Reflections on the Black Keys

As February unfolded around us, I was struck by the images—30-second public service announcements on television, short segments on talk shows and the like—reminding us that we are still in such a place in our nation that we must use public media to learn about the role of people of color in our history. That we still get most of that history in this way and not in our history books as we are taught our "other" history is but one more reminder of just how deep the racial divide continues to be.

A new administration in Washington has vowed to address some of the causes that divide us. Wilmington Yearly Meeting has written a Minute on racial equity and justice. As individuals, we are being called to examine our own implicit biases. As I do often when I am looking for answers, seeking solace, needing understanding, praying for hope, I turn to music. And so it is this one story of music that I cling to now in this time of our national and individual discontent and division.

Those who know my husband Paul and me well know of our love and devotion to gospel music, how we set our calendars and look forward to traveling each year to attend Gaither Homecoming concerts. These are concerts produced by Bill Gaither and his wife Gloria, both well-known hymnists. Just look through our hymnals at Meeting and you will see some of their work, melody by Bill Gaither, lyrics by Gloria Gaither.

In their Homecoming concerts, they bring together some of the most astounding voices we have ever heard, including those we have traveled to hear perform on Broadway and at the Met. Some of the artists are "regulars" with them and form, for want of a better term, their touring group. During each concert they also bring in special guests.

It was at one of those Homecoming concerts that we heard him, that booming baritone voice resounding throughout the arena, with such purity and power as if to affirm to every spirit in the place that we each do indeed have a soul and it has just been touched by his gift. He was born in Trinidad and Tobago, grew up and went to school in Canada, became a U.S. citizen, completed further schooling, and serves as an ordained Seventh Day Adventist pastor.

When the memorial service was held in the Capitol Rotunda for Congressman John Lewis, we saw him there and heard him there, that deep, rich baritone voice coming from somewhere inside him that can only be his soul. A nation saw and heard what we have seen and felt when he uses his voice to minister to our grief, pain, and hope, when we need our better angels around us.

His name is Wintley Phipps. He sang Amazing Grace for John Lewis, as the civil rights pioneer had wanted him to do. He sang Amazing Grace and I dissolved into tears, as I do each time I hear him sing, especially that hymn—that hymn that so much of the world knows.

We heard him first when he was a featured guest at a Gaither Homecoming concert where he not only sang, but gave his own brief message, speaking in that voice that is as eloquent and elegant when he speaks as when he sings. There is no way to hear that voice, speaking or singing, and not be drawn in.

This is, in summary, the little story he told during that concert, one that has in some measure formed my view of our divided world.

To begin his story he walks to a piano, leans over, and plays a few notes while standing. He gives a little laugh and tells his audience of how hearing those notes reminds him so much of so many of the ladies in the South, ladies of color, and how they share their faith stories. He proceeds with how black gospel music swelled up in the south with generations of those women (and men), songs of liberation, he shares. He strikes a few more notes on that piano. “Listen,” he urges as he hits the notes, “listen and you will hear it. Listen as you hear just the black notes on the piano. Listen and you will hear just about every black spiritual you’ve very heard, played using just the black keys.”

It’s the pentatonic scale, he goes on to inform, the musical scale with five notes for every octave instead of the usual seven notes in major and minor scales. “You know,” he laughs, “black folks back then didn’t know anything about do-re-mi-fa-so, they knew these notes, the notes from the black keys, those five recurring notes, known in early America as the slave keys."

He talks for a while about the "black gospels" and then shares that there are "white gospels" that use those same five recurring notes. In fact, he says, the most famous, most sung hymn in the world is one of those "white gospels," played using the "slave keys."

In that mesmerizing voice, this singer tells the well-known story of the ship’s captain, bringing back a full cargo to the United States, his full cargo of human beings, black human beings. He was the captain of slave ships. His name was John Newton. He made four slave-trading voyages between 1748–1754, considering himself a righteous Christian, even as human beings writhed in agony below deck of the ships he commanded, chained, unable to move arms and legs, starving. It would not be until later in his life that he would renounce slavery in his testimony before the House of Commons. Redemption, his story tells us, is not one moment in time, but a continuing journey.

But Wintley Phipps has more to the story. He tells of going to the U.S. Library of Congress and looking up the history of this hymn. What he found confirmed that John Newton did indeed write the lyrics to Amazing Grace. On those same pages crediting him with the lyrics, there is a notation, citing melody unknown. Wintley Phipps can’t help but laugh out loud when he shares that part of the story. “Listen to the melody,” he urges, “not the words, listen to the music. Hear what John Newton most surely heard as he stood on the decks of his slave ships, swelling upward from the bowels of hell itself….the sound of songs, of sorrow, floating upward from those chained….once strong, proud men...mothers holding fast to their babies, the heat, the stench, the pain, stripped of their humanity, with the worst yet to come once those ships reached their destinations. Listen as John Newton had to have listened to the sounds of the enslaved stripped of everything but what has been and always will be universal—their songs and their souls! Listen, and you just might hear it, that sound, the sound of West African sorrow chants, the sound that generations that followed associate as the melody of what we know as Amazing Grace."

“Maybe, just maybe, we know who melody unknown is,” Wintley shares. “What I do know is this. I can’t wait to get to heaven and meet that slave named Unknown!” And then, with no musical accompaniment, he sings that hymn in the manner he feels it would have been sung by those whose tortured voices rose up from below the decks of those slave ships. It is a universal sound—not black, brown, or white—not one belief over all other beliefs—not one nation superior to all others. He sings it and I, like so many others, am changed, redeemed yet again.

As much as I know that I have a heart that pushes blood throughout my body, that I have arms and legs that move, lungs that take air in and out to sustain my physical being, I know I have a soul. That, Wintley concludes, is what God wants us all to know, the message that comes through our hymns and sorrow chants, through the haunting rhythm of the "slave keys." We are all of one God! How then can we harm one another, enslave one another, deny one another, do injustice to one another? Listen and you will find the answer. It is there in those lyrics and in that melody that moves us despite our differences, across our nations and our cultures, that moves us not only to tears, but to continuing redemption, to the very core of our souls. Amazing Grace!

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  1. Ray Geers | | Reply

    So inspired by what you shared here Judy! Thank you!

  2. Cathy | | Reply

    Another thing we stole … we NEED to hear this. I love the black/slave keys history. Thank you.

  3. Linda Daigle | | Reply

    Just read this – brought tears..
    Thank you Judy.

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