Singing My Pain Away– Sharecropper’s Songs

When I was a child living in Ohio we took every summer  family vacation in West Virginia. We went to visit my Grandma Janie Dillard. Yes…. I am named  after her. I almost got called Minerva! My Grandmother lived in the hollows of West Virginia for many years before moving to Bluefield. I spent many a hot summer days chasing Blow Flies in the sunflower patches behind her row house. It was strange driving to her house. It was like stepping back in time. My dad drove the curved of the  mountain road as if he owed them…and he did.  My mom had cooked fried chicken that she put in brown paper bags. The  grease seeping through the bag made my mouth water knowing that we would  be eating soon on the road. Sometimes when My mom and dad had extra money we stopped  in Jacksonville, somewhere between Ohio and West Virginia. We were treated to foot long hotdogs. It was great summer trip and always full of surprises. One summer we had to  take my grandmother to a church function in Virginia, some were called Rocky Mount. When we got there , my eyes tried to take in all the movement  and history.

It was wooden and stone  church that you could still see the fingerprints of slaves on the wood that build it. It could hold a good amount of people some how with its wooded antique walls. I sat in the back of the church with my sister. The older people headed up front.  The church was filled with elderly blacks that I knew had once worked that field and a few might have been slaves. I was in the  midst of living history. The old men walked with strength, grace, and nobility for surviving being black in America. The older women walked with dignity, hope, and great faith to worship God another day.

I don’t remember all the preaching  that took place. I was playing with my feet and secretly while watching  a generation of heroes walking down the aisle  in the church.. They were legacies  in my eyes. Suddenly I watched as my dad and mom stood up with the others. An old man started a beat on the floor with his can.There was  over 200 people in that church. The older man joined in with his  feet and cane. All you could hear was rhythmic taping  like drums  on the floor  in unison. The beat  was strong and steady with conviction. Then the song started. I can’t explained  what happen next. I was transported in time to another place. I was  a small slave girl drawing hope from the song of my elders.

A old man started to sing. Then they all joined in on different beats and harmony. My dad flowed with them on his part , My  mom joined in wiping tears from  her eyes. It was the songs of freedom from pains. It was the song of old. The whole church was filled with heaven. I could feel Jesus arrives and listen. Angles began to join in  lifting  burdens back to heaven, This went on for  almost about an hour . The songs blended into the next song as the old   man change the beat on the floor with his foot and cane.

There was no  instruments or drums. Just the rhythmic melodic beat of a hard life flowing throw  the limbs,  claps, arms, vocals chords, and heart a troubled people who survives it all. I started to cry. I don’t know why, but I cried. I will never forget the day I saw my elders show me how to worship God in the midst of a harsh life. The year  was  about 1969 or 1970. The civil right movement was just ending.The real war in America had just began . The war of tearing down 400 years of injustice.  I still can hear  those  song. I can still hear the beat s on the floor and in my heart every day being black. I ask my dad  and mom and the  way back home  while stopping for  a foot long what type of singing  that was. My dad said they  were singing  Negro Spirituals from slavery.

The church has been historically a landmark for our struggles  in America.It has been through the African tradition of call and response , music, and singing that we have survives the whips, bondage, abuse, and chains in America. Gospel music developed in  the 18 –20th century on the plantation and fields of this country. It came from  deep roots of Africa tradition of singing, drumming, and improvising from the heart spiritual matters. The Negro Spiritual birthed from  slavery are still with us today. It evolved into black gospel music. They have been revised and modernize, but the spirit of it is still there.

Shape Note Singing and A’capella become a strong core of black music. Shape Note Singing  is a way of reading the notes through specific sounds in order to sing  the note. It a simpler way of reading or singing music for those who are using the melody as key to direct a song. It has been around since the 18 the century. That Sunday in my grandmother church I experience a pure A’capella Negro Spiritual sung from the soul of black men and women. I was converted them to loving gospel music in any form.


“At church, hymns and psalms were sung during services. Some of them were transformed into songs of a typical African American form: they are “Dr Watts”. The lyrics of negro spirituals were tightly linked with the lives of their authors: slaves. While work songs dealt only with their daily life, spirituals were inspired by the message of Jesus Christ and his Good News (Gospel) of the Bible, “You can be saved”. They are different from hymns and psalms, because they were a way of sharing the hard condition of being a slave.Many slaves in town and in plantations tried to run to a “free country”, that they called “my home” or “Sweet Canaan, the Promised Land”. This country was on the Northern side of Ohio River, that they called “Jordan”. Some negro spirituals refer to the Underground Railroad, an organization for helping slaves to run away.”



In the field of sharecroppers across the country as  slavery ended  and Jim Crow started ,you could hear the distance song of the heart for broken people with faith keeping them pressing forward. One of my favorite song I recalled that as song was “ I Know I Have Been Changed” Every time I hear this sing I still weep. The song is embedded with a strong sense of direction and  hope of glory in heaven. There is nothing like hearing a choir sing  and create music that  brings the heaven to earth. It would take volumes of page to really scratch the surface with the song that were once  sung  from Africa to the pews of the 21 Century that decree the heart of a people who have been determined to survive.

The Negro spiritual have carried in every aspect of the art in the black community and white community . Famed Choreographer and dancer Helen Tamiris in 1927   worked for the WPA  used  Negro Spiritual. Her bold expression later influence “Revelations” by Alvin Ailey.In every note of those old Negro Spirituals is a place of victory and strength to press on. When I hear a Negro Spiritual sung in the  ancient tradition, I am reminded of the footsteps that pave the way for  freedom while singing a song for heaven to hear.…


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