Many of us are natural storytellers.
I sit and listen to birds tell their stories, too. Only they sing them.
Today had already been stressful, so I made time to listen to a choir on YouTube. Then I climbed stairs to find a book of old hymns. I hovered over the content pages until I spotted a particular song.
Oops. I’m getting ahead of myself.
My leftover stressors from yesterday included an allergic reaction to a red wasp sting. He nailed me on a finger. Later, Benadryl and a steroid shot slowed the swelling down. Not feeling good, I checked the computer: what I saw were videos of rioting. The world seemed upside down. No stories, nothing to help me understand. I guess I’ll wait for that part. I turned the computer off.
And this morning, I had learned my friend’s daughter passed away. Shock and numbness. I reached for a book of old hymns and searched for that one particular song. I reread it: "Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen." Now, to sit and slow down…and get back to the hymn. I sang it all the way through, though my voice cracked more than once.
Soulful words. They help me cope with loss. They help me cope with what I see on a screen, whether I understand it at the time or not. The song helps me remember the One I can trust and turn toward.
I grew up singing old spiritual hymns. Probably learned them in church. Can’t really remember. The slaves most likely learned them from each other while working, sweating, and breathing. Certainly, the songs were passed on to their children and their children’s children.
The following song and information is taken from Then Sings My Soul, Book 2, edited by Robert J. Morgan, published by Thomas Nelson, Inc, Nashville, Tennessee, 2004, pp. 136-139.
Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen; Nobody knows but Jesus.
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen; Glory hallelujah.
Sometimes I’m up; Sometimes I’m down; Oh yes, Lord.
Sometimes I’m almost to the ground; Oh yes, Lord.
Although You see me goin' along; Oh yes, Lord.
I have my troubles here below; Oh yes, Lord.
What makes old Satan hate me so? Oh yes, Lord.
He got me once and let me go; Oh yes, Lord.
Directly across the page from the hymn is a history of African-American spirituals.
The Civil War had ended in 1865, and Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, opened its doors the following year. The American Missionary Association established the school for liberated slaves .
Among the professors that first year was a white man named George White. He taught music which he’d brought with him, but he was more intrigued by the old plantation melodies and slave songs he’d overhear the students singing in between classes.
According to the book's editor, Robert J. Morgan, "White had trouble coaxing his students to sing him those songs; it seemed a particularly private type of hand-me-down music. There were no written scores or words–just plaintive strains passed voice to voice between the generations."
After a few years, Fisk University was struggling to survive. The Missionary Association decided to close the school, which housed 400 students at the time. White suggested taking nine of his best singers on a concert tour to raise funds for the school. The board refused, calling it “a wild goose chase.”
George White knew he’d have to be totally dependent on God. He and his wife sold jewelry and personal belongings to fund the first tour in October, 1871. "Sometimes the little group, braving threats, insults, obscenities, and indignities, sang in nearly empty halls and churches."
At the National Council of Congregational Churches in Oberlin, Ohio, the delegates did not want to give their limited time to colored students from Fisk University, so White had his students sing when the Council took a recess.
Students filed quietly up to the choir loft, and the delegates stopped talking and turned toward the music. “'Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus,' came the song in beautiful, brooding harmony. After a moment of stunned silence, the convention burst into wild applause and cries for more."
A pastor from New York wanted the group to cancel its tour and come directly to his church in Brooklyn. White did not cancel any engagements, but he set the group up for a concert in New York in December.
White agonized over a name for the singing group. After much time in prayer, he found the answer. They would be known as the "Jubilee Singers," named after the biblical "Jubilee," described in Leviticus 25 as a time for liberation of slaves.
The first night in Brooklyn, the Jubilee Singers received an offering of $1,300 to help fund the continuation of Fisk University. Newspapers picked up the story, and soon the Jubilee Singers had engagements all around the world.
Morgan states, "In their concerts, the section that most stirred their audiences was their 'spirituals'—those soulful plantation songs born of slavery and full of yearning. In 1872, gospel music publisher Biglow & Main hired a musician to meet the Jubilee Singers and record those timeless and authorless songs on paper...[introducing] the 'Negro Spiritual' to America and to the world."
Songs like the one I’d turned to that morning in a hymnal.
Fisk University. It is still training young people today—and still sending out its Jubilee Singers to churches and concert halls.
Heart stories delivered in the form of spiritual songs. They came from hard times.
Here, perhaps, to show us another way to cope in this world.
Songbook of the Jubilee Singers, who saved their university in 1871 by singing in beautiful harmony. The tradition continues today. Their long list of achievements includes being inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2000, and they were one of nine recipients of the 2008 National Medal of Arts, the highest recognition for artistic excellence given by the U.S. Government, which was presented to them by President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush.