Pianist Artina McCain has built a three-fold career as a performer, educator and speaker. She is also the arranger of an excellent new publication from Hal Leonard, African American Folk Songs Collection, which includes 24 celebrated songs arranged for intermediate piano, and was described by Andrew Eales on Pianodao as “Simply Superb!”
Here Dr McCain looks at the rich history behind the genre, giving justification as to why this repertoire should be part of every pianist’s musical journey.
African Americans(1) created a rich history of song and dance. I am proud to say that I am the great-great-great-granddaughter of these strong and resilient enslaved Americans and can trace my origins in America back almost 200 years. In the late 18th century our musical history began with the ‘African American Spiritual’ (or Negro Spiritual) and is the largest and most significant form of American folk song. There are over 6000 of these anonymous masterpieces! Through oral tradition, they were passed down from generation to generation and brilliantly blended the rich musical culture of Africa, with text describing hardships that they were experiencing in America.
Spirituals can be organised into three categories: code or protest songs, sorrow songs, and jubilee songs. They hold messages of hope, resilience, and the strong identification of their own lives with fascinating parallels to biblical stories. Frederick Douglass, among others, celebrated the genius of these songs. In his book Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave he wrote: “…every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains.” In 1871, the Jubilee Singers from Fisk University, who were former slaves, were the first group to collect, perform, and record these songs for the public. They were followed by a wave of other composers who arranged and performed these spirituals.
A few include Harry T. Burleigh, Roland Hayes, R. Nathaniel Dett, and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Now numerous composers, artists, and arrangers have a fascination with these melodious, sorrowful, and joyful songs.
In this book, I explore some of the most popular spirituals, along with a few other African American folk songs that originated from West Africa. As an African American, the spiritual is very meaningful for me. One common aspect of the spiritual is call and response. A leader will sing a verse and a congregational chorus of singers will respond in refrain. While growing up, I had a front row seat to watch and experience call and response. My grandfather led the call and response in his church to hymns and spirituals during devotional time. My grandmother played piano and sung in the choir. As a kid, these seemed like “old folk” songs, but the creation of this book has taken me on a deeper dive into the research and historical meanings of these important songs.
The process of notating these spirituals for the intermediate level pianist has been deeply gratifying. I hope that this book will spark your curiosity to learn more about the wonderful history of these spirituals and other traditional songs by African Americans.
 Referring to those who are descendants of American slavery.
African American Folk Songs Collection
Introduce piano students to unique African American history and music with these 24 folk songs arranged for intermediate piano solo. Songs include: By and By · Deep River · Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel? · Every Time I Feel the Spirit · Give Me That Old Time Religion · In Bright Mansions Above · Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing · My Lord, What a Morning · Ride On, King Jesus · Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child · Wade in the Water · and more. Includes detailed notes about the songs and beautiful illustrations.