“The spirituals ask no pity, for their words ride on the strongest melodies, the melody of faith. That is why there is joy in their singing, peace in their music and strength in their soul.”
— Langston Hughes
However, spirituals will be the center of attention at a traditional Palm Sunday program in the metro area.
The Cimarron Opera Company will hold its 43rd annual Festival of Spirituals on Sunday at First Presbyterian Church of Norman, 555 S University Blvd.
Shari Ransley, Cimarron's executive director, said the festival program was started in 1970 by the opera company's founders Thomas and Carol Brice Carey. She said the Careys, wishing to keep this part of the black heritage alive, held a gathering in which new and familiar spirituals were sung by various singers. The event was very important to the Careys, predated their founding of the opera company by five years.
Ransley said the talented couple came to the University of Oklahoma at a time when the university sought to diversify the school and help with the efforts to integrate the surrounding community.
She said the festival, with its focus on spirituals, helped educate the community about these songs borne of the oral tradition of black slaves in America. Forbidden to read and their communication severely limited by their bondage, slaves often poured their feelings into spirituals like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Wade in the Water,” conveying a depth of emotion that resonates today.
“These spirituals were passed on from (slave) community to (slave) community orally,” Ransley said.
“It's really amazing, beautiful music.”
Ransley said the Careys recognized the spiritual as an art form. She said spirituals — the melodies and tonalities — form the foundation for many other types of music including gospel, pop and rock.
This year's festival will include performances by Donna Cox, an OU professor of voice; the Rev. Erica C. Thomas, a United Methodist minister, former executive director of the Cimarron Opera Company and Langston University educator; and the Boulevard Brass Quintet made up of professional and advanced student musicians from OU.
The Langston University Choir, led by Bonita Franklin, also will perform.
Ransley said several spirituals will be performed including “City Called Heaven” and “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.”