“Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child” and “I Want to Be Ready”

by Max Derrickson

Harry T. Burleigh (Arranger):

“Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child” and “I Want to Be Ready”

Those beautiful and emotionally-charged Spirituals that today are considered something between folksong and worship songs were created by “Negro” slaves of the American South.  They captured the slaves’ devotion to Jesus, their Savior, and they often described, in veiled terms, their agonies and hopes for a new life – not only in Heaven but for freedom now.  Some songs are strongly believed to have had double meanings as incitement to slaves to run away or infused with coded messages.  It’s no wonder that these extraordinary songs often send chills through our spines, so wrought are they with desperation, urgency and hope… and beauty  Frederick Douglas wrote: “Every tone [of a Spiritual for me] was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains.”  Nothing in music can really compare to a masterfully sung Spiritual.

Spirituals were invented by Southern slaves on American soil.  To be sure, they incorporate some musical elements brought over with them from Africa, but by and large, Spirituals were truly the first American music, and Czech composer Antonin Dvořák was one of the first musicians to recognize these great songs, along with the indigenous music of the America’s First Peoples (American Indians), as America’s bona fide “folk” music.

Black singer and composer Harry T. Burleigh (1866 – 1949) knew Czech Nationalist composer Dvořák well.  In fact, Burleigh was one of the first Black students to attend the newly created National Conservatory of Music in New York which was headed by Dvořák.   It was Burleigh who introduced him to Spirituals, and, as the story goes, elements of Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony were inspired by those Spirituals that Burleigh sang to the rapt composer.  Burleigh would go on to be an important voice in shaping the next generation of Black classical musicians, like Margaret Bonds, and was paramount in both composing art songs and Spirituals, as well as arranging them for “Classical consumption.”  The bittersweet “Sometimes I feel Like a Motherless Child” and  the eternally hopeful “I want to Be Ready (or “Walk in Jerusalem, jus’ like John”) in Burleigh’s harmonization put these small masterpieces directly into the American Songbook. Burleigh single-handedly brought the Spiritual into the Recital Hall, and in doing so began a tremendous appreciation for a truly American music.