Songs tell stories or are a part of great stories that need to be told. When we tell the story behind a song or behind the world of that song, we create empathy, an understanding in the heart. The song "Thula Klizeo" (Singing the Journey, #1056) comes from a rich South African culture of singing and dancing. The words mean something, and the dance means something. In order for the full power of the song to emerge, these stories need to be told; otherwise it's just fun sounds. (For more information about "Thula Klizeo," see Teaching songs by rote, in Chapter 5, and my book, Sing and Shine On!.)
The Irish song "Cockles and Mussels" tells the story of Molly Malone, who long ago sold shellfish by walking house-to-house shouting, "Cockles! Mussels! Alive, alive-o." In the days before TV and radio (and the Web), this shouting was called advertising. Tell this story. It gives the song meaning and depth. Folk songs are like living things: When we sing them, they come alive. When we tell their stories, we honor the traditions themselves and help keep those traditions alive too.
All cultures are different. To honor other traditions, we must be aware of their differences. We can change the words to many folksongs (with respect). In fact, changing the words can actually honor the folk process, a process whereby the constant evolution of the music is part of the tradition. But with sacred folksongs like spirituals, keeping the original words honors the culture. Changing the words to these sacred songs, sometimes in an effort to accommodate a more liberal theology, can become a form of cultural misappropriation. (See Misappropriation, in Chapter 8.) It is always best to honor the original intent of each culture.
The song leader Dr. Ysaye Maria Barnwell of the African American women's vocal group Sweet Honey in the Rock is a Unitarian Universalist. She balances her own liberal religious beliefs with the beliefs of the living traditions of spirituals and gospel songs. In the amazing songs that she writes, like "Wanting Memories" or "Breathes," her deeply spiritual language speaks to her liberal theology, one that embraces all of humanity. And when she sings the old songs from her African American heritage, she honors those traditions with every breath of her being. I was introduced to the teaching of Dr. Barnwell at an Omega Institute weeklong workshop based on her book Singing in the African American Tradition. Before each song, she or George Barnwell spoke at length about history—sometimes painful history—so that when we sang, "Let my people go," these words had a new meaning, a new power. They came alive, and we sang with an emotional intensity that could move mountains.
Tell the stories. Dr. Barnwell's CD collection is an excellent resource for the African American tradition. Another resource is the UUA curriculum (with songbook) called Timeless Themes that uses spirituals and their stories to teach biblical history. More and more songbooks come with stories and historical information for each song, particularly the songbooks and CDs from World Music Press. There is a book listed in Resources called Ballad of America: A History of the United States through Folk Song, by a father-and-son team named Scott. Beginning with colonial days and ending with the civil rights movement, the book makes history and culture come alive through the combination of songs and stories.
Strive to be authentic by singing each song as close to the original style as possible. But also be yourself. Know that when one culture sings the songs of another culture, something beautiful can emerge: music that honors both the other culture and your own. My website, www.nickmusic.com, has several essays on the issue of multiculturalism in education.