Giving Credit, Context, and Compensation to the Communities That Created the Spirituals

by Andrea Baxter

As Lutherans, we recognize that “faith is active in love [and] love calls for justice in relationships and structures of society” (ELCA, Social Statement on Church in Society, 1991). That call to strive for justice took on new meaning for my congregation in 2020 when many were struggling anew with the effects of racism. Initial efforts to wrestle with the topic included book studies, small group conversations, and partnerships with other congregations in our neighboring city of Philadelphia. Along the way, we discussed African American spirituals and their use in enriching our worship. Was this use of spirituals considered cultural appropriation? How could we continue to use them in a way that was sensitive and respectful?

When we dug into these questions a bit more, we were reminded that the composers of spirituals were not compensated for their work, nor do they or their estates receive royalties for continued use. On the other hand, we pay licensing fees and report music usage so that known composers of copywritten works can receive payment. We wondered: how could we proactively pay some sort of royalty whenever we sing a spiritual in worship? What process could we establish and where would the money go?

The first step was to determine a recipient. A decision to find an organization that fostered music education in a predominately African American neighborhood seemed right, and the Trenton Children’s Chorus, now under the umbrella organization called Capital Harmony Works, met our criteria. According to their website, “Capital Harmony Works is … an example of what high-quality ensemble music education can do in the lives of children and youth regardless of whether they experience other forms of material abundance.”

The next step was to figure out a process for the collection of “royalties” and how to communicate this new giving opportunity to the congregation. We considered ideas like taking up a separate collection whenever we sing a spiritual in worship, or including a line in our worship budget that would assume a certain amount per spiritual and a certain number of instances per year. For many reasons, neither of these approaches seemed to provide a good solution. In the end, we decided to highlight our mission and the opportunity to give several times per year, but especially when there is a strong contextual connection like Black History Month or Juneteenth.

Additionally, whenever we include spirituals in worship, whether it is a choral arrangement or an assembly song, we communicate information about song origins and context in the bulletin. Longer articles that highlight a specific spiritual and provide more in-depth background go in our quarterly newsletter.

While we have been blessed to be about the work of seeking justice through music, we acknowledge that paying “royalties” for the use of spirituals is inadequate by itself. The love that calls for justice is most fully realized in relationship. Next steps for us include working with Capital Harmony Works to find ways, both musically and socially, to foster new, more personal connections.

Posted on Jun 18, 2024 9:00:00 AM
Filed Under: Music Ministry, Filed Under: race, Filed Under: music, Filed Under: spiritual,

Andrea Baxter

Written by Andrea Baxter

Andrea Baxter currently serves as the Director for Worship Renewal at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lansdale, PA, where she has oversight of the graded children’s music program that she has built, and directs youth and adult choirs in addition to planning worship for Trinity’s three weekly services. She holds a Bachelor of Music in Music Education from Susquehanna University and a Master of Music in Choral Conducting from Carnegie Mellon University. She is on the faculty of the Choristers Guild Institute (CGI), a three-year certification for children’s choir directors, and she has served as a curriculum writer for Growing in Grace, a scripture-based music curriculum for children’s choirs. Andrea resides in Lansdale, PA with her husband and their three sons.