Born in New Orleans in 1957, Moses Hogan was a world-renowned arranger of African American spirituals, a gifted pianist, a fine conductor, and a close friend of my mother’s. During his brief career, Hogan led choral workshops all over the world and published over seventy works. One of his most popular arrangements, the traditional spiritual, Walk Together, Children, has a substantial and controversial history.
Today, performers commonly interpret spirituals lightly by swinging the eighth note or by increasing the tempo. However, Moses Hogan, along with other African American choral leaders such as Anton Armstrong and Andre Thomas, strongly believe in preserving the essence of the spiritual—as songs passed down from earlier and darker times of African American enslavement. Some spirituals kept the pace while walking and dragging chains or while working. Others depicted celebration, perhaps at a revival meeting, or expressed the hope of an easier life in Heaven with families and homes reunited. In any context, these songs were serious pleas for survival and community support.
In October of 2001 Hogan worked with Nova Singers, a professional choir founded and directed by Laura Lane. At this point, Walk Together, Children was not yet published and the singers were working from copies of his manuscript. As the director’s ten-year-old daughter, I attended rehearsals on occasion, and I quickly developed a fascination for Hogan’s Southern, gentlemanly manners. They trickled into his rehearsal style, in his kind insistence that the singers embrace the feeling and the diction exactly as he intended. In a recent conversation with my mom, she reminded me of the specifics. Hogan was as adamant about accurate performance practice as he was about respecting how slaves might have sung the spiritual.
His arrangement of Walk Together, Children is constructed around slow and unhurried walking. The strong beat feels like it is in a slow two, with leans on beats one and three. He wanted a rich, warm sound, and called for, “All of your vibrato! Let me have all of it!” Hogan was insistent that the diction be a Southern African-American accent, such as “don’ cha” and “ti-yer,” as indicated in the score. He wanted a dramatic, not energetic, slide into the final chord. The point was that even though the slaves were singing about walking without tiring, they were utterly exhausted and they needed to sing to go on.
Despite Moses Hogan’s efforts to educate the world about capturing the genuine atmosphere in a spiritual, some ensembles lighten the mood by swinging the beat and speeding up the tempo. In 2011, Craig Hella Johnson released the CD “Sing Freedom! African American Spirituals,” with his distinguished ensemble, Conspirare. By swinging Walk Together, Children, Johnson faced censure from the choral community. It is indeed an issue of performance practice, and it was bold of Johnson to go against the grain.
Our interpretation of Walk Together, Children will continue to grow as society evolves. Although this spiritual has dark roots, we honor its bright and progressive interpretation during the Civil Rights Movement. Even Moses Hogan, for as adamant as he was about proper performance practice, arranged this spiritual with the altered text in mind and added dynamics and harmonies that were certainly not included in the slaves’ songs. So, by swinging the eighth-note, we do not intend to dishonor Hogan’s beliefs. We are simply telling this story of hope for a better day to come with our modern-day context in mind.