Legendary soprano Kathleen Battle makes her Auditorium Theatre debut on September 30. She’ll be performing the program Underground Railroad: A Spiritual Journey, a collection of songs inspired by the secret network that helped bring 19th-century slaves to freedom. To get insight into the meanings and historical significance of classic songs like “Wade in the Water,” and “I Been ’Buked,” the Auditorium Theatre spoke with Dr. Johari Jabir, an associate professor of African American Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago who specializes in gospel and blues history.

AUD: What role did gospel and spiritual music play in the lives of slaves seeking freedom via the Underground Railroad network or otherwise?

JJ: “Spirituals” emerged out of the context of slavery, and modern “gospel” came much later, in the 20th century. The “spiritual” and modern “gospel” have in common a striving, on the part of African Americans, for human dignity and freedom in an anti black society. In a general sense, the collective singing of African Americans … is a critical element in black culture that enabled a sense of community for African Americans.

AUD: The songs “Fix Me, Jesus” and “Wade in the Water,” as well as “I Been ’Buked,” might be familiar to Auditorium Theatre patrons who attend the annual performances by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater — these songs are all used in the iconic Ailey work Revelations. Can you tell me a little bit about the meaning behind these songs, and why they’re still relevant and being performed today?

JJ: “Fix Me, Jesus” and “Wade in the Water” are great examples of a kind
of “spirit work” in spirituals and other forms of black music. “Fix Me” asks God to do something in the way of inner transformation. “Wade in the Water,” to my mind, has a couple of implications in this regard. On the one hand, the song says that we cannot stay on the shoreline of life as a kind of safety. This spiritual encourages us to take bold risks, to journey into deep water. Of course, for someone like [abolitionist and Underground Railroad “conductor”] Harriet Tubman, this was a critical perspective. Enslaved Africans would have traversed difficcult but necessary waters if they were to “cross over” into freedom.

“Wade in the Water” turns a colonial theology on its head [with the line] “God’s going to ‘trouble’ the waters.” Here, God is going to “ x” the water in such a way that allows the oppressed to be victorious. From a biblical perspective, God troubled the water to drown Pharaoh’s army, which was one of the most popular scenarios in the slaves’ imaginations. While we think of trouble as something negative, the enslaved Africans’ use of the term re-imagines this word in such a way that, in actuality, means that God’s going to un-trouble the water for the safe passage of his children.

Both of these songs are examples of conjure: summoning an invisible power for visible and material outcomes.

AUD: Other songs that will likely be performed during the program include “Lord, How Come Me Here,” “Ride Up in the Chariot,” and “I Don’t Feel No Ways Tired.” Is there anything you’d like to add about the songs in the program?

JJ: I could say a LOT about these songs. I discuss spirituals in a recent book I published, titled Conjuring Freedom: Music and Masculinity in the Civil War’s “Gospel Army,” published by Ohio State University Press. It’s a great list of songs.

AUD: You’ve heavily researched Mahalia Jackson, the singer and civil rights activist who helped popularize the songs “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and “I Been ’Buked,” which she performed at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. Both of these songs will likely be performed in the Underground Railroad: A Spiritual Journey program — can you brie y discuss who Mahalia Jackson was and the significance of these two songs to the African American community?

JJ: Mahalia Jackson was a native of New Orleans, and, like other African Americans in the 20th century, she relocated to Chicago during the Great Migration. Musically, Jackson was shaped by the vibrant but blended culture of blues, spirituals, and early jazz in New Orleans… Jackson’s legacy was extended to her civil rights activism. She met [Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.] in the late 1950s, and the two of them collaborated frequently on civil rights activism. King requested for her to sing “I Been ’Buked” at the 1963 March on Washington, and some sources argue that it was Jackson who pushed King at the close of his speech: “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin!”

Kathleen Battle performs Underground Railroad: A Spiritual Journey on September 30, 2017.