Choreographer Alvin Ailey’s “Blood Memories”: Revelations Turns 50
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Revelations, the choreographic masterpiece of the late Alvin Ailey. The dance tells the story of the African-American experience and the struggle to resist and transcend oppression seeded by slavery and arrive at a collective liberation as a people.
Since its New York City debut in 1960, Revelations has been performed in 71 countries on six continents. The musical score features traditional spirituals — some of them echoing songs Joe Carter sang for us, including “Wade in the Water” and “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?”
In “Celebrating Revelations at 50,” Alvin Ailey and artistic director Judith Jamison reflect on the meaning, spiritual roots, and enduring legacy of this dance work. As Ailey describes:
“The first dances I ever made were what I like to call ‘blood memories.’ My roots are also in the gospel churches of the South where I grew up. Holy blues. Paeans to joy. Anthems to the human spirit.”
In the finale of its concluding suite “Move Members Move!” the female dancers are outfitted in their Sunday church best with long yellow dresses, matching fans, and elegant hats. As company member Briana Reed explained to The New York Times, Ailey dancers are trained to hold their hands and elbows in very specific ways: “not by your hip, like you’re being sassy, but up near your ribs, so that it gives the upper body a more dignified carriage.”
The significance of dignity is something Joe Carter spoke about too. The spirituals provided a path for expressing and claiming one’s dignity within the constraints of a demeaning, all-encompassing racist social system. As Joe Carter tells it, they helped slaves to articulate hope through song:
“[T]hey were the expression of the great pain and the sorrow. But at the same time, they were always looking upward. They were always reaching. There was always some level of hope, as opposed to the concept of the blues. The blues was just singing about your troubles, and there was no hope. But there’s always the glory hallelujah someplace saying, ‘Oh, and on that glory hallelujah, then we fly.’”
Joe Carter’s voice carries forward through the words of Judith Jamison describing Ailey’s artistic vision for the rousing concluding phrase of Revelations:
“He understood about when someone would chug down the aisle because they had that spirit going through them. They weren’t just doing a dance. They actually felt something. And it was their great faith, and their great belief. We are joyous in that we see hope from despair. Always. It is never-ending hope.”
(photo: Ailey Archives)
The Negro Spiritual’s Sophisticated Theology
by Krista Tippett, host
I once met an American tourist who went to Siberia — and was peppered with questions about Joe Carter. Joe had made one of his riveting educational presentations about the African-American spiritual there, and had indelibly impressed his audience. His would forever be the glorious face they put on all people and things American. Joe’s presence — his voice, his spirit, and his life — made the world a more generous place.
And I love hearing Joe’s voice and sending it out into the world again — resurrection by radio. This show was special from the first. We sat in a spacious chamber where orchestras record — Joe and his pianist and I. And as we talked about the spirituals, Joe periodically stood up and sang to illustrate his points. We enjoyed ourselves immensely, and that enjoyment is audible in the final production.
It was revelatory to take this staple of American culture, as the spiritual has become — musical lines we can sing without thinking — and ask questions of it. It was painful to be reminded, foundationally, that this music had its genesis in slavery. Anonymous bards authored the body of work of some 5,000 songs that we know as the spiritual. Each song typically expresses a single sentiment or message, often born of grief.
These melodies and words, as Joe helped me understand, convey a sophisticated theology of suffering. It is a theology that leans into suffering — and in surrender, transforms and rises above it, if only in moments. Such moments are nurturing and sustaining. Human beings across the world have experienced this directly through hearing and singing the spirituals, generations later and in radically different contexts.
“The thing we find,” Joe said, “is that in the midst of all of the most horrible pain, some of these powerful individuals lived transcendent, shining lives. They were able to be loving and forgiving in the midst of it all. Mammy was taking care of master’s baby. She could have smothered that child. But she loved the child like it was her own child, because there was something in her faith that said, ‘You’re supposed to be loving, you’re supposed to be kind, you’re supposed to be forgiving — and there’s no excuse if you’re not…’ The ancestors knew that the worst kind of bondage is that which takes place on the inside. And when we look back to the slavery days we were bound, but it was the master who was really the slave. And I think some of us understand that now.”
I asked Joe whether he — himself a grandson of slaves — couldn’t reasonably begrudge the way in which white Americans have appropriated the spiritual, embraced it as their own. But that question was mine, not his. In Siberia and Africa and Wales, he says, these songs speak directly to the human will to survive precisely when the worst has happened. They have become symbolic of a universal yearning for freedom — “that part of us all which says, ‘I will not be defeated.’” We rebroadcast this hour in celebration of Joe Carter’s gifts of wisdom and music that echo vitally beyond his death.
And, if you’re interested in learning more, I recommend reading The Books of American Negro Spirituals by James Weldon Johnson. Joe Carter brought a battered, treasured early volume of this work with him to our interview. There is a 2002 combined volume of the two seminal collections of sheet music, history, and commentary that Johnson published in 1925 and 1926. They remain among the most significant reference resources ever compiled on this musical genre. Johnson’s prefaces are elegant and moving. Chapters are devoted to the most significant known spirituals. “As the years go by and I understand more about this music and its origin,” Johnson writes, “the miracle of its production strikes me with increasing wonder.”
“Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”
» download (mp3, 3:22)
Andy Dayton, Associate Web Producer
I’ve had this song in my head all week. It’s the late Joe Carter’s rendition of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” recorded during Krista’s conversation with Carter in 2003:
One of the stories I seem to remember that she told, it was about — Emancipation Day had come. And there was a group of former slaves now on an island off the coast of South Carolina. And my parents were from South Carolina, all my family. And they were waiting for the emissary of the government to arrive in his little boat to tell them that they had received the deeds to their land, because the government had promised them not only freedom, but 40 acres and a mule.
And so this was going to be a great, wonderful day. And the former slaves had gathered together on the island waiting with bated breath. And finally, they saw the boat of the officer approaching. And they could tell, even from the distance, that his face was not happy and his countenance was somewhat sad. And they said there was a groan that just came from the crowd. And one of the older women from the crowd just stood up and began to make up a song on the spot. She sang, (singing) “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows but Jesus. Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Glory, hallelujah.”
And then she spoke, looking to the people around her, she said, (singing) “Sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down. Oh, yes, Lord. Sometimes, I’m almost level to the ground. Oh, yes, Lord. Oh, nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows but Jesus. Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Glory, hallelujah.”
She looked at the people standing by, and she said, (singing) “Although you see me going along so.” And they answered, (singing) “Oh, yes, Lord.” “I’ve got my trials here below.” And they answered, (singing) “Oh, yes, Lord. Oh, nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows but Jesus. Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Glory, hallelujah.”
You can now find mp3s of all of the songs performed by Carter on the Listening Room page for this program. Have a listen, download, and enjoy.
The Olympic “Ritual Frame”
Andy Dayton, Associate Web Producer
I encountered an interesting blog post today called “Olympic Ritual and Religion, hosted by a Religion-less State.” The article begins by pointing out that “Religion-less” China didn’t hold back when evoking the “implicit religious sentiments” of the Olympic Games in the Beijing Opening Ceremonies (perhaps the article’s author might be interested in hearing our recent program “Recovering Chinese Religiosities”). The part I found most interesting was focused on Pierre de Coubertin, who is credited as the founder of the modern Olympic Games:
As a French Catholic who never felt the need to leave the practices of faith, Coubertin was powerfully aware of the power of ritual and liturgical form. In one of his most insightful moments, he insisted that without the “ritual frame” provided by the Opening and Closing ceremonies, the Modern Olympic Games would simply become another set of World Championships—and the world already had enough of those. What it did not have enough of was religion, religion as a ritual practice, and that is what his version of modern “ambulatory” Olympics (a new city and host country, every time) were designed to provide.
(Photo: ♥ China ♥ guccio/Flickr)