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Spirituals for Piano Trio. 11′. Commissioned and premiered by the Arcadian Trio, Igor Szwec, violin, Vivian Barton Dozor, cello, Diane Goldsmith, piano. Premiered 20 Jan 2019, Abington Presbyterian Church, Abington, Pa.

The Arcadian Trio asked me for settings of spirituals for a program remembering and honoring oppressed people around the world. They had enjoyed settings of spirituals I had already composed, and liked the idea of reworking a couple for trio. I had already arranged “Little David, Play on Your Harp” for cello and piano, then had reworked the arrangement when I wrote American Spirituals, Book Two. Adding violin challenged me to create a violin part that was a real, organic voice to the score.

Some versions of “Little David” from the early days of the spiritual are so wildly unlike each other as to be hardly recognizable as siblings. I used a few of these in my arrangement, and I confess I’m not sure where some words might land. The music had a mind of its own, and I was reluctant to stand in its way. Here are two out of innumerable possible verses:

Little David, play on your harp, halleluia.
Little David, play on your harp, hallelu.
David was a shepherd boy,
He killed Goliath and shouted for joy.

Little David, play on your harp, halleluia.
Little David, play on your harp, hallelu.
Joshua was the son of Nun,
He never would quit till his work was done.

“My Lord, what a mourning” may be closer to the truth of the matter when the stars begin to fall at Judgment Day, than “My Lord, what a morning”; both spellings are found. To me, the emotional essence of the African American and white Appalachian versions of this hymn come from the sudden realization of salvation’s power in the midst of judgment. I conflated and altered black and white versions in this arrangement, which was also originally for cello and piano but expanded here for trio.

My Lord, what a morning!
My Lord, what a morning!
My Lord, what a morning,
When the stars begin to fall!
I think I hear my brother say:
Call the nations, great and small,
I look on God’s right hand
When the stars begin to fall.

Diane Goldsmith, Arcadian’s pianist, suggested “Ride On, King Jesus” for the spiritual in this set that would be entirely new. I hesitated at first. The Hall Johnson arrangement, the only version many people know, has been a solo vehicle for generations. I wondered how I might create something new that wouldn’t be either beholden to him nor petrified by avoidance. However, I was put at ease and was able to start work when I looked at the earliest appearance of the song I could find.

The 1872 publication of Jubilee Songs, the repertoire of the Fisk Jubilee Singers (founded 1871), contains “Ride On, King Jesus.” The historically black Fisk University was founded by missionaries from the North to offer higher education for newly freed slaves. The singers named themselves “Jubilee” as an intentional reference to the Israelite Year of Jubilee, where every 50 years debts were forgiven and slaves were set free. The Singers began touring to raise money for the University. On their first tour, though, they heard about the great Chicago Fire and sent all the money they had raised—$60—to help victims there.

The editor of Jubilee Songs assured readers that the songs were printed exactly as the Jubilee Singers were singing them, and were exactly what African Americans were singing during slave times. “Ride On, King Jesus” is simpler and calmer than the virtuosic show-stopper we know. There are no blue or flatted notes: later generations would add those. It has no real syncopation. It isn’t triumphal or celebratory as much as familiar. You can imagine Jesus, on his milk white horse, smiling and turning to say Hi to you, as he lightly rides past on a country road. The tempo and motion is something of a relaxed trot, but noble. It stops and starts at times, as if we and the rider are considering each other.

Of course, there are no definitive versions of spirituals. As folk music, they grew up in many places and with many variations. One big question in “Ride On” is who is the one not being hindered. Jubilee Songs has “me,” but other early versions have it as Jesus: “thee” or “him.” The music in this arrangement can be heard either way, I think.

Chorus: Ride on, King Jesus,
No man can a hinder me,
Ride on, King Jesus,
No man can a hinder me.

I was but young when I begun,
No man can a hinder me,
But now my race is almost done,
No man can a hinder me.

Chorus
King Jesus rides on a milk white horse,
No man can a hinder me;
The river of Jordan he did cross,
No man can a hinder me.

Chorus
If you want to find your way to God,
No man can a hinder me;
The gospel highway must be trod.
No man can a hinder me.

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