Have you ever had an opportunity to sing African-American spirituals? Have you ever heard of Jester Hairston? If not, you’re in for a treat! I am one lucky girl, because I had the greatest high school choral music director ever, Ed Brahams. Now, it would be hard to pinpoint the greatest moment I had in those glorious years of singing with Ed, but one of the most memorable was getting to meet and work with the great African-American composer/conductor/singer/actor Jester Hairston, who just happened to be a good friend of Ed’s! We did an entire concert of his fabulous repertoire of deeply emotional spirituals, and continued singing them throughout those high school years. Always exciting, moving, and crowd-pleasing, they were a joy for us to sing, and an even greater joy for the audiences to hear.
If you don’t know what a spiritual actually is, the New Harvard Dictionary of Music defines it as: “the religious songs of blacks beginning in the 19th century, a repertoire genuinely African-American in character, and largely transmitted orally… They were collected in the late 19th century, and were introduced to white audiences in the U.S. and Europe in 1871 by the Fisk University Jubilee Singers, which led to the production of numerous choral arrangements in the 20th Century that are widely sung by whites and blacks alike”. I’d say that’s a rather dry description of such a vibrant and uniquely-American art form! The foremost interpreter, champion, and leading expert on this music in the 20th Century was the great Jester Hairston.
His most famous work, “Amen” was featured in the charming Oscar-winning movie, “Lilies of the Field” starring Sidney Poitier, in 1963. The wonderfully humorous story of a traveling handyman who helps a group of nuns build a chapel in the desert was a smash success, and Jester Hairston’s song became its emblem. He dubbed the singing voice for Poitier in the film, and the song became a top-ten hit in 1964. Take a look at this delightful clip from the movie:
Jester Hairston also wrote another top-ten hit of its day, the lovely Christmas piece, “Mary’s Boy Child” which was recorded by Harry Belafonte in 1956, and has become a standard in the Christmas repertoire today. Give a listen:
Others of you may know Jester Hairston from the 1970’s TV comedy, That’s My Mama, or from his 1960’s film work in “To Kill A Mockingbird” “The Alamo” and in “In the Heat of the Night”, just to name a few. Hairston’s performing career even went as far back as the 1930’s, where he played Leroy on the famous “Amos ’n Andy” radio series for 15 years. But the Julliard-educated Hairston spent the majority of his career singing, composing, conducting, arranging, and directing choirs for Hollywood films as well as Broadway musicals, and after starting his own choral groups at colleges and high schools, even toured Europe for the U.S. State Department in 1961.
Now, back to my magical time with Jester… Not only did he work with my high school choir on every one of his pieces musically, technically and artistically, but he shared very personal stories with us that inspired the composition of each song. He told us how he used to sit at the knee of his grandmother, a former slave, and listen to her very profound and inspirational experiences. Her faith and perspective on life impressed her grandson deeply, and flowed into the very words and music of each of his incredible compositions. One of my favorites, and one I think of often during times of trouble– “Hold On!” This terrific recording from the Vancouver Youth Choir reminds me of my high school choir days:
Another truly moving spiritual of Jester’s is “Walk with Me”. I love how the rhythmic ostinato of the “walk with me, oh Lord” in the lower voices actually feels like walking, as the sopranos soar through the main melody:
Lest you think that all spirituals are melancholy, here’s a really fun piece, conducted by Jester himself at the 1990 International Choir Festival, and one of the most widely performed of his arrangements, “Elijah Rock”:
I could go on and on! You owe it to yourself to discover and enjoy the many compositions and arrangements made by this most talented, and yet humble man, whose far-reaching influence in the music world, and especially as an expert in African-American spirituals and choral music will never be forgotten. Go to You Tube and enter his name– you’ll find over two hundred videos that feature his pieces, and also some interviews and retrospectives as well. His works range from jubilant to extremely poignant, and anyone who sings or listens to a Jester Hairston spiritual can’t help but be uplifted, inspired and moved emotionally. I know I will never forget the man or his music, and its impact on my life. I hope you, too, will say “Amen” to Jester Hairston spirituals!