Arts and Culture / Magazine Feature

Walls come tumblin’ down at Spirituals Project gala

For songs that ended up as staples at church services and youth camps, spirituals have a subversive history.

“A lot of the songs had all kinds of secret meanings that were passed from person to person and community to community,” says Arthur Jones, founder of the DU-based Spirituals Project. “The manifest content was all this religious stuff — which was definitely there as well — but the deeper meanings really had to do with survival and the fight for freedom.”

The lyrics to songs such as “Steal Away to Jesus” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” Jones says, contained coded messages to call people to secret religious meetings in the woods or to alert them to the impending arrival of somebody on the Underground Railroad.

The spirituals — not to be confused with gospel or other Christian music — are defined as the religious folk songs created by African-American slaves. Famous spirituals include “Wade in the Water,” “Go Down Moses” and “This Little Light of Mine.”

Founded by Jones in 1998, the Spirituals Project is committed to preserving and revitalizing the music, which gave rise to blues, jazz and R&B. The project’s 70-voice, multi-ethnic, multi-generational volunteer choir performs about a dozen times a year, most notably at its annual gala, which happens this year on Nov. 7. Joining the Spirituals Project Choir for the show are middle school and high school choirs from the Denver School of the Arts.

“The theme of this year’s concert is ‘And the Walls Come Tumblin’ Down,’ which is taken from the lyrics of the spiritual ‘Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,’” says Jones, who also is a clinical professor of culture and psychology at the Women’s College and the Divisions of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. “The glue for this concert is about intergenerational dialogue and tearing down the walls that separate young people from old people and people of different races and cultures and backgrounds.”

The Spirituals Project is all about tearing down walls, which is one reason Denver-based filmmakers Larry Bograd and Coleen Hubbard thought the group would be a great subject for a documentary. Filmed in 2007 and 2008, I Can Tell the World has screened at three film festivals and recently gained distribution.

“We basically used the choir and the stories of their members to talk about the history of this music, why these individual people are drawn to it and what singing it in a multi-racial choir can tell us about race and reconciliation and healing and transformation,” Bograd says. “Dr. Jones believes — and far be it from me to doubt it — that if enough people got together, understood and sang this music then there would be some pretty interesting conversations going on and a lot more peace. I’m all for that.”

In addition to Jones and members of the choir, the filmmakers interviewed other DU-related figures as well, including Associate Provost for Graduate Studies Barbara Wilcots (then the associate dean in the Division of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences) and Iliff Professor Emeritus Vincent Harding.

“One of the most interesting quotes in the movie is by Dr. Harding,” Bograd says. “He basically said, ‘How could enslaved people create such beauty?’ These weren’t simple work songs or field songs, they were in some cases very sophisticated political messages that talk about meeting places in the Underground Railroad and how to keep faith when there’s very little hope around.”

The Spirituals Project’s seventh annual gala, “And the Walls Come Tumblin’ Down,” begins at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 7 at the Newman Center. Tickets are $25–$35. Visit for more information.To learn more about the film I Can Tell the World, visit

Comments are closed.