My Soul Survives!

Songs of Inspiration From the African-American Experience

Copyright © 2001 by James "Sparky" Rucker and Celtic Cat Publishing. All rights reserved.
(The text in this essay is protected by copyright and is for the personal use of students, scholars, and the public. Any commercial use or publication of it is strictly prohibited.)

As I listen to Mahalia Jackson sing Get Away Jordan I remember the days of my youth at Patton Street Church of God and later Boyd Street Church of God, Sanctified. It was the Church my paternal grandfather helped to found. When John Lindsey Rucker first came to Knoxville, Tennessee in 1908 he was a young struggling preacher without a congregation. He was introduced to a small band of Christians who were meeting in a store-front on King Street and in dire need of a shepherd to lead their flock. He later returned in the summer of 1909 where he “spread a big tent on Reservoir Hill…and brought singers and players of instruments and sang and preached…as had never been heard here before.”1 There followed a “large Baptizing “in the Tennessee River at the foot of Central Ave. [where] a great crowd followed the…gathering, both on the banks [of the river] and [on Gay St.] bridge above to watch the ceremony.”2 Music played a big part in these services and in the services I remembered as a child.

My favorite time in church was listening to the choir, especially when the piano player [who could only play in one key] was absent. One of the “old saints” would rise up and begin an old accapella hymn, as one by one the congregation joined in, either humming or singing in harmony. Not the accepted European harmony with “set parts,” but rather “West African” harmony with voices paired as to range with each person singing their version of soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. I, of course, joined in to add my young voice to “my father’s booming, window-shaking bass…, and my mother’s mellow alto.”3 I was really thrilled when August came around and we journeyed to Nashville, TN for “annual meeting” where as “mass choir” was assembled from the various choirs of the churches which attended this meeting. I’m sure God himself smiled when he heard their “songs of praise.”

It was later in my life, after the shattering experiences of “Jim Crow” and the death of John F. Kennedy, that I “discovered” slave songs, which were the “root” of the “Freedom Songs.” With Kennedy’s demise I resolved to take control of my own life and to “steer its course” myself. I became active in the Civil Rights Movement, first by attending mass meetings where I heard wonderful songs proclaiming “Freedom Now” and We Shall Overcome. I was astounded when I was asked to get my guitar and “come up hear and lead us in a song.” It was at these gatherings where I first met and heard The SNCC Freedom Singers, Bernice Reagon, Guy & Candie Carawan, and a blind street-singer from Americus, GA named Rev. Pearly Brown, who not only inspired my singing but my “bottleneck guitar” playing as well.

As my interest in these “Freedom Songs” grew I discovered their implicit link to the “old slave songs” which helped an ancient generation “make it through life.” My later career as a folk singer led me to meet such wonderful people as Sis. Bessie Jones of the Georgia Sea Island Singers. Her wonderful renditions of such songs as Titanic [which I later recorded on one of my albums] and You Better Mind, still linger in my consciousness.

These “gospel tinged” songs can be sung solo as a joyous song or as a mournful dirge, but to get their “full impact” they must be sung and heard from within the confines of a choir. Enjoy!!!


“NEGRO RELIGIOUS SONGS include a wide range of styles, idioms, and substance. There are staid, square measured songs that strongly reflect white hymns of an earlier day; rocking and reeling songs that truly shake the rafters; two part prayer songs of polyphonous character; spirited tunes that are nothing less than marches; shouts that call for percussive effects by clapping and foot stamping; songs in which…tambourines, guitars, drums, and harmonicas provide instrumental dynamics; songs that are sung quietly and songs that put people on their feet; ecstatic moans and groans; religious songs of street singers that are almost indistinguishable from blues; strident gospel songs calling on sinners to reform; and songs which transpose scenes from the Bible into moving, immediate, colloquial, and, often, magnificently dramatic terms.”

Harold Courlander4

“…nothing…seemed better…than to…hear the ‘people’ sing their ‘sperichils’ [spirituals]. A few of these…of special merit, soon became established favorites among the whites, and hardly a Sunday passed at the church on St. Helena [South Carolina] with out ‘Gabriel’s Trumpet,’ ‘I hear from Heaven to-day,’ or ‘Jehovah Hallelujah.’ The last time I myself heard these was…at the church, in 1864. All of them were sung, and then the glorious shout, ‘I can’t stay behind, my Lord,’ was struck up, and sung by the entire multitude with a zest and spirit, a swaying of the bodies and nodding of the heads and lighting of the countenances and rhythmical movement of the hands, which I think no one present will ever forget.”

William Francis Allen 5

“The largest number of Negro folk-songs collected thus far are spirituals. They were first presented to the world at large by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who toured America and Europe from 1871 to 1878…Fisk University was established in 1866 for freedmen by northern educational interests…[however] many unforeseen problems arose …[such as] the lack of money…[To solve this problem] the treasurer of the school, Mr. George L. White…listened with keen interest to the singing of the students, and…stated his belief that if the world could hear these strange songs it would experience the same exaltation which he felt when listening to them,…[and] interest could be aroused to help the new educational experiment. He…[organized]…a group of students into a chorus…Excellent voices were abundant among the students [and] Mr. White selected twelve and began more than two years of intensive training…They left Nashville on October sixth, 1871. During the first part of the tour Mr. White gave the group the inspired name, ‘The Jubilee Singers,’ and called their music ‘Jubilee Songs.’…In 1878 the Singers returned to Fisk with more than one hundred and fifty thousand dollars.”

John W. Work 6

“Negro slaves sometimes accepted Christianity because Jesus was declared to be a guarantee against all hurt, harm, or danger…Spirituals during the aftermath of [Nat] Turner’s insurrection remind one of the various descriptions of the judgment day in sacred literature…[songs such as] ‘What a mornin’!’ [The author quotes a song collected on the islands off the coast of South Carolina called “You’d Better Min’.” i.e. You’d better min’, (2X) For you got to give account in the Judgment, You’d better min’].

Miles Mark Fisher 7

1) James “Sparky” Rucker, The Descendants of Daniel Rucker p. 3. This is from a quote used in this essay from Lucy Cothern’s oral and written accounts entitled “As I Remember.” These were delivered at several memorial services from Bishop J. L. Rucker between the years of 1978-1991.
2) Ibid. p. 4.
3) Sparky Rucker, “From Slavery I Sing,” Appalachian Heritage: A Magazine of southern Appalachian Life & Culture Published by Berea College Vol. 19 # 4 (Fall, 1991), p. 24. [A version of this article appears in Appendix II.
4) Harold Courlander, Negro Folk Music, U.S.A. (1963), p. 35.
5) William F. Allen, Charles P. Ware and Lucy M. Garrison, eds., Slave Songs of the United States {The Classic 1867 Anthology} (1995), p. ii.
6) John W. Work, ed. American Negro Songs and Spirituals: A Comprehensive Collection of 250 Folk Songs, Religious and Secular (1940), pp. 14-17.
7) Miles Mark Fisher, Negro Slave Songs in the United States (1953), pp. 70, 88, 90.

This essay appears in Breathing the Same Air, an anthology of East Tennessee writings and photographs. It is available from the Knoxville Writers' Guild and from Celtic Cat Publishing.

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