Sunday, August 04, 2013

Maryland, Pennsylvania camp meetings as an African American cultural hearth; two perspectives on George Pullen Jackson's hypothesis on origins of the African American spiritual

Don Yoder. Pennsylvania Spirituals. Lancaster, Pa.: Pennsylvania Folklife Society, 1961.

We would call attention to a second probably transfer area [after quoting Jackson on Ky-Tenn camp meetings]. This other area that was covered in the period 1796-1868 by the Philadelphia and Baltimore Conferences of the Methodist Episcopal Church. ... There were Negro elements in this Baltimore-Philadelphia axis as well [in addition to German], a heavy concentration of Negro slaves in Delaware, Maryland, and [/] Virginia, a lighter proportion of free Negroes in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. It was in this area, in fact, that the greatest number of free Negroes in the United States resided by the year 1810. It was here, too, that the oldest free Negro denominations, at least those of Methodist origin, had their birth. ... Most of Pennsylvania's Negroes were still, in 1800-=1810, in low economic and educational levels, and associated freely with the poor-white 'shouting Methodists' who were invading Southeastern Pennsylvania with the camp-meeting in that decade.

Is it illogical to look at this very area for one of the focal points of transfer of spiritual patterns, from white Methodists to Negroes as well as to the Pennsylvania Dutch? I am suggesting that the Negro Spiritual and the Pennsylvania Spiritual, at least in the Philadelphia-altimore axis, are twin sisters, developing side by side at first and only later maturing into distinctive types. ... 20-21

Jonathan C. David. Together Let Us Sweetly Live: The Singing and Praying Bands. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2007.

"At the end of the eighteenth century, when enslaved Africans in this area began to take toMethodism in a big way, the process of culture-building by which Africans of various ethnic backgrounds began to transform themselves into one people was well underway. Yet that process was still incomplete. The new African American identity became consolidated throughout the South only during the first half of the nineteenth century, when hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans were traumatically sold from the states of the upper South to cotton-growing areas of the Deep South. 3

Because of their multifaceted importance in the development of early African American culture, the upper South and the mid-Atlantic region can be considered among the hearth areas in which African American culture took shape. Significantly, evidence also suggests that in much of the area surrounding Delaware Bay and the upper Chesapeake, the groups that eventually formed the Singing and Praying Bands were the predominant grassroots, African American, folk religious institutions. As such, they were part of the cultural legacy that anonymous slaves may have carried with them in their forced journey south. 5

[Later (Oct. 29). Yoder, above, bases his hypothesis on Jackson's theory that the African American spiritual was dependent on the "white spirituals" he found in the old shape-note tunebooks. But he strikes a balance when he gives equal stature to the African American and Pennsylvania German genres. This balance is almost entirely lacking in Jackson, at least to my way of thinking.

Bertrand Bronson, in a 1944 review of Jackson's Down-East Spirituals and Others, also accepts Jackson's theory, but -- unlike Jackson -- seems to argue from the other direction, i.e. that we should value the white spirituals all the more because they gave rise to the African American genre. Even though both Yoder and Bronson wrote at a time when Jackson's account of origins was much more universally accepted than it is today, I think they both make important points about the relationship between the different spiritual genres.]

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Bertrand Harris Bronson. "Two Reviews: George Pullen Jackson and the Shaped-Note Spirituals." The Ballad as Song. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969.

They are, in truth, so steeped in our musical tradition that it is almost impossible to lisen to any of them without being reminded of other analogous folk-melodies. Since, moreover, the merit of the Negro spirituals has been a truism for half a century, it will be hard now to remain skeptical of the soundeness of the melodic stock from which the spirituals have [139] branched. Not should it cause rancor anywhere to acknowledge the bond of unity. Rather, give it welcome, and let it stand as a happy augury of the future harmony of our fellow countrymen, black and white. (138-39)

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