and the way that you described it to me, that and other aspects of your background also all came together in this project, and in the experience of chanting psalms?

    Brittany Petruzzi: Yeah. The short version might be I’m chanting psalms in a musical theater style. And maybe if I were better at the piano, it would be more musical theater. But I grew up an accidentally-covenant kid in a broadly evangelical church with a Catholic grandfather who introduced me to musical theater through the 10th anniversary concert of Les Misérables, which you know, for any 10- to 12-year-old, you really latch onto, the romance, the, storyline, the deep drama of the whole thing. And then ended up in an Orthodox Presbyterian Church in late junior high time, then bounced to Moscow, Idaho, when I went to New Saint Andrews College, which has a very robust musical culture, lots of psalm-singing, mostly metrical Psalms, although now Dr. David Erb is adding some more through composition in there.

    And I did go to Theopolis for one of the earlier classes or intensive courses, I guess they called them. And so, I got a lot of James understanding of liturgy, how it should be sung or much more of it should be sung than we usually do, like Paul was talking about from there. But really, for this Canticlear project, I say that I want the recordings to be clear and beautiful. And when I talk about clear, a lot of that is coming from my musical theater background where diction is important and the clarity of the recording is important. Because a lot of what you see on YouTube doesn’t sound so great. But also I’m thinking of the clarity of expression, or as we might call it in the theater, the action behind the words.

    Section II: Brittany Petruzzi and Paul Buckley: Why Chant the Psalms?

    Susannah Black: You have this sense of like, all right, so throughout the whole of the early part of the church, especially with monasticism, there are these guys, there are these monks who are chanting through the psalter on a constant basis.

    There’s this sense of the world being in a sense like upheld or tuned by the chanting of people who are dedicating their lives to this. I’m not saying that psalm-chanting is the engine that the world runs on. It does seem as though psalm-chanting is or ought to be one of the ways that God’s grace, that the Holy Spirit introduces himself to the material world, through our voices, through our breath, throughout the day. So that was kicking around in my head. And then your interview, the interview that I did with you, Brittany, the idea of … so, one of the key aspects of the history of musical theater is this idea that starting with … what is it, like Oklahoma!, there was this new idea that the songs should advance the plot of the musical.

    It’s not just like we’re, all right, let’s stop the plot now and then we’ll have a song, and it will pick up the plot with the book on the other end of the song. It’s that major changes happen over the course of songs, major plot changes in person and character changes. And I put that together or in our conversation, we put that together with C. S. Lewis’s idea of prayer as something that God gives to us, like petitionary prayer, something that God gives to us to give us the dignity of being causes. And I just started to think about chanting psalms in particular, as things that we do to advance the plot of the world. It’s actually the work that we do in the world to bring God’s kingdom. And I’m really hoping that the two of you are going to do something together that will turn more people onto that, because I think we need it badly. I think the world needs it.

    Brittany Petruzzi: I’m game for anything. I do think that it’s surprising the way that say, psalm- chanting has shaped me personally, or even just knowing psalms has shaped me personally, and then the world around me shaped or changed, I guess, the world around me by having changed me. So, a weird example of this is that … well, I’ll take Psalm 120 and then 103 as well. So 120, which is, “I will lift up my eyes to the hills from whence comes my help.” That one was the first one that I thought of when I had got my diagnosis, partially because I was a trail-runner and “he will not allow your feet to stumble”, was often running through my head while I’m running down these rocky hills in North Carolina. But it was a comfort to me to know that the Lord is my strength and my shield, that the Lord doesn’t slumber or sleep. I’m always under his care, no matter what happens, even if I die from this brain tumor, which was a great comfort to me.

    And also just because I grew up in the faith, very obvious to me. So, it was a great reminder of something that I had known in my life, but then I would have all of these non-Christian friends just completely freaking out and I could preach Psalm 121 to them and say, “Look, the Lord has promised to have me whether the outcome is in our estimation a good outcome or a bad one, don’t worry about it.” And so, that’s a very strange irony when you come under a serious trial that oftentimes you who are suffering the trial end up being the one who is preaching Christ to others in that by comforting them.

    And the Apostle Paul talks about that in Colossians 1 as well. But then with Psalm 103, which Paul mentioned a minute ago, it’s always been a favorite of mine. And I often use it rather as a defiant psalm when I am having a hard time saying, “bless the Lord my soul.” When I’m going through difficult times and it’s hard to praise the Lord, which is exact actually what happened in April of 2021, when I got the news of my permanent blindness, that I would be permanently blind. And I was understandably upset, but the first psalm that popped into my head was a particular setting on 103. So not chant, but “my soul now bless thy maker”, which some great friends of mine in CRA Church in Pensacola, they had recorded one and popped it on YouTube.

    So, I had that sucker on repeat almost all day as a reminder to myself that, yeah, this is a hard providence, but also bless the Lord for it. So, the psalms are not only what they seem directly on the page, but they advance your own character arc in many different ways and thereby advance the plot of God’s entire narrative.

    Paul Buckley: How do you chant the difficult psalms, the imprecatory psalms?

    Brittany Petruzzi: I have not yet. Well, I guess I have, because there tends to be imprecations within so that they are sandwiched in there sometimes. I think the last one I did was … Now I can’t remember what number it was. Psalm 70, “make haste, O Lord to deliver me.” And there’s a section in the middle there of “let them be ashamed and confounded who destroy my soul, who seek my life, let them be turned back and confused.” So it’s a, I guess a lighter imprecation than “let’s dash those babies on the rocks.” But it depends on the context how I interpret it, I guess. Sometimes it seems that they are almost against spiritual forces and not against physical, but even if they are against physical forces, God gives us the words to sing about that and we should sing them. So I do.

    And if I may throw a little James Jordan in the mix, because he does this all the time, where he’ll just toss something out and not substantiate it. You have to go find it somewhere else where he has substantiated it. But I remember somewhere in the middle of some talk he was giving, he was like, “Oh, and by the way, the end of Psalm 138 says, I think it’s 138, “Bless it to see who dashes their baby against the rock. Not rocks. The rock is Christ. Moving on.” And I was like, “Wait, huh?” So there is an interpretation where that is immensely comforting.

    Susannah Black: That’s probably Baptism.

    Peter Mommsen: Just as we wind up, both of you clearly believe that chanting the psalms is important. And I would just be curious, in one or two sentences, why do you believe people should chant the psalms?

    Brittany Petruzzi: I think that people should chant the psalms because they should know the psalms and sing the psalms. As we spoke about it, it’s God’s hymn book. I think we should prefer chant to metrical or other paraphrases of the songs because it’s not paraphrasing scripture. The psalms are incredibly flexible. You can toss in whichever translation of scripture that you prefer. But then I think most important to me is the historicity of it. These psalm tones that we have, the churches have been singing them for thousands of years, oftentimes paired to the same psalm. A friend of mine was telling me that Psalm 114 has had the same, I believe it’s called the wandering tone, something like that, the same tone used since before Christ.

    So that is just cool. It’s not necessarily that the fact that it’s old makes it morally better, but it’s just really cool to think that you’re singing the same song that Christians have been singing for thousands of years and that if we truly believe Hebrews 12, they’re singing it with us every Sunday morning, as the heavens come down and they worship with us or we’re brought up now, however you like to think of it. But they’re present, the cloud of witnesses.

    Paul Buckley: A few years ago, as my mother lay dying in Texas, she had dementia, and I went to Texas in early July thinking I was going to find memory care. And long story short, it became clear within a few days that she was headed on a one-way street to the valley of the shadow of death. Now, she knew who I was right up to the end. She didn’t know much of anything else. But she had fallen and broken her hip, was going to have surgery there in early July. And the night before the surgery, I thought, “I don’t know what’s going to happen on that table tomorrow. And if I have anything to say, now is the time to say it.”

    So I thanked her for some things, just trends in my life and what she had meant. And then I thought, “What I should really do now is sing a psalm.” Well, the room is right outside the nurse’s station. And I realize, as much as I believe even all this, I don’t consider myself any kind of soloist. And if I sit here and chant a psalm, these nurses and other people are going to hear. And I thought, “The day’s going to come where I’m going to look back at this moment and say” … I’m not going to say, “Gosh, I wish I had not sung to my mom on her deathbed.”

    And so that’s how I came to the courage to chant Psalm 23 over her. And she half joined in because she’s of a generation that had certainly memorized that, not with the little simplified psalm tone. But she knew the song. So she went through the surgery. It became clear after this she’s going to die. So I resolved, I’m going to do evening prayer over her every night. So what did I do? I did what I did. I did from memory. Now, I don’t think any sin would’ve been involved if I’d had a prayer book there to open up. But you see, because everything I had was here and here. I’m free to hold her hand and to lay hands on her as I do this each night. Excruciating.

    But I did at least these psalms every night for those six weeks, Psalm 51, which I chanted over her, and Psalm 103 and often Psalm 25, Psalm 23. How many times have I sung sitting in prayer through the years? Hundreds upon hundreds of Wednesday and Saturday vespers and so forth. And a Presbyterian pastor friend said to me, after my mother died, he said, “You didn’t know it, but you were being prepared through all that liturgical involvement, chanting Psalms. And so you’re being prepared for that moment.” This is the language of Mount Zion. And if we have forgotten how to speak, hear, sing it and so forth, it needs to be reclaimed.

    Peter Mommsen: Thank you very much. That’s wonderful.

    Section III: Stephen Michael Newby: The Music of Reconciliation

    Peter Mommsen: And now welcome to Stephen Newby. Newby is the director for the Center for African American Worship Studies at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, Tennessee. And he’s the minister of worship at Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta and the professor of music at Seattle Pacific University. Welcome Stephen. So we’re so glad to have you on the Plow Cast to talk about your article in the music issue of Plough, Go Tell It on the Mountain. And there you speak about why Black spirituals aren’t just for Black churches, they should be sung by everyone and you of course, practice that as well. Could you just start off though, by telling us a little bit it about one of the stories that you begin your article with. And you’re standing in a cemetery in Jones County, Georgia, and tell us what you were doing there and what that has to do with spirituals.

    Stephen Michael Newby: Legacy, tradition, thinking about one’s history. I was at this cemetery in Jones County, the Newby-Mitchell Cemetery. I was looking for my ancestors and I found these stones on the ground. And I’m assuming that those were my ancestors, unmarked graves in the corner of the cemetery. Okay. And I spent about a day and a half really trying to find out where the cemetery was. So, I went to the archives. I was digging in, went to the library and then found this place.

    And then I get to this part and the cemetery was absolutely stunning. And Daniel Newby, the guy who had enslaved my ancestors had this big tombstone. I’m looking at it thinking, “Wow, oh my goodness.” Because I’d been reading about … I just read through his will. And he had enslaved my grandfather, six generations removed and his name was Michael. And I stood there not even breathing. It was so quiet. The mosquitoes weren’t even buzzing. And in this silent voice, this spirit came on me and said, “Be reconciled.” And I knew what it was because what I was looking for, I was looking for my ancestors and I found not only where my ancestors were buried, but I found where the one who had enslaved them had been buried. And I hadn’t even realized it, how much pain I had buried myself in this process of digging and trying to find something that I didn’t know I was going to find. As a matter of fact, the Spirit even told me, “Why are you seeking living things among the dead? And if you want to seek things that are living, let me tell you what’s living, reconciliation, peace, love, hope, soul. It’s good for your soul. These are things that are living – go after that.”

    And I just … wow, and it really messed with my spirit, rocked my world for a minute. And the two hour drive back to Atlanta, I did a lot of thinking. And a couple of days later, I met Richard Kannwischer, who invited me to join the staff of Peachtree Presbyterian Church, which is a predominantly White congregation in the south in Buckhead. And I said, “Oh my goodness. God, what are you doing? What’s going on?”

    In all my musical life, I’d really been doing this work with reconciliation, majority of my life. But to feel something that’s so personally connected to your own narrative, it’s not as if you get to this fork in this road, but you begin to think, “Okay, are you really interested in this work? At the deep core gut level, are you really interested in this work? Are you really, really going to believe what you’ve been singing? Do you really want people to come together? Well, if you want people to come together, you’ve got to deal with your own story.”

    And a lot of Black folks don’t have the capacity or the tools to deal with their own story, and a whole lot of White people don’t either. They don’t have the emotional energy to realize that their parents and their ancestors had enslaved others. They don’t even think about it, some people don’t even think. And so I went through this process of discovering my story, realizing and part of the process for us as humans is that we need to pay attention to our own stories, and peel back the layers of that stinky onion, the good, the bad, and the ugly, and that which is absolutely disgusting and let the healing waters of the Holy Spirit give us a new identity and baptize us, because we all bleed red.

    Peter Mommsen: The spirituals that you write about in your piece – they demand that kind of honesty that you’re talking about actually.

    Stephen Michael Newby: Absolutely. See, there’s not all these fancy lyrics, Oh, Jesus, I love you with a sloppy wet kiss. No, that’s not there. You’re not going to find that in the spirituals. You have to relate to the principal characters in the spirit, like are you Pharaoh? Are you Moses? Did you cross the Red Sea, or did you drown in it? You have to deal with the text. You have to pay attention to the characters and you have to ask yourself, “I may not be Pharaoh, maybe my ancestors were enslaved, but is my heart hard?” We have to deal with certain realities when we sing these songs. The texts are simple, but they’re deeply profound and they’re healing.

    Susannah Black: They almost act like a mirror, it seems to me.

    Stephen Michael Newby: It’s a reflection.

    Peter Mommsen: You sing these spirituals with this predominantly White congregation. How is that? Are people uncomfortable?

    Stephen Michael Newby: I think people were comfortable, but I think they didn’t realize what they were singing. It’s just a fun tune with a great groove. But I think the commentary through this article has been disseminated to some of the congregates at the church, I think people are having these aha moments realizing, Uh, oh. I think these songs can be fun, but moreover they’re fuel for our peace. They fund our imagination on how we can be together. And the communal songs – spirituals are really communal works. They’ve enriched the lives of millions of people, but I think people don’t really realize the Christian formation that’s found in the idea of singing in community. They’re theologically prophetic. They’re socially political and they hold this moral compass in articulating our ethics, holiness, righteousness.

    And I think after the fact, once people sing it, then they lean into, “Okay, why are we doing this?” Then they have these aha moments. I think if we approach people and begin to lay out the theological contents of the piece before they sing it, I think they’ll be hesitant at first, but they hear these melodies all the time. They’re pentatonic, they’re accessible and they’re flavorful. They’re fun. But I do think that they pick at our consciousness. They help us to realize Micah 6:8, to love justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God and with each other. But when you do it, you have to do it with some type of African American presence or leadership, or is going to … it might fall on deaf ears. It’s just another entertainment piece when they should really be these pieces with Holy Spirit engagement. Does that make sense?

    Peter Mommsen: Well, it makes a lot of sense. What strikes me about these songs, like you say, they’re communal, this is not a soloist in front of a backup band singing pretty melodies to soothe everyone. And there’s also very little worship music that speaks out of the level of communal suffering that these songs do, that gives them a depth that songs written by the more comfortable don’t have. And I don’t know how you … I guess you just work your way into that with a group of singers, and how does that hang together with this mission of reconciliation that you felt there in the Jones County Cemetery?

    Stephen Michael Newby: They’re these storytellers, these griots in African culture. You have to have someone that’s willing to lead the way. Someone that’s willing to help guide. And I think choral directors, those that are leading these songs, song leaders – we have to be the spiritual storytellers and curators of souls. We have to be pastoral. See, I’m a worship pastor, and so if one is not pastoral, I don’t think it’s really possible to guide the sheep, to guide the flock through some of these valleys and the ravines and the tributaries. I’m speaking metaphorically. But you have to have a pastor’s heart. You have to have compassion for people. You can’t be angry with your neighbor. You can’t hold grudges.

    You see, I’m in this space, I’m not holding grudges. I’m not trying to prove anything, just trying to live it out for my own soul’s sake. And I think we try to lead by servant leadership example, you have to be kind and considerate. When you’re singing these songs next to other people that don’t look like you, you have to be kind. For example, I just got back from Montana with a bunch of architects leading in worship, and we were singing “Siyahamba,” “We are marching in the light of God.” And we were thinking about our brothers and sisters in Ukraine who are suffering. And the “Siyahamba” is a resistance song. We are marching in the light of God. We are walking in the light of God. We are praying in the light of God. And literally by the end of the weekend, we had these architects, they were singing, they were moving their hands.

    They were dancing and they were in this circle, singing and dancing in this round. And I spent the weekend with them and I saw the evolution of how people were being freed up in their worship. They weren’t on microphones. It was organized in a different way. There was no PowerPoint. People had to read some of the lyrics, then they had to put the lyrics down and then clap it. So there’s this embodiment that takes place that you wouldn’t get in a rock worship and praise concert, where the music is so loud. There was no amplification in the room. And so I tried to get people to sing full bodied, full throttle, to get them to resonate with their voices. And what it does, it produces a type of transparency that people aren’t concerned about their voices trying to sound pretty.

    Peter Mommsen: One thing that struck me from your article I was intrigued by, you talked about the musical structure of the spirituals and how there’s this debate, whether they were originally primarily in minor or in major. Could you talk a little bit about that?

    Stephen Michael Newby: Well, major keys and minor keys, they have the same interval analysis. For example, if you have a major chord, there’s a perfect interval, there’s a minor third and there’s a major third and they’re just inverted, looking at it from a music theory perspective. And so, the melodies can sit in both places at the same time, where you can create a new root, and create something that sounds a minor, or it sounds major. And so that’s the beautiful balance that you have when you’re singing these pentatonic melodies. You can create different roots to create different colors and the music is delivered differently. The musical theoretical structure, it works like that with pentatonic scales. With regard to the form of the piece, it’s a simple pattern of A-B, A-B, or you can improvise on it.

    And so when people are creating and improvising on these melodies, the songs become once again community music. As James Cone speaks about this music, all Black music is community music. And so people are creating, they’re borrowing and they’re creating … they’re bringing their true selves into the process and the performativity, if you will, of the music and people feel it. For example, going back to what happened on Christmas Eve, I created this Doobie Brothers’ “Minute by Minute” groove underneath the spiritual “Go Tell It on the Mountain”. And this particular age group, they’re familiar with The Doobie Brothers “Minute by Minute,” Michael McDonald’s singing. And so I borrowed this other accompaniment from their world and then began to juxtapose this spiritual melody on top of it. So it was inviting, it was this marriage of different cultures, musical cultures coming together creating this new sound. I bet you probably haven’t heard an arrangement like that before!

    Peter Mommsen: That sounds great.

    Susannah Black: Yeah. The interesting thing about these as I was reading your piece, I realized that there’s a lot that I hadn’t thought about before. I wasn’t raised Christian at all, I’m half Jewish and half nothing in particular WASP. And the only Christian songs that I grew up singing were Christmas carols and spirituals, those were the only Christian songs that were part of my life.

    And it hadn’t really occurred to me and it’s one of those weird things where after you become a Christian, you look back on the lyrics that you’ve been singing and you realize what you’ve been singing about. The gospel came into my life when I was a kid through Christmas carols and the spirituals that we would mostly sing in camp and at school, because they were an American history thing rather than a specifically Christian thing or something.

    You’re allowed to sing them in a secular school or a secular camp. It’s very weird in retrospect to look at why it was okay to sing those, but it wasn’t okay to sing other Christian songs, in the way that the gospel creeps in that way.

    Stephen Michael Newby: You have to look at the story, the story of enslavement is very American. It’s capitalistic society. Free Black labor in building White wealth. At the core you don’t think about spirituals coming from a Christianese type of space because people realize that, “Oh, the slaves, they sing these songs.” And that’s why I don’t like to use that term. I like to use the term enslaved. And if you pay attention in the article, I really press that: they were people who had been enslaved. Enslaved was not their identity, it was their temporary position. But I do believe that spirituals in a sneaky way, if I could use this idea, a sneaky way, they really asked the question, “What is Jesus Christ for us today?”

    And in the Black community, they saw themselves, these folks that were developing these pieces, they did see themselves as the image bearers of God, that Jesus was not only Jewish, but Jesus was Black too. And Jesus is considered the savior and my redeemer for all people who accept Christ. And that theological idea has always been at the forefront in the Black community because those who have been enslaved, they were thinking like, “Oh, my master’s a bad person and Jesus is a good person. And Jesus suffered just like me. Jesus looked like me. Jesus was Jewish. Jesus’ skin was like mine.” There was this identity with the folks, believe me. That’s what they thought about. They made that connection. They knew he was Jewish.

    Section IV: Stephen Michael Newby: How Spirituals Work

    Peter Mommsen: And that sense of immediacy, right? I think of, we’re heading to the Passion in Easter time now as this podcast airs, and one of the most well known spirituals is, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord,” right? It’s, Were you there? I’m from the Bruderhof community and our earliest song book was published in Germany in 1926, and that song is already in there. It’s amazing how those songs traveled beyond the bounds of those enslaved people, because the gospel is alive in them.

    Stephen Michael Newby: Yeah. And the spirituals, they narrate Black life alongside the life of Jesus. And even James Cone says, the Blackness of Christ is not simply a statement about skin color, but rather the transcendent affirmation that God has not ever, no not ever left the oppressed alone in the struggle.

    Susannah Black: There’s something about the way that the lyrics of spirituals work that reminds me, and this might just be because we sang them, for some reason, during Passover, during Seders, when I was growing up, which is very weird, except that my whole upbringing had to do with, it’s okay to have a Seder because it was also about the Civil Rights Movement. That was the way that I understood at least. But there’s something very similar to the way that when you’re doing a Seder, it’s very much like, we were there. Now, we are with our ancestors at Sinai and we’re with our ancestors escaping from Egypt. And there’s something so similar to the vibe or collapse of time that happens with the lyrics of spirituals, it seems to me.

    Stephen Michael Newby: Think about it, just think about the name we’ve named it: spirituals. And when we think about a theology of the Holy Spirit, for example, in the book of Acts, when the Spirit came down, Acts 2, the disciples, they saw it, the Spirit, they heard the Spirit, they felt it, they experienced it. They experienced the Spirit of God and what spirituals do, Susannah, they allow us to live it, to experience it, to feel it. These groups of songs, they’re dubbed spirituals for a reason because the theological construct is based out of a clear sense of a pneumatological leaning. It is a theology of the Holy Spirit that is embodied in the spirituals. The Holy Spirit is our advocate. The Holy Spirit is our comforter. The Holy Spirit is our way maker.

    In John 14, Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?” And then he said, I’m not going to leave you alone, and I will not leave you comfortless. All of that is comforting, and that’s what spirituals have done in the past for our ancestors. They were songs that brought us comfort. And even in Jewish traditions, where there was devastation in our humanity, the melodies, and some of your historical memory in your bones, in the marrow of your bones, they’re connected to the spirituals because they’re pentatonic. They’re filled with grace. They’re filled with this way of being comforted. There’s a reason why we call them spirituals.

    Susannah Black: This piece is so wonderful. And it was a little window onto something that felt familiar and it made them unfamiliar. And it also … it felt like it gave me permission to sing them and I didn’t even know that I needed that permission, but …

    Stephen Michael Newby: You better sing, girl. My brother, my sister, you all better sing because singing is healing for the soul. And I keep thinking about our Ukrainian brothers and sisters, and the type of music that will begin to emerge from their soul journey, where there’s war and rumors of war. They’re going to be laments and prayers, laments and praise. That Psalm 13, where it says, how long, oh Lord, how long, how long. That’s one of the Psalms in the search, if you will, that mixes lament and praise together. And we all need it because lament plus praise equals faith, hope and love. We got to cry with each other, and we got to praise God for the opportunities to try to make things right in the world, that’s why we can never give up. Does that make sense, friends?

    Susannah Black: Yes, it does.

    Stephen Michael Newby: So America, we got to sing these songs because it’s part of our lament and our praise. And it’s going to help us to get right, to bring heaven on earth before God takes us all home. We must be forgiving. We must care about each other deeply. Invite each other in our homes. Break bread together, and let these spirituals water us with the word of God in the spirit of God. It is healing for our souls.

    Peter Mommsen: Thanks so much.

    Susannah Black: Amen. Thank you so much, Stephen.

    Thanks for listening. Be sure to subscribe on iTunes or wherever you’re listening to this. And for a lot more content, check out plough.com for the digital magazine. You can also subscribe $32 a year for the print magazine, or for $99 a year you can become a member of Plough – that carries a whole range of benefits from free books to regular calls with editors, to invitations to special events, and the occasional gift. Go to plough.com/subscribe to learn more.

    Peter Mommsen: Join us next week, as we talk with Esther Maria Magnis about her new book, With or Without Me, published by Plough. It’s about finding God in the face of death. And also we interview an Italian astronomer named Sperello Alighieri. He is, as you might be able to guess from that name, the lineal descendant of Dante Alighieri, and he’s just come out with a new book about the role of astronomy in the Divine Comedy. See you then.

    Contributed By PeterMommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough Quarterly magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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    Contributed By SusannahBlack Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black is a senior editor of Plough.

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    Contributed By BrittanyPetruzzi Brittany Petruzzi

    Brittany Petruzzi is a freelance theater artist. She lives in Kernersville, North Carolina.

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    Contributed By PaulBuckley Paul Buckley

    Paul Buckley, a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, teaches for the Theopolis Institute in Birmingham, Alabama, and leads psalm-chanting workshops at churches and schools.

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    Contributed By StephenMichaelNewby Stephen Michael Newby

    Stephen Michael Newby is director of the Center for African American Worship Studies at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, minister of worship at Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, and a professor of music at Seattle Pacific University.

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