|Marla Dixon, with all-star support, singing 'Over in the Gloryland'|
Among the most popular titles are:
By and By
On Revival Day
Where He Leads Me
I began to wonder how it came about that such tunes have a place alongside the old pop songs, blues and rags in our repertoire.
It's easy to believe the myth that spirituals were sung in the cotton fields by toiling slaves in the mid-Nineteenth Century and that - when jazz bands came into being - they would have played them and from about 1910 would have 'jazzed them up'.
But I'm not sure it's that simple. I have found no evidence that this happened. For example, can somebody please let me know of any recordings of spirituals or hymns by jazz bands before 1927? I think there's nothing in the early recordings of the ODJB, King Oliver, Kid Ory and so on.
Until somebody does, I prefer the following explanation.
In 1927, Columbia Records twice recorded the great Sam Morgan Band in New Orleans. The recordings were made in the Godchaux Building, 527, Canal Street. Four tunes were recorded on each occasion. The resulting eight recordings are still considered a hugely important part of the history of traditional jazz and have influenced hundreds of bands over the decades.
The legend is that - like other jazz bands - the Sam Morgan Band played mostly for dancing and did not include religious music in its dance hall repertoire. However, one of the recording engineers was very keen on such tunes as Down By The Riverside and suggested that Sam's band should record them.
So the Band included three 'spirituals' in the eight recordings - and the rest is history: if Sam could do it, why not the rest of us?
Apparently trumpet-player Isaiah Morgan (Sam's brother) in a later interview made the point that jazz bands such as theirs might have played hymns and spirituals at funerals but would not have used religious music for dancing.
By 1940, it became commonplace for the most influential traditional jazz musicians to record spirituals. Think of George Lewis, Bunk Johnson, Louis Armstrong.
Quite a few spirituals we play - including some in my list above - were composed not in the days of slavery but in the days when jazz bands were already well established.
Here's a stirring modern example of a spiritual in a jazz band performance. In this video, we see two of the best bands in the world joining together to perform Over in the Gloryland - one of those spirituals made famous in 1927 by Sam Morgan: CLICK HERE.
My book Enjoying Traditional Jazz is available from Amazon.