Deep River

I set out this Summer to give a bit of an introduction into different music from around the world. My goal was to provide enriching context to familiar and unfamiliar hymns. From my American Protestant perspective, I introduced hymns from other parts of the world, but elsewhere in the world, American hymnody is ‘other’ so I’m switching gears and introducing some American Christian communities through their music. This week, I want to introduce an African American Spiritual, Deep River. Its 19th century origins in the songs of slaves, and rise throughout the 20th century, give it a rich historical depth.

Marian Anderson’s rendition of “Deep River” helped popularize this hymn, introducing it to White American audiences in the mid-20th century.

Verse 1: Deep river/ My home is over Jordan/ Deep river/ I want to crossover into campground

There is already more than enough layers in this first verse to occupy the rest of this blog post. Howard Thurman’s book, Deep River and the Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death would probably be a great, if lengthy, diversion here. My introduction is necessarily less involved, but if you do want to learn more about Spirituals, I recommend Thurman.

The imagery of rivers, particularly Jordan river, is much discussed in African American Spirituals. Rivers signify borders or transitions into new existence, either spiritual (crossing into heaven, or a new way of being) or concrete, such as the crossing over the Ohio River into freedom. Deep River is so powerful, in part, because it is so rich in its metaphors. For more about these metaphors (but less than Thurman’s entire book), I recommend you check out this article.

Rather than teach my readership the song and the words, I instead recorded an organ setting of this Spiritual by organist and composer David Hurd. Although slavery as it was practiced at the origins of this hymn is no longer present, there are still many other ways we have found to oppress and dehumanize others. Hurd’s setting speaks to me of the waters of transition, particularly in the first and final sections. The left hand has a sort of undulating that, to me, seems reminiscent of water. It’s not an entirely gentle water, either. The augmented chords and the fast tempo could almost represent dangerous water to cross. The middle section is calmer and much more lyrical than the previous pages. I think of it as a meditation on the idea of ‘campground,’ a metaphor for freedom, heaven, or other form of deliverance. Its contrast with the powerful first and last sections adds even more layers of understanding and metaphor.

The last aspect of this hymn and prelude I want to consider is its form and place in a worship service, particularly in American Protestant Christian services. Hurd is largely known an Episcopal musician, but his career has been influential across the board in sacred music. “Deep River” comes from a suite titled “Four Spiritual Preludes”, a genre generally for use at the beginning of a worship service or for introducing a hymn. I find performances of any music from a culture I’m not as familiar with to be heightened by learning about the origins of that music (which you may have noticed I am doing in all these posts). As a White American, I’m particularly mindful of the gap between the origins of this spiritual and its use in (White Protestant) worship, now. Honestly, there are no easy answers as some people will understandably call out cultural appropriation while others will see this as an opportunity for cultural dialog and perspective-expansion, which is what I have attempted here. I doubt Hurd would have published this music if he didn’t want it shared and performed. None of us has a monopoly on the truth and revelation of God: human understanding is by definition limited! But if I had to come up with a theology for any of this cultural exploration, it would be something like this: when in our churches we learn the music from other countries, communities, and cultures, we learn a little about that group’s experience of the Divine, which invites us to a greater exploration of God in our own lives. I’m sure I’m not the only person out there talking about this, but in my necessarily limited worldview, I don’t have anyone I can directly point you to… yet. 😆

I didn’t set myself an easy task in providing even a cursory introduction to a hymn that is so rich in meaning, history, and musicality. There’s so much more I would like to explore with you, but for now we can continue the discussion in the comments below and in listening to other renditions of Deep River.

Organist (and host of this blog) Heather Kirkconnell plays a setting of our hymn this week.

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