Eileen Guenther‘s 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. In Their Own Words: Slave Life and the Power of Spirituals continues to be named a useful tool and resource for musicians, conductors, scholars, teachers, pastors, and singers in programming, performing, and understanding the history of the Spiritual.
David Vogels, CAGO, examined In Their Own Words in a recent issue of American Guild of Organists. Vogels writes: “Slavery, one of the most shameful aspects of American history, has become a focus of cultural attention in recent months. Into the tempest of activity comes a new book by former AGO President, Eileen Guenther, In Their Own Words: Slave Life and the Power of Spirituals…There could be no better time for us musicians to consider the impact of spirituals on our culture.
True to its title, the fabric of the book is woven from these descriptions ‘in their own words.’ It’s not bedtime reading; as Guenther told another interviewer, ‘These are powerful stories. I couldn’t read the slave narratives in bed at night. They haunted my sleep.’ But they do offer a gripping insight into the history of that period, and they are essential to an understanding of the music. ‘Spirituals are snapshots,’ Guenther observes in the book. ‘They paint many-faceted pictures of an enslaved population in the words of slaves as they describe their housing, food, clothing, resistance, and evangelization.’ With that in mind, the book is organized into two major sections, one on history and one on slave life. Each chapter is headed by the title of an appropriate spiritual.
Since Guenther herself doesn’t expect too many working musicians to read the 492-page volume from cover to cover, I asked her for a few practical recommendations. You can get a good perspective, she indicated, by reading the introduction, perhaps the first chapter on the ‘Origins of Spirituals,’ and then Part III, which includes a summary of the evolution of spirituals after the Civil War, an overview of spiritual themes, and a synopsis of the entire book. Guenther also recommended chapter 5, ‘Witness,’ in which numerous spirituals, organized alphabetically, are elucidated by specific slave narratives.”
John M. Bullard wrote a compelling review for the July 2017 issue of The Diapason. “This is an intensely moving book,” Bullard writes.
“[Slavery’s] vile aspect is exposed in Eileen Guenther’s new book as the key motivation in the anonymous creation of Negro Spirituals, which she dubs ‘among the most powerful music ever created.’ Utilizing thousands of primary sources, notably letters by participants and observers and actual interviews in the 1930s with living former slaves in their own words (a project of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration), she paints a truly devastating picture of the most shameful aspects of American slavery. That picture is indispensable to any authentic understanding of the creation of Spirituals, and it helps explain their disarming poignancy when performed.
A most valuable chapter (18) devoted entirely to the Themes of Spirituals, and a concluding chapter (19), Slavery and Spirituals: a Synopsis, wind down this powerful narrative. Finally, and of the usefulness to busy church musician, appear two appendices: A. 100 Spirituals: A Biblical Concordance, and B. 100 Spirituals: A Reverse Concordance. These brief, insightful exegetical comments on the lines of the texts, tie the Spirituals to their biblical roots and enable directors and clergy to make maximum use of this rich heritage in worship and other programming.
Eileen Guenther has provided an authoritative, scholarly, historically, informed, and practical resource that no church musician can now afford to be without. To ignore this indisputable treasure of distinctly American music for worship in these times of sporadic racial disharmony is criminal.”
Eileen Guenther is an initiate of the Beta Beta Sigma Alpha Iota Chapter at the University of Kansas, in addition to an affiliation with the Washington DC Alumnae Chapter. The SAI National Magazine, Pan Pipes, included a review by Rev. Michelle Whitlock (United Methodist Church, Northeastern Pennsylvania) in their Summer 2017 issue.
Whitlock writes, “In Their Own Words: Slave Life and the Power of Spirituals offers a detailed look at the life of slaves and the music they created…The work is very thorough and spans over 400 pages of powerful reflection on the words of slaves and abolitionists.
Guenther‘s unique approach to the work is to employ first hand testimony as a primary source…Who can better share about the life, faith and music of the slaves then slaves themselves? Scholars, musicians, and pastors will find this approach helpful in their work around slavery and spirituals.
Guenther‘s work is detailed and complete. I recommend the entire work…”