It’s that time of year, folks! When summer rolls around here in the Pacific Northwest, I want nothing more than to be at the campground, preferable with my feet in the river or with my people around a campfire. I want to sing, I want to laugh, I want to feel the gratitude for the natural world around me and the people with whom I live in it.
For you all, my students, that means one thing:
Ukulele Campfire Classes
The original inspiration for my Ukulele by Ear class series, Ukulele Campfire classes feature songs you would likely hear sung, as you might expect, around the campfire! Each year, I feature a different topic or themed collection of songs, but they’re always fairly simple in organization, repeat their chord and lyric patterns a lot, and have no more than 4 chords. We focus in on no more than eight songs to study for six weeks, learning a variety of techniques for playing by ear. You know, so you don’t have to shlep your music stands all that way. 😉
Here’s what’s in store for this year’s edition of Ukulele Campfire …
Ukulele Campfire: Spirituals of the Fisk Jubilee Singers
I’m guessing you’ve sung songs like Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and Wade in the Water with folks before? (As in, at one of our ukulele jams?) Maybe O Mary Don’t You Weep or Down By the Riverside? But I bet you don’t know the group of singers from Tennessee who are largely responsible for the fact that you know these songs.
Fisk Free Colored School, which quickly became Fisk University, was founded in Nashville, Tennessee in 1866 in an effort to offer organized education to black folks, especially former slaves. To raise money for the expansion of the school’s programs, treasurer and music director George White lead a student choir on a concert tour. They sang a variety of pieces from the classical choral repertoire, but found audiences were most moved by the songs they sang that were originally sung by slaves: we know them today as “spirituals”. These days, the Fisk Jubilee Singers recently celebrated their 150th anniversary and continue to keep spirituals at the center of their repertoire.
Spirituals are a specific genre of Christian music associated not just with the black church but specifically with the black experience of slavery and oppression. The singing of spirituals was an essential form and mode of communication and education for the black community. At first listen, we may hear simple retellings of common stories from the Bible. However, in the process of learning these songs, myself, I’ve found them to be remarkable expressions of love, strength, and faith.
Spirituals Song List
This term, I’ll be teaching eight songs performed and recorded by the Fisk Jubilee Singers as the topic of my Ukulele Campfire class series:
- O Mary Don’t You Weep
- Down By the Riverside (Study War No More)
- There is a Balm in Gilead
- Gospel Train
- Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
- Wade in the Water
- Hold On (Gospel Plow)
- Go Down, Moses
As time allows, we will also listen to and learn songs derived from these Spirituals, most commonly during the Civil Rights Era, including Get on Board Children (from Gospel Train) and Eyes on the Prize (from Hold On).
Ukulele Campfire: Songs from Summer of Soul
The Summer of 1969 is known for a lot of things in American history, including the moon landing and the Woodstock Music Festival. However, before either of those events took place, thousands of residents and visitors to Harlem neighborhood of New York City for the Harlem Cultural Festival. For six weeks, each Sunday at 3:00pm in Mt. Morris Park, host Tony Lawrence welcomed the likes of B.B. King, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, The Staple Singers, Stevie Wonder, and on and on the list goes. At the end of a decade of intense struggle for civil rights, it was a celebration of black music, black culture, and black excellence in arts and activism.
The festival was filmed, but the tapes soon ended up in a basement for the better part of the last 50 years. However, in recent years, a group of editors and producers began working with the footage. Musician, producer, and writer Questlove was brought on to direct what would become the 2021 Oscar-winning and widely acclaimed documentary Summer of Soul.
It will not surprise you, perhaps, that this folky white girl had never heard of this festival, which took place long before I was born. So, I was particularly grateful for the opportunity to learn more about the event and the artists featured. But I found myself most appreciative of and moved by the historical context the film offers around this event. Interspersed between tapes of live performances, festival artists and attendees are shown watching the footage and reflecting on their experience and what it meant to them. As Gladys Knight reflects, “It wasn’t just about the music.”
What was it about? I encourage you to watch the film so you can determine your own take. For me, it was about the diversity of black culture and music – from the gospel music of Mahalia Jackson to the blues of B.B. King, from the protest music of Nina Simone to the fusion of Latin and African rhythms by Mongo Santamaria. These diverse artists spoke and sang and played powerful messages from the stage to a diverse audience, and certainly reminded me of the complexity, the beauty, and – I’m sorry, I just have to say it – the SOUL found in all genres of traditionally black music.
Spirituals Song List
This term, I’ll be teaching seven songs performed by the artists featured in Summer of Soul. While technically listed as part of my Ukulele Campfire class series, there will be some elements of my more traditional Theme Study class series, as well. Here are the songs we’ll learn:
- Everyday People – Sly and the Family Stone
- It’s Been a Change – The Staple Singers
- My Girl – David Ruffin (of The Temptations)
- I Heard It Through the Grapevine – Gladys Knight and the Pips
- I Wish I Knew How It Feels To Be Free – Nina Simone
- Aquarius / Let the Sunshine In – The 5th Dimension
- Why I Sing the Blues – B.B. King
Sign me up!
Ukulele Campfire classes will be taught live on Zoom (6 weeks) *and* in person (4 weeks) in Portland, Oregon, beginning the week of July 4. Those who can’t make class times or prefer to work on their own may sign up for a Self-Paced email version of the class (6 weeks). If you’d like to do some combo of the above options, please let me know.
Learn more and register for Ukulele Campfire: Spirituals of the Fisk Jubilee Singers.
Learn more and register for Ukulele Campfire: Summer of Soul.
I can’t wait to learn and play these songs with you! See you in class …