Professor Vescey Brings Songs of Hope to Campus

On Tuesday, January 20, the basement of Memorial Chapel was filled with African-American spirituals and gospel music during the lecture “Sorrow Song, Spirit Song, Freedom Song: African-American Affirmation in Music, Religion, Politics, and Community, from Slavery to Civil Rights.” Students listened to Harry Emerson FosdickProfessor of the Humanities, Native American Studies and Religion Chris Vecsey explain and perform songs that were sung by slaves and civil rights protestors. Joined by Protestant Campus Minister James (Putter) Cox on the mandolin and Paraprofessional Cataloguer Adger Williams on the fiddle, Professor Vecsey created a lively and engaging atmosphere.

Professor Vecsey quoted a line from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “How Long? Not Long” speech before starting the first song of the event, “The Arc of Justice.”

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” Vecsey quotes.

“MLK loved spirituals. You know, in that speech in 1963, he references a spiritual, saying ‘Free at last, Free at last, Thank God almighty we are free at last,’” Vecsey said. 

Professor Vecsey recognized the historic and cultural importance of the African-American spiritual, noting how the Library of Congress has compiled about 600 of them.

Professor Vecsey  focused on the historical background of the spiritual, mentioning how Saint Augustine, a Christian philosopher, wrote of the incredible importance of hymns while the early Christians were being persecuted.  Quoting Frederick Douglass, Professor Vecsey said that these songs were “a testament against slavery.” 

“These are songs that arise from the black slave experience—these songs of burden…there is sorrow and hope in these songs,” Vescey said.

On the final spiritual, “Didn’t my Lord Deliver Daniel,” Vecsey, Cox and Williams were joined by first year Paul Jackson, sophomore Isabel Kubabom and Chapel House Administrative Assistant Clara Lantz of the Sojourners Gospel Choir. Their arrival marked the transition from spirituals to gospel music. According to Professor Vecsey, Martin Luther King, Jr. had a similar love for gospel and frequently referenced the song “Soon and Very Soon,” which was the next song that Professor Vecsey’s group and the Sojourners sang. The musicians finished the section dedicated to gospel with “There’s a Storm Out on the Ocean.”

The final genre Professor Vecsey and his group performed were songs important to the Civil Rights Movement, known as “Freedom Songs.”

“The Civil Rights Movement was a singing revolution. The gospel gave guts to that movement,” Vecsey said. “They took God and Jesus out of the songs and they replaced them with hope and ‘we shall overcome.’”

Professor Vecsey shared a personal tie he had with the next song, “Down by the Riverside”, saying how he had marched in a peace march with Martin Luther King, Jr. in New York City, and they had sung that song. His group followed it up with “I’m Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table.”

The final song of the event, “We Shall Overcome,” was an adaptation of an old Baptist hymn. Guy Carawan and Pete Seeger rewrote “I’ll be alright” and then taught King the new song. 

“Blacks and whites sang this song together,” Vecsey said.

The response to the event was very positive. 

“I liked this. It was a nice intimate space. I heard a lot of songs I didn’t know,” senior Chimebere Nwaoduh said. 

The Director of Summer Program and Lecturer in University Studies Matt Leone shared similar sentiments.

“It was very moving. We’re so lucky to have Chris Vecsey and others in our midst.”