James McBride, jazz musician and acclaimed author of The Color of Water, once gave a reading in Philadelphia that I’ll never forget. He talked about visiting a cancer ward and realizing that “cancer doesn’t care whether you’re rich or poor. It doesn’t discriminate.”
On a more hopeful note, the same thing can be said of creativity.
Think about it: most of the great composers came from modest backgrounds. Many were downright poor. In our own country, some of our most eloquent voices were beyond poor — they didn’t even own the right to their own lives.
I’m talking about the African-Americans who, while enduring the inhumane conditions of slavery, composed the great body of work known as the Spiritual. In researching American music history for a concert and talk I just gave at Haverford College, I was humbled to learn how these anonymous composers, whose music was passed aurally from generation to generation, were able to create, out of such unendurable conditions, music that encompasses the entire range of human emotion. These works rank, in my opinion, with the finest art songs ever composed.
What led to the creation of the Spiritual? In the 18th and 19th centuries, in rural areas in the South, whites and blacks often attended the same Sunday morning church service. Hearing the Biblical text and Christian hymns with their traditionally European harmonic settings, African-Americans would take that material and, through their belief and genius, transform both lyrics and harmony into something utterly unique. Spirituals like “Deep River,” “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” “Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley,” and so on — hundreds on record — express every relationship between God and man, from praise to suffering.
We can’t know how the earliest Spirituals sounded. But written accounts describe a compelling use of ensemble singing, fresh harmony, and syncopated rhythm that were clearly African-influenced.
Eventually, spirituals gave way to gospel music. The infectious blending of African rhythm and harmony with European harmonies and instrumentation gave rise to ragtime, jazz, blues, rock and roll, and are still continually evolving into an American music that has come to influence the world.
Which reminds me once again that money does not provide the breeding ground for the production of great art. Great art comes from creative intuition and freedom of expression, and the powerful exchange of cultural ideas. Nothing could be more divine.