One Church Will Pay ‘Royalties’ When Singing Spirituals Written By Enslaved Africans

One church in Boston has come up with an innovative way to pay for the use of spirituals. Late last year, the United Parish in Brookline announced that it will take up an offering when using spirituals during service, with collections going to support a nonprofit youth music program in Roxbury called Hamilton-Garrett Music and Arts. The organization is dedicated to the preservation of spirituals for future generations.

The church’s minister of music Susan DeSelms told the congregation that this is their church’s way of honoring the work of the enslaved Africans who originally wrote the spirituals churches still sing today. “Today, we as a church will begin the practice of collecting ‘royalties’ …for the spirituals we sing and worship,” she said, according to WGBH. “Whenever we sing Negro spirituals, we will collect an offering that will support the development of Black musicians.”

Most churches pay royalties to publishing companies for the songs they sing on Sunday morning — it’s how songwriters pay rent. This is pretty straightforward when the songs are written by, say, Hillsong, and even easier when older hymns enter into the public domain. But the issue is a little more complicated around spirituals, since the original authorship has often been either lost to history or, in some cases, deliberately buried by slaveowners.

In addition to chronicling the horrors of slavery and the longing for hope and liberation of the enslaved, spirituals sometimes acted as secret code for the Underground Railroad. Spirituals like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Steal Away to Jesus” were preserved over time by enslaved people and, later, the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University, who performed and popularized spirituals on their tours across the United States and Europe. Thanks to their efforts, we still have these songs, even if the people who wrote them did not live to be paid for their work, let alone see their legacy flourish.

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The church in Brookline is hoping that its partnership with a local organization will provide a model for more churches across the country — both as a way to educate their congregations about the true history of the songs they’re singing, and to invest in people doing good work in the community.

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