Repertoire Forum: Spirituals

SBO Staff • ChoralNovember 2012Repertoire Forum • December 4, 2012

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By John C. Hughes

For many choirs and audiences, spiritual arrangements are the highlight of concerts. Although the following is certainly incomplete, I’ve listed some of my favorite arrangements below. Some are “barnburners,” while others have interesting histories and subtexts. Take time to explore the depth of these works and how they fit into the tapestry of American history; spirituals can be much more than a flashy show piece. For more information on the history and performance practice of the spiritual idiom, I cannot recommend highly enough André J. Thomas’s book, Way Over In Beulah Lan’: Understanding and Performing the Negro Spiritual (Heritage Music Press, 2007).


“The Drinking Gourd”
Arr. André J. Thomas
Heritage Music Press

André J. Thomas is a renowned conductor, teacher, and composer. When working on this underground railroad song, take the time not only to learn the notes and rhythms, but also to discuss the piece’s background and meaning. With a wonderful piano part, interesting rhythms, and dramatic shifts, both choirs and audiences with enjoy this piece. Performing a piece like this truly helps students emotionally connect with American history.

“Great Day!”
Arr. Rollo Dilworth
Hal Leonard

This arrangement of “Great Day!” has all the elements discerning choir directors have come to expect from Rollo Dilworth. His understanding of the young voice is evident in his writing. The call and response texture makes this piece a great introduction into harmony. Add in his exciting piano part, and Dilworth’s arrangement stands out as a wonderful choice for developing voices.


“Good News!”
Arr. André J. Thomas
Heritage Music Press
Medium Easy

Feature the young men in your choir with this arrangement of the popular spiritual, “Good News!” This arrangement has an infectious melody that everyone is sure to enjoy. Thomas adds excitement and fervor through the blue notes. The frequent repetition of the refrain makes learning this piece go very quickly. This arrangement is also available in a SSA voicing.


“Soon-Ah Will Be Done”
Arr. William Dawson
Neil A. Kjos Publishing

While many wonderful new arrangements of spirituals are published every year, it is worthwhile to perform spirituals that helped secure the idiom’s rightful place in choral music. The fundamentals of this piece are fairly straightforward; however, the piece requires expressive and artistic nuance. Help guide students towards an understanding of the emotional depth of this work. Dawson’s arrangement is also available in a SATB voicing.


“Elijah Rock”
Jester Hairston
Bourne Music
Medium Easy

Jester Hairston was another composer and arranger who helped establish the choral spiritual. This is his most famous arrangement and often appears on festival and honor choir repertoire lists. There is also a SATB voicing available.


“Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit”
Arr. Rosephanye Powell
Fred Bock Music

There are many great arrangements of this spiritual, and Powell’s fits right in with the best of them. She writes well and creates a captivating musical experience. It is unaccompanied, so strong intonation and sense of ensemble are needed. However, the hard work this piece requires will be worth it at the concert. Rehearsal and performance CDs are available.

“Listen to the Lambs”
R. Nathaniel Dett
G. Schirmer, Inc.

R. Nathaniel Dett has a thought-provoking and inspiring life story. Born in Canada in 1882, he grew up in a home where, due to financial struggles, only his older brothers were able to take piano lessons. However, Dett’s hard work, talent, and determination carried him far, and he graduated from Oberlin College. This arrangement is particularly interesting because Dett draws upon the spiritual model for inspiration, but infuses it with Romantic stylistic elements. “Listen to the Lambs” is a wonderful choice for choirs.


“Wade in the Water”
Arr. Moses Hogan/ed. Purifoy and Day
Hal Leonard
Medium Easy

What listing of spirituals would be complete without one by Moses Hogan? While all choir directors probably have their favorites by Hogan, this new edition by Purifoy and Day adapts Hogan’s superb arranging style to fit the needs of younger voices. With an added piano part and simplified voicing, developing choirs can also enjoy Hogan’s sense of drama and deep expressivity.


“My God Is a Rock”
Arr. Alice Parker and Robert Shaw
Alfred Music Publishing

Alice Parker and Robert Shaw’s arrangements are among the most beloved in the American choral repertory. “My God Is a Rock” has superb choral writing, expressive text setting, and powerful emotional import. Feature a baritone in your choir through the moving solo.–00-LG51107.aspx

“My Lord, What a Mornin’”
arr. Harry T. Burleigh
Alfred Music Publishing
Medium Advanced

While many spirituals work well as closers because of their grandiosity, Burleigh’s “My Lord, What a Mornin’” is different. It begins and ends very softly and quite slowly. The moving text, which deals with loss, is expertly set by Burleigh. The piece builds to a stupendous climax, where there is significant divisi (however, this is very accessible). Then, the piece retreats to its former sublimity. Burleigh’s sincere arrangement will captivate audiences.–00-FCC00412.aspx


“Ride on King Jesus”
Arr. Stacey V. Gibbs
Colla Voce

Stacey V. Gibbs is quickly rising to the top of current arrangers of spirituals. His pieces are always expertly crafted, heartfelt, and musically satisfying. This particular arrangement has been on several reading lists and festivals in 2012. Gibbs strikes a balance of treating the familiar melody in new and innovative ways while maintaining the overall structure and character of the piece. A true barnburner, “Ride on King Jesus” will have audiences on their feet.

John C. Hughes is a versatile choral musician and pedagogue, drawing from experience as a K-12 teacher, collegiate conductor, and church musician. Presently, Hughes is pursuing the D.M.A. in Choral Conducting and Pedagogy at The University of Iowa, as well as serving as music director at The Congregational United Church of Christ in Iowa City. Please contact him directly at his website:

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