In Their Own Words

Presentation Description

This presentation is based on Eileen Guenther’s recently-published book tracing the heart of the Spiritual and using this music to tell the compelling and soul-crushing story of slavery in the United States. This book, In Their Own Words: Slave Life and the Power of Spirituals, has received overwhelmingly enthusiastic reviews. It was recently described in a review by M. Roger Holland III, director of The Spirituals Project at the University of Denver (published in the journal Pastoral Music) as “the most comprehensive work done on the ‘Negro spiritual’ to date’. In this book, the music forms the foundation for exploring the lives of slaves through “their own words” as they struggled with “the vital human issues of life and death, hope and despair, slavery and freedom.”

In this interactive program, Guenther combines the singing of Spirituals (by the group, soloists, or choirs) with two primary sources: narratives written by those enslaved and the words of interviews former slaves gave in the 1930s, demonstrating first-hand the power of the music. She also offers an overview of some of the forty subjects found in the Spirituals, subjects revealing issues integral to the culture of slavery ranging from family, labor, escape and punishment, to faith, comfort, hope, and freedom — "always freedom." Typical of the responses to this program are: “I have sung this music all my life and I never knew that” and “It was profoundly and deeply moving.” There are significant gaps in the historic and cultural education of many Americans; the music and the texts of this presentation not only shine a light on the events of the past, but also serve as a means of hope and reconciliation in the present.

Presentation Responses

One of the highlights of the 2019 AGO Mid-Atlantic Regional Convention in Haddonfield, NJ, was A Concert of Spirituals. It was led by Dr. Eileen Guenther, who masterfully designed and narrated the event.

Held in the historic Haddonfield Quaker Meeting House, whose members were staunch abolitionists who assisted runaway slaves navigating the Underground Railroad, Dr. Guenther talked about the meaning and codes of the spirituals, which were then sung with great intensity and emotion by the marvelous Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Barbara Dever, perfectly accompanied by Eric Plutz.

It was a memorable event!
— Joe Routon
A Great Joy to sing today for this wonderful event! Thank you Joe Routon, Eric Plutz and Eileen Guenther! May the stories be told and the songs be sung for ages to come!
— Barbara Dever
I wanted you to know that I bought your book long ago, read it cover to cover, and had been looking forward to your program on spirituals with Millicent for several months. It was what I had been hoping for—it was intense, illuminating, and uplifting. Your commentary really reflected what you described in such detail in the book, and, believe me, that was a true eye-opener. My husband and I both now have a greater appreciation of the beauty, meaning, and importance of this music.

Your presentation has set a new standard for our annual gathering. I enjoyed meeting you and assisting with your book sale. Thanks to you and to Millicent for agreeing to do this wonderful program for us.
— Judy Cosgriff
This morning I participated in a spirituals sermon. It was an entire church service dedicated to the history of slavery and how spirituals came about. This was in a a 99% white church curated by Eileen Guenther with the Rockville United Church chorus conducted by Jim Levy. It truly moved me because this entire congregation was doing its level best to authentically and sincerely understand the pain of slavery and their white privilege. I was moved as I was singing as I haven’t done spirituals in a very long time. This kind of performance can, in my opinion, bring spiritual healing and reconciliation to Americans thru the understanding of the meaning and beauty of the spiritual. I was blessed this morning.

#healing #spirituals #africanamerican #music #negrospirituals #understanding #church #onechurchatatime #onepersonatatime #wereallinthistogether #wereallfamily
— Alison
Powerful...is the word that came to my mind yesterday so many times during the concert. Not only were the voices and piano powerful, but also the messages behind the readings and the words sung. Thank You so very much indeed for the concert.
— Anonymous
I really enjoyed your concert on yesterday. My heart is still rejoicing, and I am going to order the book as soon as I finish writing this message. As we discussed yesterday, it is not often that an academic product reaches and touches the hearts of so many. Your book and program did just that and I am so thankful. The world needs to hear the stories and songs.
— Tommie
Having recently attended the National Sacred Music Conference here in Charlotte, I was really impressed with your presentation - your overall comments and your utilization of quotes from slaves and former slaves along with the singing of selected Spirituals.
— Reta
Thank you, Eileen, for sharing your ideas, thoughts and knowledge on this subject. More than once, just by singing these songs, the emotional connection that these particular songs inspire made itself clear to me, a goosebump or a tear.
— Lynne
She shared her knowledge of slave life and the spirituals that gave those slaves hope while we participated by giving readings and singing along. Just a very inspiring presentation!
— Becky
Thank you for sharing your passion with us. I will always remember it. You are an exceptionally good teacher!
— Ann
This concert was the most meaningful one I have sung in, in many years (along with the music of the Civil War concert). The music, the spirituals, are part of our collective consciousness, no matter what race we are. Slavery is a stain on our nation’s history, and the music that came from the experience of the enslaved, is so drenched with emotion as to be almost overwhelming to sing. Most of us grew up with many of these songs, and singing them in 4-8 part harmony, in exquisite arrangements, was pure pleasure! The range of emotions evoked in the music, from deepest sorrow to jubilation, was exhilarating!

Eileen Guenther’s narration was spot on. Several audience members told me that they learned a lot about slavery, and about the music, and appreciated her down-to-earth style of speaking.

I just wish we could do the whole thing over again! I already miss the music, although it is still rolling around in my head.
— Katharine
I have been wanting to tell you how much I enjoyed the concert. The music was presented so beautifully with the readings, and the soloist was amazing, of course.
— Laura
I have to tell you your concert this afternoon was so powerful in song and dialog. I loved it and so many songs brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for your efforts and performance...it was a wonderful experience!! I attended the pre-tutorial with Dr. Eileen and that was very good…it set the stage for the performance in a very meaningful way. Those that continued the dialog, including Dr. Eileen and the others, thru the performance, along with the professional performance of Millicent allowed the music and its message to be a real impact.
— Dorothy
You all did a masterful job! ‘Who Will Be a Witness’ was a real success. Dr. Guenther showed off her ability to hold an audience, Millicent Scarlett provided the authenticity that was needed, and both choral groups were “right on key.”. Kudos to all!
— Corren
What a fabulous and fun concert that was! Thank you for bringing us Eileen and Millicent. What a dynamic duo! They should definitely take their “show on the road.” And Millicent’s voice – OMG!

I’m actually going to get this written…fully *intended* since your spring concert…and such is the status of many of my intentions lately.

SO! per an email I received congratulating singers for spring and announcing next season, I thought I’d add to the mix that yes indeed, you certainly got people to talking…
At intermission:
’Really learning a lot!’
’Educational, isn’t it?’
— Karen
Very provocative conversation about slavery and basically ‘white guilt’ happening between two ladies as they were exiting down the hall.

However, I think one of the most impressive comments came at intermission when I overheard folks behind me saying: WOW! The conductor is really sharing the stage!! That’s highly unusual. So many are getting a chance to be highlighted. Most conductors won’t do that.

And I would add to that - yes indeed, and I understand the *courage* it takes to do just that, having done so myself. So I bow to your courage and vision to see that having the young people share, including their young conductor is like passing along a legacy…and encourages them to keep on singing…having not one but two top PROS grace the stage and share their talents, each in a different way, is absolutely mesmerizing! It created a thread of continuity that I hunger for in concerts and was happily satisfied at concert’s end.
— Celia
Thank you for coming yet again to bring us the Slave Story in such a passionate, beautiful way. We all need to hear it. Our African American residents must be appreciative and proud to hear this music presented so beautifully with the stories that only they can tell.

We of the ‘other’ group must have a pang of conscience when hearing these stories and weep, with them, at the deep meaning of their music. Having Millicent to help you present is a special privilege and honor.
— Norman and Cathy
I was so pleased that I was able to be present at your session in Richmond. This was very enlightening and quite ground breaking, especially in this part of the Confederacy and in the current climate.
— Michael

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