February 4, 2002
Students learn about black influence on American music
by Bronwyn Wilson
Senior Staff Reporter
"Follow the Drinking Gourd ...." To some the words may not make sense. But the students in Eileen Treusch's music classes know exactly what they mean.
Second through sixth grade students at Wellington Elementary have been learning how black influence became a part of the American musical landscape. The class has focused on spirituals, songs black slaves sang when slavery was prevalent in America.
Students are learning that some spirituals were used as a secret form of communication, such as in the song, "Follow The Drinking Gourd." Treusch explains what the song is really talking about.
"They're talking about following the stars," she says. Slaves sang the spiritual to remind fellow slaves who were planning an escape to walk toward the Big Dipper, which looked like "the drinking gourd."
Between 1830 and 1860, 50,000 slaves made a break for freedom, heading to the north and into Canada. They traveled at night using the stars for direction and the moon to light their way.
Not all spirituals have a hidden message, but all have a religious context, a lively beat and a simple melody. Treusch says that spirituals are based on the slaves' life experience and were a means of emotional and mental escape from their daily hardships. To showcase the relevancy of spirituals, Treusch discussed with her students the ways people seek mental escape in today's world.
She asked her class to name some of the ways. Student responses ranged from "playing with a Game Boy" to "using drugs." Treusch says the discussion gave the students an awareness of the purpose behind spirituals. "That made the songs more real to them," she says.
The students also brainstormed lyrics to several familiar spirituals.
Says Treusch, "I want them to understand how a song can evolve out of your own personal experience." In addition, she wants her students to understand how music reflects culture.
The three-week class also covers other black influences on American music like Scott Joplin, ragtime and jazz. The unit is an offshoot of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the classes are helping students to understand and appreciate differences.
"We're trying to develop a tolerance and appreciation of diversity," Treusch says.
As her students develop a better understanding of others, they're also developing a better understanding of the spirituals they're singing. "We take the spirituals and get into the real message," she says and cites the song, "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore," as an example. "The message hints to a hope for a better afterlife."
Spirituals are rooted in the Gospel but are different from hymns and psalms because they share the hard condition of being a slave.
"Religion and a belief in a greater being have played a part in history from the beginning," she adds.
Since the first Martin Luther King Day was celebrated in 1985, spirituals have been considered an integral part of the American heritage.
The songs are often heard in programs celebrating black history and were also a part of the early Civil Rights movement. Demonstrators belted out spirituals like "We Shall Overcome' and "This Little Light of Mine" in marches for equal rights.
February 2002 commemorates Black History Month. The time is set aside to remember the contributions of African Americans and their influence on American culture.
Perhaps it's also a good time to take in a concert and hear the great music made by popular jazz and blues artists, music that blossomed out of spirituals.