Program of slave songs to be presented on June 2

Jim Thomas

Jim Thomas and the Slave Song Spirituals Choir will present a program of slave songs at the Northshore UU Church in Danvers on Saturday, June 2, at 4 p.m. Tickets cost $10, and are free for those under 17.

U.S. slave songs are also known as Negro spirituals (circa 1619-1865). Mr. Thomas and the choir bring us the results of research on the significance of slave songs. Our slaves were not Christians. They were not allowed to be. Their music was spiritual, but not of the gospel. What was it and what hidden meanings did it contain?

Spirituals are true American folk songs. There were no new spirituals recorded after the emancipation of the slaves in 1865. Unlike gospel music, spirituals were not composed. U.S. slave songs were a means of communication and always sung in code. Slave songs and spirituals are indeed a fascinating body of work.

Jim Thomas is founder and president of the U.S. Slave Song Project Inc. He serves as narrator and choir director for all events and presentations. Backed by his diverse volunteer Spirituals Choir from Martha’s Vineyard, Mr. Thomas explains the special meanings, codes, and messages in slave music. One song expressed the time of year to escape and be able to cross Northern rivers when frozen, a nighttime journey of over a year. There were vow songs, and songs which said when “helpers,” “conductors,” or angels were near. There were also songs of hope in those Christmas times when families were split by slave auctions.

Mr. Thomas brings his message in as close to the original forms as possible, with original harmonies, African rhythms, call-and-response, the minor pentatonic scale, and “blue notes” that evolved into the blues.

Jim Thomas has given presentations on spirituals in Germany, Brazil, Austria, Sweden, Africa, and various locations across the United States. Since 1976 he has been the founding director of the American Red Cross Chorus at its headquarters in Washington, D.C. He has recruited and directed military choirs in Vietnam and Germany.

While attending Fisk University, Mr. Thomas sang with the world-renowned Fisk Jubilee Singers. Later he sang with the Robert Shaw Chorale in Atlanta, and the Paul Hill Chorale as soloist at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. He served as founding choir director to the MV/NAACP Spirituals Choir from 2005-’07. In 2005 he founded the U.S. Slave Song Project on Martha’s Vineyard. As founding president of the Slave Song Project he makes his home in Stafford, Virginia, and on Martha’s Vineyard.