The spirituals that have been sung around the world are Negroid to be sure, but so full of musicians’ tricks that Negro congregations are highly entertained when they hear their old songs so changed. They never use the new style songs, and these are never heard unless perchance some daughter or son has been off to college and returns with one of the old songs with its face lifted, so to speak.
—Zora Neale Hurston, “Characteristics of Negro Expression” (1934)
[There was a] famous teacher and scholar of Vienna to whom I had come to seek guidance in the mastery of Bach’s style…. I vividly remember his astonishment on hearing me sing some Aframerican folk songs; an astonishment caused by the spiritual affinity of my songs with the spirit and style of the great German master. “But you have it all there,” he assured me; “it is the same language.”
—Roland Hayes, My Songs (1948)
One of my favorite corners of the compositional world is and always has been the spiritual arrangement—and not in spite of Hurston’s complaint (and others like it), but, in a way, because of it. Maybe it’s because my own provenance (suburban, Catholic, white) is so far removed from the proper milieu, but it was always the game of masks involved in dressing up the vernacular for the concert hall that made spiritual arrangements so fascinating to me. There’s a grain of truth in what Hurston writes: spiritual arrangements are, in one sense, neither here nor there. But musically, it’s at that disconnected point—where stylistic reference becomes as much a choice as a necessity, and where authenticity is just one possible concern among many—that, for me anyway, things often start to get really interesting.
Spiritual Sketches, the new recording by tenor Lawrence Brownlee, is, in essence, a showcase for singing; and Brownlee’s singing is worth showcasing, a fiery, flexible bel canto tenor that soars without strain and burbles through ornamentation with comfortable flair. But it was the arrangements, by pianist Damien Sneed (who also performs), that really caught my ear. Written especially for this project, Sneed’s spiritual settings update the usual language—“There Is a Balm in Gilead” as contemporary R&B ballad, “Every Time I Feel the Spirit” as angular funk—while still making some deft plays within the genre’s complicated weave of influence and stylization.
Some of the most fun things about the album, in fact, are those moments where Sneed acknowledges that the arranging of spirituals has acquired a history almost as long as those of the spirituals themselves: “Come By Here, Good Lord” echoes Hall Johnson’s brighter, bouncier settings; “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” channels the Romantic harmonies of Harry T. Burleigh’s Gilded Age settings; “Down by the Riverside” has a thumping swing reminiscent of the legendary Mildred Falls, Mahalia Jackson’s longtime accompanist. Even the most predictable reharmonizations—the spiritual tradition is multilayered enough that even the stylizations can be traditional—get enough of an extra flourish to freshen the standards while honoring them. And Sneed has the taste to get out of the way when the mood requires; his version of “All Day, All Night” achieves a deep, potent simplicity.
The sheer adaptability of spirituals has been viewed as either distressing (e.g. Hurston) or empowering (e.g. Hayes), but I think the repertoire’s survival is a testament in itself. We keep coming back to them; they keep coming back to us. Sneed’s résumé is a very 21st-century one, encompassing gospel, jazz, classical, pop, and art in equal measure, but, as in the 20th and even the 19th centuries, the spiritual style proves inspiringly flexible enough to pull it all in. The language changes; but, like Hayes said, it’s still the same language. You have it all there.