Maryland Spirituals Initiative Ensemble

African American spirituals Eastern Shore of Maryland
Photo Credit: courtesy of The Water's Edge Museum, Oxford, MD

The birthplace of both Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, Maryland’s Eastern Shore occupies a unique place in the African American struggle for freedom. The rich, deeply moving African American spirituals tradition was also central to that search. These histories are celebrated and brought back to life through a recent exhibit and musical collaboration organized by Water’s Edge Museum in Oxford, Maryland—the uplifting and inspiring Maryland Spirituals Initiative.

African American spirituals emerged in the American South, where enslaved Africans combined English hymns with West African rhythms and vocal traditions to create a musical form that expressed both Christian devotion and the desire for freedom. Referred to as “America’s finest art form,” spirituals provided the soundtrack of daily life on plantations as well as veiled messages about escaping to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

Curated by the Water’s Edge Museum, the Maryland Spirituals Initiative is a multidisciplinary project that combines an exhibition of visual art interpreting spirituals and historical accounts with a selection of celebrated standards like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” among many others. Recreated and recorded by the Initiative, these renditions invoke the legacies of figures like Harriet Tubman, whose exploits in Maryland are legion. The songs were arranged by Kentavius Jones, La Fleur Paysour, and Professor John Wesley Wright of Salisbury University, and performed and recorded by an intergenerational choir featuring members of Eastern Shore Baptist churches.

Jones, a songwriter and musician, was raised on the Eastern Shore by a mother who sang in church and a DJ father. Inspired by the sounds of his childhood, a remix of “hymns and vinyl,” and the spirituals’ deep connection to his own communities, Jones responded to the Initiatives’ request to foreground those memories, highlighting both the spiritual and coded messages of freedom in songs that have been passed down for generations.

At the National Folk Festival, Jones and Wright will be joined by students from Salisbury University as well as members of the Union Baptist Church choir in Easton to recreate the magic of song and memory that rang from the Water’s Edge Museum to other community spaces of the Eastern Shore.

Additional Information:

“Maryland Spirituals Initiative Promotes Healing”

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