Lately, I've been volunteering time up at Marshfield, working on going through the choral library. Anything that's out-of-date textually or really poorly-written comes off the shelf. Even though I can't spend a lot of time poring over each title, I've gotten to see a lot of different works--about 350 so far. One genre that could be considered controversial is the spiritual.
When I say "spiritual," I mean a song that either originated as a work song during the days of slavery in the US, or one that was written after that style. Jester Hairston and Moses Hogan are two big names in this genre of music. A lot of these pieces are written with the intent that the choir sings with the pronunciation that would have been heard when the song was being sung by slaves. "In Dat Great Gittin'-Up Mornin'," "Sooh-Ah Will Be Done," "Deep River," and "The Battle of Jericho" are all examples of this style of music.
It's gotten me thinking: in today's world of political correctness, is it still socially acceptable or even appropriate to sing some of these songs?
On one hand, I think that one of the last things anyone intends to do when they set out to sing a piece is to mock or belittle the culture that the piece comes from. The pronunciation in many spirituals is akin to ebonics, and that can raise some issues for some people. Is it a form of racism to continue to use the pronunciation in the score? Have you ever heard a choir (or a soloist, for that matter) sing a spiritual piece and had the thought cross your mind? I can say honestly that I have wondered about it. I don't know very many people who want to sound like racists.
There are a lot of contexts in popular culture where the use of ebonics probably wouldn't call up images of slavery, but there are probably just as many that do. Think about what you connote with ebonics. Think about where those connotations come from. (I'm not judging anyone, I'm honestly asking for thought. Do you think ebonics make a person sound ignorant? Uneducated? How do you identify yourself with relation to people who speak or sing in ebonics? Do you yourself speak ebonically?)
So I wonder if choosing to perform a piece like "In Dat Great Gittin'-Up Mornin'" as it is written would be a social faux-pas. I think it would definitely make a statement, which brings me to the "other hand."
Slavery happened. I think that for as short a time as it has been in this country -- the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, was ratified only 155 years ago, and the Fifteenth, which gave voting rights to men of all colors and races, just 150 years ago -- we Americans love to skirt the issue and to satirize it, but serious discussion can cause a lot of tension and awkwardness.
Likewise, ebonics are not some illegitimate dialect, although their history is not generally as innocuous as, say, a Bostonian accent.
One could make a case for performing spirituals with ebonics (if written) similarly to the case one would make for performing an Italian art song with proper Italian pronunciation. If you perform a spiritual and use ebonics, you could argue that you are being true to the spirit of that piece's initial performers. Or are you?
Should we not use ebonics if they call up strong feelings of prejudice, if our intent is to bring people together? Is it more respectful to acknowledge the truth of the origin of the spiritual without singing it (or reading the text) using that pronunciation? Does what you decide to sing have anything to do with your skin color? (What I mean by that is, should choirs of "white" singers avoid ebonics and choirs of "black" singers not worry about the issue as much? Talk about a racially-charged question.) Is it cowardly or akin to denial to avoid using the words Mr. Hairston wrote in the score? How much weight should we give the ears and thoughts of today's audience, and what does today's audience think?