Camp Meeting ("Down in the River to Pray"/"Shout all over God's Heaven") - for double choir; first performed in the SSA/TTBB version by the Chamber Singers of Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges at the ACDA Eastern Region Urban Initiative Concert at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia, on November 21, 2009; SATB/SATB version arranged for performance by the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia and the Chancel Choir of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, conducted by Alan Harler and Jay Fluellen in 2013 and 2014 for "Big Sing" concerts.
Camp meetings were a phenomenon in the frontier areas of early 19th Century America as part of what we now call the “Second Great Awakening”. In her landmark study, The Music of Black Americans, Eileen Southern wrote:
“[The camp meeting’s] participants were the common people, black and white, of all the Protestant denominations; its format [was] that of a continuous religious service spread out over several days, often an entire week. Religious services took place in a forest or woods, the members of the huge temporary congregations worshiping in large tents and living in small tents…..The camp meeting was primarily an interracial institution; indeed, sometimes there were more black worshipers present than white.” (pp. 82-83)
This arrangement seeks to recreate a possible encounter at such a camp meeting between two racially separated groups of singers on opposite sides of a field. Choirs are encouraged to incorporate creative movement into their performances.
I learned about the song “Down in the River to Pray” from Allison Krause’ beautiful rendition recorded for the movie “Brother, Where Art Thou?” Because of its context, I assumed this to be a so-called “white spiritual” from Appalachia. After I started the arrangement, I found that the earliest published version of this song is actually found in the 1867 Slave Songs of the USA. It was obviously widely sung later by both whites and blacks, so I kept it in the arrangement.
The arrangement begins with each group singing “their” spiritual separately, after which they fall into singing them again a second time through, but now simultaneously. The third time around, they begin listening and responding to each other, learning each other’s songs.
After having gotten caught up in the enthusiasm of their combined singing, the groups begin to retreat back to their own sides – as they do, a soloist from each group sings the song they’ve learned from the other. At the end, the free white singers ask again the question of their song: “Who shall wear the robe and crown? Show me the way…” in response to which the singers from the slave community remind them again of their common humanity with the declaration, “I got a robe” – would that this response could have been fully heard and accepted in that time, and in our own!