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Singing the Legacy of Spirituals in the University Chorale’s “Rock-A My Soul” Concert

Born of the torment brought upon African Americans at the hands of the slave trade from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, the musical form of spirituals offered an artistic space for Black unity, cultural endurance, and faith. Spirituals, “one of the largest and most significant forms of American folksong,” served not necessarily as a means of providing joy but rather as a form of community empowerment, saying, despite it all, we are still here, and we are still singing. 

 

The performances of spirituals today exist on the intersection between historical Black anguish and modern pillars of community built upon faith and common culture—all of which guided the University Chorale of Boston College’s “Rock-A My Soul” Concert that revered the legacy of spirituals. 

 

The University Chorale, the second-largest student organization and one of the most prolific musical groups at BC, presented “Rock-A My Soul” on Saturday, February 24th, in Saint Ignatius Church. Under the direction of Dr. Riikka Pietiläinen Caffrey, the Chorale performed several spiritual pieces, including two takes on the titular spiritual “Rock-A My Soul:” the traditional rhythmic jubilee style, and the world premiere of “Rock O’ My Soul,” a new introspective arrangement by Professor Shannon Jacob of Boston College commissioned by the University Chorale. 

 

Since its foundation in 1913, the Chorale has performed various musical renditions across genres yet has notably specialized in performing Christian hymns, psalms, and songs of worship that fall in line with Boston College’s Jesuit foundation. The scope and legacy of Christian music, however, extends far beyond the walls of any church, and under the new direction of Dr. Pietiläinen Caffrey that began in 2023, the Chorale is aiming to diversify its repertoire. By turning towards less-celebrated musical subgenres such as spirituals, the Chorale hopes to shed new light throughout the expansive breadth of choral music. 

 

As a Christian music and folk song subgenre, spirituals were ultimately created as a result of the adoption of Christianity by plantation slaves, whose prior forms of worship from Africa had been deemed by landowners as a threat and outlawed. Forced to assimilate, African Americans began following Christianity, growing increasingly more connected to it as they paralleled their plight of slavery to the suffering of Jesus Christ. A new Africanized Christianity that focused on heroic Biblical retellings, especially in song form, became a pillar of plantation communities, and the singing of spirituals simultaneously acted as a means of worship and an expression of unity. 

 

In bringing the deep African American roots of spirituals to the Boston College community, the Chorale ensured that their understanding of what they were performing was ample by having Professor Jacob provide the choir with the necessary historical lessons beforehand. Despite spirituals’ seemingly fast and energetic call-and-response style, “we really need to understand the pain, grief, and oppression that actually went into singing these songs. In The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass… [Douglass] says that slaves only sang when they were most unhappy and when they were in the most vigorous anguish,” explains Professor Jacob. “We, [the Chorale], want to be responsible stewards of this music.”

 

“When we sang those songs, it came from a real place of understanding and recognition, which is really important, especially for a predominantly white choir,” notes Sarah Katz, ‘25. “Having that context made our program a lot more moving.”

 

The Chorale’s standard of vocal excellence is particularly emphasized in its smaller Chamber Choir—a select group of singers that perform specialized pieces in each of their concert programs—whose rendition of the spiritual “Precious Lord” provided a crucial intimacy with the audience that allowed the music’s weight to be felt even more deeply, according to Jack Doppke, ‘25. The devastating emotional impact of the lyrics of loss is personally transmitted to every listener, who is then able to experience the duality between the heartbreak invoked by the song and the delicate beauty of the performance itself. 

 

In addition to paying reverence to the suffering of the past that shaped these spiritual pieces, the Chorale also aimed to guide the audience into a state of togetherness and hope through its renditions of Dolly Parton’s “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” and Carly Simon’s “Let the River Run.” These songs, instilling a sense of optimism and peace, prompt the consideration that while the past carries a weight that we must still bear today, we also each have the power to take the small steps that change our collective tomorrow for the better.

 

Even given the necessity of acknowledging America’s harmful history, messages of belief in a better world to come bring us towards actualizing the values of unity that have been sung about for centuries in all forms of folk song. “Rock-A My Soul” offered that very journey of recognizing the past as a means of shifting towards a hopeful future where every person’s experience is embraced and uplifted. Promoting a sentiment such as this is of particular importance at Boston College, where expressions of unique diversity—whether within cultural groups, identity-based organizations, individual presentations, etc.—tend to fall out of the mainstream radar. Groups such as the Chorale are able to use the arts as a reminder of just how vast even our immediate community is and how we should be as aware as possible of the different contexts and legacies that comprise our campus and beyond.

 

The University Chorale hopes to continue providing unification through music at their Spring Concert, “Draw the Circle Wide,” on April 20th in Trinity Chapel. 

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MCAS '25 English & Sociology major who loves rainy days, pumpkin spice, commentary YouTube, and animated shows perhaps a little too much. Probably chugging La Croix while watching the Boston Bruins as you're reading this. (she/her)

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