Let My People Go!
Program notes by Ken Meter
According to composer Donald McCullough, the inspiration for his dramatic choral work, Let My People Go!, was a curious article in The Washington Post about “…a vacant burial vault.”
He read the article while eating breakfast one day when he lived in the District. It described how runaway slaves used a red brick burial vault in a Georgetown cemetery as a hiding place—a station—along the Underground Railroad. The cemetery was the oldest black burying ground in Washington, D.C., and it was only a mile and a half from his house.
McCullough went to the cemetery to see for himself. “The vault…the entire cemetery, for that matter…had suffered from neglect. Rust had separated the vault’s heavy metal door from its hinges, and it had been set off to one side.” Stepping inside the dark chamber, he began to imagine what a runaway, alone and anxious, must have felt in that dark, confined space. “Once inside that burial vault, I realized this was a story that needed to be told.”
The musical vehicle he chose for telling the story was spirituals—impassioned, heartfelt songs of self-expression that slaves created for a multitude of reasons. “I’ve always been drawn to spirituals. Even as a child, I felt pulled to the music. Over time I came to discover how many layers of meaning each song holds. There is so much being said. I didn’t even
know what it was at the time. I just kept going back to them.”
McCullough ads that “…spirituals, in terms of American music, are an American treasure. They were born out of incredible suffering, profound loss, and a yearning for freedom.” Critical to slaves’ emotional and spiritual survival, they often were sung in the fields with great fervor but in a sparse tonality. Although modern settings of spirituals often are written in four parts, the enslaved singers seldom ventured into harmony.
Moreover, the words and melodies have survived the profound test of time. “Passed down through so many generations and so many singers, anything that originally might have been awkward got changed into something better,” he said. “And if the changes did not accurately convey the heartfelt passion and meaning of the original spirituals, they wouldn’t have been carried forward.”’
Although he is white, McCullough never thought twice about his choice to create a work grounded in African-American tradition. “I knew that the work came from deep inside me, that what I was doing came from a place of integrity, so I had to trust that this would be reflected in the music.” He found it reassuring when the choir at Morgan State University, one of America’s foremost black universities, embraced the work wholeheartedly, adding
several selections to their touring program.
He credits his own intuition with guiding him to a very potent connection to the music. “When I’m composing or arranging music that is derivative in nature, I am intuitive enough that the idioms and styles of the original music tend to find their way to the page.”
From the beginning, McCullough envisioned creating a musical experience in which “… audiences would appreciate the genius of the slaves who created what we now call ‘spirituals’ and better understand the environment in which the music was born.” To accomplish this, he decided to couple the spirituals with historically based stories and texts. He turned to his husband and professional collaborator, Denny Clark, asking Clark to write a text. Early drafts simply alternated text with music, but the piece gradually evolved into the current presentation, with two narrators moving in and out of roles, both as character actors and as more neutral narrators who transport the story of the slaves and the Underground Railroad to an entirely different experiential level.
“Some of the stories are apocryphal. Others blend tales from several different historical characters.” This was done to create immediacy. Clark and McCullough wanted people to relate strongly to the stories and remember the slaves’ experiences. “I want people to have the sense that they are back in the day, but also in the present moment, with both the music and the stories,” McCullough continued. He also wanted to convey a story that too few Americans know—the heroic efforts of many Americans to free the slaves.
In the score, McCullough asks that the work be performed in dialect so that the speech idioms and colors of the slaves’ original African languages remain intact. “It is impossible for any modern choir to create a completely ‘authentic’ performance,” he added, “but using dialect enhances both music and storytelling in a way that is not otherwise possible, while also honoring the countless souls who so profoundly expressed their desire for freedom, their misery in bondage, and their hope in God through song.”