WITH COMMANDING EXUBERANCE, William Sydnor leads the Chancel Choir of the Shiloh Christian Community Church through "Roll, Jordan, Roll," said to be the first published African-American spiritual in 1862.
As choir members rehearse in their church, located in a stark, West Baltimore row house neighborhood, Sydnor envisions another choir: The Fisk Jubilee Singers. On a historic 1871 fund-raising tour, the group of nine black Fisk University students -- eight of them former slaves -- delivered their spirituals to white America and rescued their Nashville-based university from bankruptcy.
"I can just imagine being there in the early Fisk days and hearing them sing and being in awe of them," Sydnor tells Shiloh's senior choir, one of several he directs. The members respond in kind, with the rich, modulated, but deeply emotional voices of a formally trained choral group.
Sydnor, the church's minister of music, is preparing the choir for its program of historical black church music this Sunday in Brewers Park. The concert will be held in conjunction with the current Baltimore City Life Museums exhibition, "Climbing Jacob's Ladder: The Rise of Black Churches in Eastern American Cities, 1740-1877."
For Sydnor, 40, re-creating the elegant hymnody of the Fisk Jubilee Singers takes no leap of faith. He grew up in Union Baptist Church on Druid Hill Avenue, a "black conservative church" founded in 1852. This is Sydnor's third stay at Shiloh, a 44-year-old church with a congregation of about 1,000. His style jibes with that of Rev. James Baldwin, Shiloh's pastor, who takes structured approach to guiding the church.
"He is extremely gifted in the area of music, choral direction and as an organist. He pretty much sets the spirit for worship," Baldwin says of his choir director.
In the tradition of the Fisk singers, Union Baptist's choir adhered to a highly arranged, academic style of hymn singing, carefully chosen to complement the Sunday service. "My background doesn't look like that of most of my black brothers and sisters," Sydnor says. "I came up on solid hymns, anthems and spirituals, but very little gospel."
As a young parishioner and precocious music student, Sydnor did not stray from his church's example. Today, he takes the same approach with his own choirs.
"Anything that one does should be structured," he says. That was "even the philosophy of early musicians. Basically, they took all of the spontaneous [black folk] music and created form with it . . . I think with structure you can improvise and deviate, but there has to be a system you can pull from . . . With formal training, you can do anything, that's basically how I work."
There is much scholarly debate about the spirituals' origins, the timing of their emergence and how they originally sounded. Researchers debate whether they originated in the fields or in independent black Northern churches where emancipated slaves worshiped. And some say that some early published versions of the spirituals did not reflect fully their African influences: call-and-response patterns, complex syncopation and polyrhythms, for example.
Others have studied the historical role spirituals played in the African-American community. Though "religious in outlook and imagery, [black] spirituals are less concerned with sin, evil, right and wrong or other moral problems, a preoccupation of white spirituals, than with the day-to-day trials and troubles of the slave," Arnold Shaw writes in "Black Popular Music in America."
For Sydnor, who began his church career at age 11 as an accompanist, the spiritual's original purpose remains relevant. "They're still necessary even today," he says. "I know that in today's world, black folk have homes, have cars, televisions, just like white folks. A lot of black folk don't see themselves as being oppressed or don't want to be reminded."
But Sydnor says he need only look at situations and people he encounters -- mothers who don't have money to buy food for their children, for example -- to feel that spirituals serve as a reminder that there is much work to be done.
Sydnor sees the formally arranged spiritual as a disappearing art form. "Spirituals for the most part in our black churches are being ignored. I'm not saying gospel music, but spirituals. I think because most people think they are obsolete or antiquated. In most black churches if they do them, they tag on the gospel flavor to them.
"It really hurts me when black folk scoff at spirituals or laugh at them," Sydnor says. "At one time black folk weren't allowed to do anything else. Their means of communication was singing. In "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," they were actually looking for that chariot to take them away from all this misery."
Preserving the spiritual is a way of ensuring a brighter future, Sydnor says. "What I try to present in the church is not for today, but for 20 years from now. I can't worry about those who are contrary now. I consider them almost lost. I have to feed upon the innocent ones . . . the children have to hear what is done in church. The next day they might hum it in the corridors at school . . . It's important what we do. The black church is one of most important tools we have in educating folk, still today. It was everything at one time."
The Chancel Choir will perform spirituals, gospel hymns and other early forms of black church music at a free concert from 3:30 to 5 p.m. Sunday in Brewers Park, at the corner of East Lombard and President streets. The program is wheelchair accessible and sign language interpretation is provided. In case of rain, the concert will be held at St. Vincent de Paul Church, 120 N. Front St.
For information, call 396-4545.