Folk Songs, Spirituals, and Jazz

This short article accompanies the release of excerpts from my radio series Voices and Freedoms: A History of Jazz, based on my 1976 book of the same name.  The 16-part series played across the nation for five years in the late 70’s/early 80’ and holds its relevance—or is even more so—today than it was back then.  The excerpts present about 6 to 10 minutes of the original 30-minute broadcasts. The link above takes you to information about the book and our plans to re-release it and provide access to the full-length original shows. Go HERE for a complete list of shows and links to all excerpts.


The VIDEO below is mostly audio: it’s an excerpt of Show #2 of my sixteen-part radio series Voices and Freedoms: A History of Jazz.  This show is entitled “Hollers, Cries, Work Songs, Spirituals.” (The link just above takes you to a list of all the shows in the series.)

The spiritual depth of jazz has often been miscalculated, because jazz is so often associated with the low-down blues, with dance halls, with any number of excesses.  But John Coltrane’s very spiritual 1964 album A Love Supreme re-focused us on jazz’s spiritual depth, a depth anchored in the folk songs, spirituals, and gospel songs that had a profound influence on the music of jazz and on jazz’s relationship to life from its earliest moments. And it wasn’t just the more formal songs of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, for example, or the many forms of gospel music that influenced jazz so deeply.  One critic said that the great jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman essentially played field hollers.  The fragments of music accompanying work as field hands or merchants have always been particularly moving to me as they speak of freedom, family, and the fleeting nature of life.  In the show excerpt below you’ll hear one man sing, “I want to see my wife and children / BIM! / Yes I do, do, buddy buddy yes I do.”  The “BIM!” comes from a hammer sound in the call’s roots as a railroad work song. And there’s this short song from a flower vendor: “Yes, Ma’am, I got flowers / You ask me how I sell ‘em / Yes, Ma’am three for a quarter / Oh come and buy now / For I’m here today / And tomorrow I’ll be gone / Flowers ‘a’ going by.”

If jazz is at all an affirmation of life, of wholeness and rebirth, if it still retains something akin to deep African religiosity, and if it still speaks—as I believe it does—about human freedom and identity, this is so largely because of having roots in a heritage of songs like hollers, calls, gospel music, and, of course, the spirituals, which came from slave times out of the souls of Black folk.

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