QUINCY -- From a stereo in the corner of the room came the soulful sounds of two singers performing spirituals such as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," as people arrived Tuesday evening to hear professional storyteller Mett Morris' program at the Quincy Public Library on the history of African-American spirituals, or songs that originate from the slave era of American history.
"The songs they sang were born from the tragic existence of slavery; these songs embody themes of faith, hope, grief and anguish," Morris said. "These songs sink into every aspect of daily activity for the slave, but even now, they have the ability to touch the heart and reach the soul."
Morris grew up in Jim Crow segregationist Mississippi at the height of the American civil rights movement. She said that while some may question why or how songs written in the 1700s or 1800s could still be relevant to today, she knows they are.
"I would say those people need to get a little more interested in their history," Morris said. "These songs came up in through history, they are from an era of slavery, they are from the civil rights movement. They detail how people chose to survive despite knowing they may never see freedom. Spirituals are still very relevant, especially today. They will never go out of style. The music is universal."
The music-laden program was held in conjunction with the library's monthlong collaboration with the National Endowment for the Arts for the Big Read. This year's Big Read titles include "A Lesson before Dying" by Ernest J. Gaines, "The Watsons Go to Birmingham" by Christopher Paul Curtis, and "Follow the Drinking Gourd" by Jeanette Winter.
Upcoming Big Read-related programs include screenings of the film "A Lesson Before Dying" at 1 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. on Monday; a lecture on the ethics of capital punishment as an institution featuring Quincy University philosophy professor J.K. Miles from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; and a screening of the film "After Innocence," which follows a group of men adjusting to being a part of society after being identified as being wrongfully convicted of crimes after spending decades in prison.
In her presentation, Morris said some songs had strictly religious purposes while others had more veiled references to the promise of freedom offered by escaping to the Northern United States or to places where slavery was prohibited. Morris said "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" was connected to the Underground Railroad. Another song was "Wade in the Water," where Morris said the lyrics encourage runaway slaves to travel along the banks of rivers and streams to evade the bloodhounds and bounty hunters that slave owners would likely have sent to capture them.
"The reason that these songs started in the first place was because of slavery, and they were thinking of the sorrows and the hardships they were having, but also with how they felt about God," Morris said.
Another song in Morris' presentation was the spiritual "Steal Away." This song was perhaps most well known for its use by Nat Turner, an enslaved black preacher who led a violent and bloody slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831. The song also was used by slaves to speak in code about pending escape attempts by runaway slaves and by slaves who found solace in the freedom that death would bring.
Morris also discussed the history of "I Want Jesus to Walk With Me."
"The song talks about the trials of life and wanting Jesus to be by your side. I can only imagine all the ups and downs that they were facing," Morris said. "It gave them hope that better days were ahead of them."