This is an experiential narrative contributed by Delores Fisher, a member of our Artistic Advisory Board.
Several years ago, I participated at a local San Diego elementary school in a collaborative art project taught by different teachers, each an expert in a specific field, each with previous collaborative teaching experience. Our main goal was to provide students with a critical thinking lens through which to study slavery in the United States; our tools were visual art, dance, and music. All during the project, a young boy followed me talking about how he was not from California; he was from the South. He spent a lot of time with his grandmother and he “loved music.”
The first module of my segment introduced basic African drum rhythms, use of a time line to hold the patterns together, basic body movements, and short vocal passages sung a cappella—in this case specifically without melodic support. Then I introduced altered clapping/foot stomping techniques used by slaves to provide the steady pulse in place of the time line when drums were banned.
Our next segment introduced slave songs, slow and fast in tempo. We noted that some of these songs did not have solid evidence as to origins and that many of the songs are still sung today by a variety of artists, in various arrangements.
One song we sang was “Swing Down Chariot Stop And Let Me Ride.”* It exists in at least three different versions. See all three versions here.
I am not sure when or where I learned the up tempo version of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot Stop and let me Ride.” I only remember singing it since childhood. The lyrics I learned are a variation on the original. This is what I taught the students:
We sang these words twice, then practiced the hand clap/foot stomp accompanying rhythm. We put it all together and sang it through twice. Before the third repetition, the little boy sitting next to me sang in a deeper voice, the secondary vocal part, before the chorus began again. I kept singing, keeping the others on track.
As the song ended, we all clapped. Hands went up. “Did you plan this? Did you practice together?” I looked at the class and said, “Hey, we did not plan this!”
The young man smiled and said, “I learned it from my grandmother.”
Historic African American musical traditions were and are still being passed on orally, without notation, from generation to generation–via Internet videos or face to face. I absorbed many songs listening to my mother in her shimmering soprano voice as she moved about the house doing daily activities while my dad was at work. At times when he felt like it, my dad, who had sang in a group as a young man, would sing at home in a soft tenor voice. These memories still make me smile.
Many Afro-classical arrangers of slave songs also learned the original tune pre-transcribed from the voice of an elder. Children continue to listen to grandparents, parents, and other relatives singing in religious settings, recreational settings like picnics, domestic settings doing housework–cooking, mopping floors, vacuuming–and also at quiet time or nap time with the singing of lullabies. Oral transmission is woven into the fabric of Black cultural memories.
– Delores Fisher, MA, is a blogger, essayist, musician, poet, and lecturer in the Department of Africana Studies at San Diego State University. Professor Fisher serves as a member of the Center for World Music’s Artistic Advisory Board, with a specialty in African American sacred music.
*“Swing Down Chariot Stop And Let Me Ride” has been recorded in part or full by sacred and secular groups, soloists, and even international ensembles. A few Internet video/accessible examples: The Fisk Jubilee Singers, Elvis Presley, The Golden Gate Quartet, The Imperials, The Gaithers, Dorothy Love Coates and The Gospel Harmonettes, The Soweto Gospel Choir, Rufus and Chaka Khan, Parliament/Funkadelics, and Dr. Dre used a line from the spiritual it in the “Chronic.”