Musician/storyteller Calvin Earl documents his journey and talks about the African-American Spirituals

"Enjoy life and be grateful for every moment, it is a gift. Be open, kind, loving and laugh a lot...Best advice I ever received. Meditate, it is the way to uncover your soul and be free to be who you are."

Calvin Earl: African American Spiritual

Calvin Earl's love for the Negro Spirituals runs deep. In order to add to the inheritance left by his ancestors he took it upon himself to fulfill his steadfast vision to ensure the Slaves original American ancestral music be preserved and honored. As a willing servant of his country, in 2006, he proposed to the US Congress that Twin Resolutions be drafted to honor the former Slaves who helped build this country, but did not have a voice or formal citizenship, and recognize the African American Spiritual as a National Treasure.

In February 2007 both House Resolution 120 and Senate Resolution 69 passed by unanimous vote to honor the Slaves for their contributions to our nation with our deepest gratitude and respect and recognized the African American Spiritual as a National Treasure. His heart-felt style and tremendous passion for presenting a larger vision of the African American Spiritual is delivered in a vivid portrayal of the spirituals in his one-man show “Gifts From My Ancestors” performed in universities, schools, concert halls, churches & community centers across America.  His high energy message of hope, love and courage illuminates the historical significance of the spirituals past as well as equally placing focus and insight on their value in our lives today. Considered a musical prodigy at the age of 9, Calvin’s frequent performances on local radio stations in Virginia and in his home state of North Carolina, expanded his popularity and led to his being spotted by the legendary Mahalia Jackson. He performed with her and many other Gospel singers including James Cleveland and The Five Blind Boys of Alabama throughout his teen years.  

Currently in his journey to ensure the preservation of the Spirituals as a National Treasure, he continues to lecture and perform and is a major voice  advocating  and ensuring the African American spiritual and the oral history of the slaves are included in our current educational curriculum. 

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the African American Spiritual culture?

Great question. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share with you my love for the spirituals and their history.

Firstly, what I have learned is the gift of music created from within the human soul can enhance, change and transform the life of the listener. Music heals, creates a space for joy and fulfillment and has the ability to transform and transcend any situation in the listeners ear even in the midst of human suffering and pain. In the case of Negro spirituals these amazing songs allowed the slaves to be heard during a time when they were not allowed to have a voice. Their secret communications within these songs not only changed the course of history, thankfully it preserved their oral history, healed their pain, and paid forward to their children the idea that fortitude, courage and resilience will  ultimately give them their God given human right of freedom that belongs to all God’s children.

Secondly, what I have been given from the music of my ancestors, is an overwhelming sense of pride in all the slaves accomplishments both in music and otherwise all in spite of the fact, to this day their contributions in building a new nation or the gift of an original music they gave to the world are not acknowledged or are still under-acknowledged. Never the less I am a very fortunate man to have been born into such a rich ancestral lineage.

Thirdly, the spirituals taught me to never give up, when someone tells you, you can’t do something, I don’t accept that outcome, and instead I go within and listen to my heart. For me, music and the spirituals have been a way I go within to connect with my soul/true self.

As an example, when I was a young boy, I am the baby of 9, my family was extremely poor and many times we went without food to eat and we moved frequently because my parents couldn’t afford to pay the rent. The minute I played a spiritual on my guitar my hunger pains and the fear of not knowing if we might move in the dark of night again went away. I felt secure within myself when I could play the music or hear it. The stigma and fear of growing up poor seemed to disappear. So I played, and played and played music to comfort my fears. Each time the spirituals made me feel whole again. 

As an adult, playing music keeps me grounded, it keeps me in touch with who I am and where I came from. The music teaches me to be grateful every moment of every day.


What characterizes Calvin Earl’s work & progress, how do you describe your philosophy about the African American music?

My work so far has been to ensure the Negro Spirituals will be preserved in all their many facets. Most dear to my heart has been the preservation of that original sound sung in the cotton fields of the old South and the meanings and inspiration of these humble songs created by the slaves.

For my work in the future, I’d like to write and record my own music, but I will always feel connected to the spirituals.

My philosophy about African American music, well, I think it is important to know and acknowledge where the music came from and who created it, but for me music is music, it crosses any and all boundaries.  Ironically, it was the African American spirituals, jazz and blues, that taught the world it is ok to cross boundaries to make great music and the color of your skin or your ethnicity is totally irrelevant to making music. Simply music is what comes through your soul to share with others; music doesn’t see boundaries or limitations it just wants to transmit sound that will move the soul who hears it.

Do you believe the cause of African American Spiritual culture has seen justice?

Tragically no. In my view, there are two simple, deeply heartfelt and life changing events that took place in American history that continue to cause misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the facts surrounding the African American Spirituals. The first event began with the emancipation of the slaves in 1865 followed a few years later by Fisk University with the formation of the Jubilee Singers by the university treasurer George White, as a last ditch effort to save the university from financial ruin and to keep the university from shutting its doors.

The first event that changed the spirituals was the Emancipation Proclamation becoming the law of the land in 1865 leaving the oppression of slavery behind, the slaves simply wanted to rid themselves of anything that reminded them of slavery and that included the spirituals. No one can fault them for that. But because of that, the spirituals began to be sung less and less and with less religious overtone, less secrecy, and less expression of the individual human spirits need to tell his or her story, the spirituals began to slip away. The music began to transform itself into legitimate musical art forms we now call jazz and blues.

Secondly, several years after the emancipation of the slaves was the dire situation at Fisk University, (a university for African Americans) was facing closure due to the lack of funding. In an attempt to save the university, George White put a group of 9 (7 former slaves & 2 free blacks) together to form a choir that he hoped to take on the road to make money for the university. Mr. White appointed Ella Shepherd (a former slave herself) as music arranger and choir director for the tour group known as the Fisk Jubilee Singers. The choir began to sing in small towns across the South. The music venue Mr. White chose for the Jubilee Singers was a collection of European melodies and songs written by George White. In a word they bombed, and barely made enough money to get to the next town. However, one day as exhaustion, hunger and longing to go home had set in for the singers, they sang a spiritual just to comfort themselves but when the audience heard it, that changed everything, finally people wanted to listen. It was in that moment the spirituals would be changed forever, because in order to sing the spirituals in a choir, it would forever changes the dynamics of the spirituals original intent and sound. The spirituals for the slaves were secret and to take them out of context and present them in a choir had never been done. The responsibility of including spirituals in the genre fell squarely on the shoulders of Ella Shepard. Ella painstakingly and with great trepidation and deep concern for the integrity and secrecy of the spirituals and her concern that the change might dishonor the slaves who created these songs, finally made the decision to transform the spirituals into a choir format in order to save the university. What was needed now, she felt, was saving the university. It was necessary and the only way to give opportunities to former slaves to acquire an education, so they could better equip themselves to become productive and prosperous citizens.

It is a fascinating story and one history owes a deep amount of gratitude to these singers. For had it not been for Ella Shepherd and the Jubilee singers the spirituals might have been lost forever. Ella Shepherd’s story and the story of the Fisk Jubilee is a profoundly important one in American history, too long to write about in this interview.

Today in America there are only a handful of us who continue to sing the spirituals, and mostly the spirituals are arranged in the choir format and sung in the European operatic style with accompaniment /orchestra not performed or preserved with the original intent or sound.


Art, poetry, and music can confront the “Prison” of the spirit and mind? What was the relationship between art and activism?

For me activism and art go hand in hand. Art usually reflects the true essence of what is going on within society in each generation.  As your question relates to the spirituals, the spirituals transcended societies reflections of history in a time period that would not allow the slaves who created the spirituals to have a voice. Therefore the essence and secret intent of the spirituals were hidden in plain view in order to preserve and document the story of the slaves existence in America. We all have the need to feel valued and know that at the very least our collective story will remain for future generations to study. The slaves were no different, they just couldn’t tell their story out right in their life time for the world to see, they were depending on each other orally to keep their story alive for future generations. Although we don’t know the individual names of the slaves who created these songs, the spirituals represent one of the deepest most beautiful raw expressions of the human spirit ever created on American soil.

In my generation, I was tired of the spirituals being hated, misunderstood, and misrepresented and I wasn’t willing to accept that. I had to take action. The spirituals are just too valuable to be forgotten and as my dear friend Dr. Dorothy Height (1912-2010), Civil Rights icon, former President and Chairwoman of the NCNW said to me, “I am so proud of you Calvin for presenting this legislation to the US Congress, because without recognizing the spirituals, it would be like we were never here”. For me her words solidified what I had been saying for years in my one man show: “if we don’t know where we came from, how can we possibly know who we are and where we are going?” Preserving the spirituals preserves the spirit of all America.  I felt if people could see what I see that the spirituals and the unknown beautiful human beings who created them, in spite of their oppressive and painful circumstances created a music that changed the world for the good of all people. No doubt, I had to take action, if nothing else to show my own gratitude for what the slaves and their music have given me. I am here because of them.

What would be your first decisions as minister of education and culture?

I would immediately add all classic forms of art and art history as a mandatory curriculum beginning in grade school. I would also add opportunities for high school students to study abroad in a student cultural exchange program.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues/jazz (generally the Afro American music) is always with us. Why do you think that is?

I believe the main reason is because of the original rhythm used in the music. It was new and unlike any other music heard around the world. To the listener, when artists creating music in the genre’s of blues & jazz used this original rhythm, (that originally came out of the spirituals,) was refreshing, exhilarating and had this sense of freedom that matched the ideals of freedom America believed for herself. It was new, dynamic and pushed musical boundaries like never before.  Blues and jazz just put it into a musical art form to express that quest for freedom for all in musical notes. Interestingly, the essence of a spiritual for the slave was expressing his/her innermost feeling to God in an attempt to at least free the soul. If their bodies were in bondage at least their souls could be free. After all freedom is a powerful thought.

The new rhythm was created by the slaves, not to make music for music sake instead a cry, a moan or groan was enough to tell God what the slave wanted God to know. This rhythm was not created to be a musical art form; the slave was just having that human moment we all take to let our voice be heard. Essentially with the spirituals, the slaves in America were not allowed to use drums because the slave masters knew the slaves were able to send signals or communicate with the drums, so it was strictly forbidden.  Communication was limited amongst the slaves and they needed to find a safe way to communicate their feelings. So the slaves created music without the drums or external beat that would also express what they felt inside their souls and somehow tell their story. What the slaves did was ingenious, they allowed their bodies to feel and replicate the sound they were feeling in their souls transferring that rhythmic feeling to the heels of their feet to keep the rhythm going. Their own vibrational sound from within their soul would move through their bodies, steadied by the heels of their feet allowing the true essence of their souls to be revealed using direct quotes from the Bible to distract the master from catching on to what they were really talking about. 

An interesting trivial question for your readers. Ever notice that with African American music they always use the heels of their feet to keep the beat not their toes? Most all world music you will find yourself tapping your toes not your heels. Tapping the toes is a response to the drum beats, using the heel is the action of your soul revealing itself. That’s why around the world everyone recognizes a spiritual as coming from America, it’s because it’s more than a musical art form, it is a way to communicate soul to soul.

Jazz and blues owe a huge debt of inspiration and gratitude to the spirituals and the unique sound frequency created by the slaves and jazz and blues honor the slaves by continuing to push the musical boundaries by allowing what you feel inside to be heard through a series of musical notes.


Do you think that the African American Spiritual culture comes from the heart, the brain or the soul?

All 3. First the spirit/soul which is connected to all that is the universe. They went within their souls to connect with the power who created us all, God. Second the heart which was a way to transform their innermost feelings into sound to communicate their feelings with sound more than the lyrics they were singing. And thirdly the brain, as the slaves had to figure out a way for their spirit to be felt but the words not understood by all. Their message had to be hidden in plain view.

                                                     President Barack Obama and Calvin Earl

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

The most interesting period of my life is NOW. What I have learned is that NOW is always the most important and definitely the most interesting and exciting time. This particular NOW time for me is one where I am taking the time to create new music.  It is beyond exciting for me.

Worst moment was on a Friday.......when I was told absolutely no, that it was totally impossible to have the Negro Spirituals recognized as a National Treasure, music could not be declared a national treasure, only buildings or artifacts could be considered a national treasure and without a road map Congress was unable to honor my request. A great moment in my life was the very next day. I was having lunch with my Goddaughter and her new boyfriend who was from South America, and I was telling them of this horrible news about not being able to have the spirituals recognized as a national treasure because music did not qualify for recognition as a national treasure. Then her boyfriend said the most important words I had ever heard. Well, he said, “what about your national anthem that’s music?”. I went back to Washington DC  on Monday morning with copies in hand where as in 1931 the US Congress declared on the record  that The Star Spangled Banner was our national anthem. I pointed out that was music, and as we know the rest is history and I began my quest with the full support of Senator Robert Menendez and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro submitting Twin Resolutions into the Congress in 2006 to Recognize the African American Spiritual as a National Treasure.


Why did you think that the African American Spiritual culture continued to generate such a devoted following?

Because of the intent of the music and why it was created without the structure of musical notes. I believe all of us are spiritual beings on a human journey. We are all connected to each other and the power who created us all, the entire universe is connected. We are one. I believe that God is the source and the source is only love. A spiritual is the cry of our humanness trying to connect back to God when we need to share our deep emotions and have them heard. The reason a spiritual is recognizable is in the same way we all recognize a baby cry, the joy we feel in watching a beautiful sunset, the joy we feel in our souls when we hear a baby laugh. It’s that feeling of home and connection we feel when we are present in this moment.  I feel that the spiritual has such a devoted following because we feel connected to each other when we recognize our humanness in the spiritual, it is comforting to know we all know that feeling.


Do you know why the blues and jazz are connected to the Afro American culture?

Blues/jazz are connected to the Afro American culture because of the roots of the musical art forms of blues/jazz. The music came directly from the spirituals and the spirituals were created by the slaves brought here from Africa to work as slaves on American soil. I don’t however think the blues and jazz today are necessarily thought of as Afro American music, I think with time blues/jazz have transcended race or cultural background. Music is music, it doesn’t matter your race, culture or gender if it’s good music, it’s good music period!


What characterize the philosophy of African American Spiritual culture?

That’s a tough question, because the spirituals aren’t just music, and with the secret codes within the music, and remembering each spiritual is the individual cry of the spirit, it would be hard to pinpoint a philosophy that didn’t contradict itself on every level. That would be a great question to pose to a historian on African American studies and see what they think.


From the musical point of view is there a difference and similarities between the original blues era & modern blues?

The foundation is the same, just different bends in the notes. Modern blues is more produced that the old blues. Old blues was what came out of the musician and what he was feeling at the time mistakes and all. Now days you can fix the mistake.


Are there any memories from Mahalia Jackson, which you’d like to share with us?

Aww, I loved her and she loved me. I first met Mahalia when I was about 9 years old. She had heard me play on a radio station out of Virginia. I played on that radio station regularly and the radio announcer use to say on the radio “Oh I wish you could see “Baby Calvin” play that guitar, that guitar is as big as he is........” He would go on and on about my style and how I played. Mahalia wanted to meet me so she came to my little church in the backwoods of Roduco, North Carolina. I suppose you might be wondering why I refer to her as Mahalia rather than Ms. Jackson, which was and still is standard Southern etiquette for addressing your elders. When I first met her, she said to me “Calvin, you call me Mahalia and I’ll call you Calvin.”  That meant more to me than she will ever know. All the musicians called me Baby Calvin, they still do, but at 9 years old,  I of course wanted everyone to think I was older and hated being called Baby Calvin, so when she called me Calvin, I felt so grown up and I loved it. I was a small kid and when she would come to our church or she was in a venue that I would be playing at too I would sit up on her lap and we would talk in general, talk about music, and it was from her that I learned about Dr. King. When it was time for her to sing, I always accompanied her with my guitar. It was so joyful to play with her and such an honor. At the time I didn’t know about her fame, to me she was this loving wonderful person who could sing like an angel and I was just grateful that she wanted me to play along with her with my guitar. I would bend those notes as fast as she could sing them; it was magical to play with her. I will always love her.

"The music came directly from the spirituals and the spirituals were created by the slaves brought here from Africa to work as slaves on American soil."

If you could go back to the past what things you would do better and what things you would avoid doing again?

There isn’t anything I would want to take back from my journey. The mistakes made me learn and grow. The good things that happened in my life I am still today filled with gratitude. Besides you can’t go back and change your past anyway, it’s not possible. 

As for things I would avoid, it would be sea cucumbers, worst thing I ever ate.


What is your Dream and what is your nightmare? Happiness is......

My dream would be that my CD “gratitude”, a collection of African American Spirituals, will be downloaded by a multitude of people around the world and that it will bring to those who hear it a sense of connection to their own spirit while experiencing calmness, relaxation, love and joy as they listen!

My nightmare is letting the voices in my head win over my spirit.

Happiness is being present and showing up with gratitude in my heart to experience all life has to offer. Happiness is being able to create my destiny. Happiness is sharing my life with my wife Christi, and all our family, wonderful friends, musicians and all the creative people we have met along the way, a great cup of coffee,  great music, a great bottle of wine, and looking forward to dancing on every beautiful beach in the world.


Do you think the younger generations are interested in the African American Spiritual culture?

Not really. Can we change that? I don’t know. If students hear the truth about the history of the spirituals, they want more. One example of that I once had the students at a university in NYC lock the doors to the classroom, because they were furious that they had not been taught the information on the spirituals history, and they refused to leave and asked me to share more information with them. I think I was there for 4 or 5 hours and happy to share my knowledge with them.

Calvin Earl performing with The Five Blind Boys of Alabama at the Long Beach

Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory of James Cleveland and The Five Blind Boys of Alabama?

James Cleveland, well remember my story about Mahalia calling me Calvin, Rev. Cleveland called me Baby Calvin and because I had very short hair cut he use to pat me on the head, which I didn’t like at all, but that didn’t stop me from accompanying him with my guitar when he sang, but it was strictly work.  We really didn’t have a friendship like I had with Mahalia. He had that modern gospel sound, and was quite dynamic when he performed. It was more business with him.

The Blind Boys of Alabama, now they are some cool cats, they brought fire and fun to every performance and when I was a kid they were always trying to convince my parents to let me go with them on the road. Years later when I was an adult, I found out they were performing at the Long Beach Blues Festival in the early 1990’s and I hadn’t seen these guys in 30 years, so I bought tickets to go see them but once they found out I was there they put me up on stage and I played with them in front of 12,000 screaming fans while they were in their tuxes and I was in shorts, shirt & baseball cap. We had a blast, and they still asked me to go on the road with them. Great bunch of guys and it is so much fun to play music with them. Clarence loved to tease me, and he’d make me laugh all the time. It was always a joy to play with them. Cool cats cats.


From whom have you learned the most secrets about the African American culture?

It began with the elders in my community telling me stories about the music when I was a young boy. Then I began to ask a lot of questions because I found it interesting. Mahalia taught me a lot too; it was through her I learned about Dr King.

As an adult, in my early 30’s I had a 4 piece band called “Calvin Earl And His Big Band Sound” where I was booked for 4 months at a Southern California resort. With my band, I sang nightly for 5 hours mostly standards, jazz, blues and a couple of R & B tunes. Nearly every night I would be asked if I knew any old “Negro Spirituals” and I would sing one. My band always took a break, these guys were seasoned musicians who had played with Sinatra but weren’t about to attempt playing a spiritual. So I would sing a spiritual A cappella and tell the history and secret codes in the song. I just assumed that everyone knew this information. Once I realized they didn’t know, I moved to NYC to do research on the music to see if what I had been taught orally could be found in books. It was difficult at the time because there wasn’t one or two reference books that had all the information, it took patience and several years to gather the full scope of  information and it was at the end of my research, I debuted my one man show “The Spirit Behind the Spirituals” at the Storefront school in Harlem. 

So to answer your question I would say it was a combination of oral and written history that I learned about the spirituals. 


What is the “feeling” you miss most nowadays from the old days of Afro American culture and way of life?

I guess it would be that pure, raw and authentic sound of musicians expressing what they feel through their instruments. No synthesized sound, no drum machines or producers telling them what to play, just musicians making music.


What advice would you give to a new generation? What is the best advice someone ever gave you?

I have found in my own experience that as spiritual beings on a human journey we have more in common with each other than we have differences. So for me, I am always grateful to experience the differences in each other, there is so much to learn and appreciate.  Enjoy life and be grateful for every moment, it is a gift. Be open, kind, loving and laugh a lot.

Best advice I ever received. Meditate, it is the way to uncover your soul and be free to be who you are.

Calvin Earl - Official website

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