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A Beloved Spiritual, Reimagined

Composer Rollo Dilworth

As religious folksongs go, Bound for the Promised Land—sometimes called On Jordan’s Stormy Banks—is one that has long resonated with African-Americans, observes choral composer Rollo Dilworth.

“The Jordan River was a strong symbol during slavery,” he says, “representing spiritual purification and freedom on the other side, at least metaphysically, even if it couldn’t be achieved on earth.” Post–Civil War, the words gained fresh meaning as African-Americans “related specifically to this notion of crossing through water and throwing off pursuit, making their way to literal freedom.”

Thematically, Soon Ah Will Be Done, the spiritual that Dilworth had intended to adapt for Cantus Novus, is similar; its lyrics also express a longing for a better place. However, “a piece has to click with me so I can conceptualize its rearrangement from beginning to end, even before I start, which didn’t happen here,” he explains. Nor did the minor mode “lend itself to what I had in mind, which was something uplifting and energetic.”
So Dilworth hit the reset button, in more ways than one. Typically, he leads off an adaptation with the original melody, which he then reimagines. With Bound for the Promised Land, the familiar tune appears only halfway through—sung a cappella, as a nod to tradition. Wrapped around this core is “a choral/gospel fantasy of sorts,” with an opening swing rhythm he describes as “almost a shuffle,” harkening to the ring shout, a circular dance-and-chant introduced by plantation slaves.

“I wanted to include modulation,” Dilworth adds, “and I deliberately chose to do so in the interval of a third.” Why? Because of a recurrent lyric pattern in many African-American spirituals, he says—for example, There’s a Great Camp Meeting, “where you sing ‘Walk together children, don’t you get worried’ three times before the next line.” This motif is likely rooted in conversion to Christianity, he notes, “given that the number ‘3’ is so symbolic of the faith.”

Together with the key change, still more traditional elements emerge; Dilworth’s opening melody returns, albeit in call-and-response form. Then comes “a layering effect seen in [African] drumming, where one rhythmic idea is stacked on top of the next.” Bonus feature: By crafting a layer for sopranos, another for altos, and a third for the men, “I’ve also kept the symbolism of ‘three’ going,” he says.

At this point—commonly called the “special chorus”—Dilworth hopes singers and listeners alike will be clapping along spontaneously. “It’s meant to be jubilant and celebratory throughout,” he says, “but the final section is where the gloves come off and the party really starts.”

~by Alissa Poh

Cantus Novus is sponsored in part by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a state agency funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency, by the New York Life Foundation, and by Visit Bucks County Pennsylvania.

Cantus Novus is a member of Chorus America and the Guild for Early Music

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