On this date in 2015, distinguished New York-based classical music conductor Michael Barrett posted a classic Christian hymn as his “song of the day.” The singer was Jessye Norman, who passed away yesterday at age 74. The song, “Let Us Break Bread Together,” is much older.
An African American spiritual first put on paper in 1925, it emerged out of the Deep South in pre-Civil War times. Evoking the Last Supper, it is sung or played on the organ today during communion at churches all over North America. But its original first verse seems to have been “Let us praise God together.” It is a song about perseverance and unity.
If its provenance is haunting, so is its melody. Over the decades, it has been sung by Paul Robeson as a somber hymn, by Marian Anderson as a sacred and subtle rebuke to Jim Crow, by Joan Baez as an overt protest song, and by millions of Christians as a way to celebrate their faith.
Jessye Norman’s regal interpretation was nothing less than rapturous. And now she belongs to the angels.
In its obituary, the New York Times noted that Jessye Norman was a multiple Grammy Award winner and “a towering figure on operatic, concert and recital stages.” That’s a nice summary of her vast range as an artist, but because it’s the Times there’s also this line: “A keen interpreter as well as a magnificent singer, Ms. Norman had a distinctly opulent tone that sounded effortless, never pushed. It was especially suited to Wagner and Strauss.”
I know that sounds high-tone, and I chuckled when I first read it. But this observation perfectly illustrates the miracle of Jessye Norman in particular, and music in general. How was it that a black woman born in Augusta, Ga., one month after the end of World War II could give voice to two of the greatest German composers of the ages? The short answer is talent, and diligence in developing that talent. The more complete answer entails understanding how songs and faith — and songs about faith — transcend the walls human beings erect around each other.
I first heard “Let Us Break Bread Together” as a pre-teen in a Northern California church. We had moved from the Bay Area to Sacramento because my father took a job covering the state capital for the San Jose Mercury News. My parents searched for a church that fit both their political and spiritual sensibilities, and were led to a small congregation in a black neighborhood. We became one of only two or three white families that belonged to the Oak Park United Church of Christ. It was located at 3308 4th Ave., and headed by a minister with the eponymous name “Chilton Christian.” Although I haven’t laid eyes on the Rev. Christian in 50 years, I still hear his voice any Sunday I’m in church. He had the gift.
The congregation’s social mission led to a decision by the pastor and the deacons to allow the Black Panthers to serve breakfast to needy children before school. The Black Panther Party had opened its Sacramento headquarters on 35th Street, a few blocks away. The breakfast program worked for a while, at least until the Panthers started bringing guns to the church. In 1970, a near-riot occurred as police began rousting the group. A 24-year-old policeman, a Vietnam vet, was assassinated by a sniper while on routine patrol in Oak Park. As Bruce Springsteen would sing about his own hometown, “troubled times, they had come.”
Chilton Christian is long gone now, as are many of the adults I knew in those years at Oak Park UCC. I hope he’s with Jessye Norman now. As for the troubled times, they seem to have returned to this country. Many Americans have concluded that civility and nonviolence are not the solution. The answer to this alienation, of course, is to break bread together. It need not be on our knees, but it must be together.
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