Eileen Guenther on Practical Ways to Use “In Their Own Words”

Eileen Guenther, author of In Their Own Words: Slave Life and the Power of Spirituals, offers some insight on using the book as an effective resource.

On this text’s ability to save time and increase relevance in service:

There are two concordances listing 100 of the most frequently-sung Spirituals that will be of immense help to those planning worship. One gives the texts of the Spirituals, paired with the biblical verses relating to those texts, and the other is the reverse: listing Bible passages and the Spirituals that are connected with them. They will save musicians and clergy a lot of time as they choose music that relates to the scripture used in a given service.

The opening chapter gives a brief history of the Middle Passage and slavery, which sets the context for the Spiritual—and for the issues our country is having relating to race today.Other “go-to” resources are Chapter 5, which pairs slave narratives with a specific Spirituals and Chapter 18, where I have compiled lists of Spirituals as they relate  to the 40 themes addressed most frequently in the music.

On effectively setting up the slave narrative within a program:

The power of the words of those formerly enslaved is nearly indescribable. These words come from two primary sources: the books they dictated or wrote OR from the interviews conducted with them in the 1930s. Those interviewed had to be at least 10 years old at the time of emancipation, so that the stories they shared were more likely to be their own experiences, not experiences they heard from others.

Pairing Spirituals with narratives describing their life and work, their food and clothing, along with the  feelings of those enslaved concerning religion or their hopes for freedom effectively magnifies the power of the music in a way that one must experience first-hand.

On relating the text to today’s marginalized culture:

Many in our country know little of the history of Africans in America: how they came to be here, the horrific conditions in which many lived, or their modes of resistance and other techniques needed to survive the brutality of their daily life. This book attempts to bridge that gap by setting forth the context of their lives and offering a sense of the challenges that were overcome and that, in some ways, are still facing Black Americans today, such as the lack of respect that is experienced by African-Americans on a daily basis, or their basic marginalization from the hegemonic culture—both socially and economically. In Their Own Words also gives a clear picture of the power of music to engender both hope and faith in a situation where there would have been seemingly no reason for either of them to have existed, much less flourish.

On reactions since the book came out:

“WOW! I have sung Spirituals all my life and I never knew that!” is one of the most frequent responses to my programs or lectures. “That music really speaks to me,” spoken by people regardless of race. “I can’t believe you did all that work,” is another! I am fortunate to have received amazingly positive reviews, but my favorite words have to be from the most recent review by M. Roger Holland for Pastoral Music, “This has to be the most comprehensive work done on the Negro Spiritual to date.”


Eileen Guenther

Eileen Guenther is Professor of Church Music at Wesley Theological Seminary and Professorial Lecturer in music at The George Washington University. An organ recitalist who has performed around the world, Dr. Guenther also lectures widely on clergy-musician relations, global music, spirituals, and music and social justice. She has served as visiting lecturer at Africa University in Zimbabwe and taught music and worship in Uganda and Ivory Coast. South Africa holds a special place in her heart, and she has led six groups of students from Wesley Seminary on immersion trips there. Dr. Guenther served with distinction as minister of music and liturgy at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington D.C, where the choir was called “one of the best in Washington” by The Washington Post. She is a previous National President of the American Guild of Organists, the largest international professional organization serving the organ and choral music fields.

About In Their Own Words:
This groundbreaking study of slavery and spirituals is the first to place the unique voices of an enslaved people squarely within the context of their daily lives. Dr. Guenther’s deeply researched account weaves a succinct history of “America’s original sin” into an examination of the role of singing and religion in slave life and directly correlates slave testimonies—in their own words—to the themes of Spirituals. In addition to surveying the musical styles, performance practices, and melodic and rhythmic characteristics of spirituals, In Their Own Words includes a biblical concordance to 100 of the spirituals most frequently sung.

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