Let us break bread together on our knees. Let us break bread together on our knees.
Refrain: When I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun, O Lord have mercy on me.
Let us drink wine together on our knees.
Let us drink wine together on our knees. [Refrain]
Let us praise God together on our knees. Let us praise God together on our knees. [Refrain]
- African American Spiritual
Preface: I relied heavily on André Thomas’s informative book “Way Over in Beulah Lan’: Understanding and Performing the Negro Spiritual”. If you’d like to know more about spirituals and their performance, I highly recommend this book. His preface, a good deal of context, and Dr. Anton Armstrong’s foreword are both referenced below. I have been fortunate to work with both musicians – and their musical journeys as African American men are remarkable. Click here to learn more about Dr. Thomas & Dr. Armstrong.
This week, we delve into the renowned body of American music known as "African American Spirituals." As Dr. Anton Armstrong puts it eloquently:
“The Negro spiritual has long been recognized as one of the most distinctive and rich musical contribution of the United States. These songs, beloved throughout the world, were born from the trials and tribulations of the Africans ripped from their native soil, then forced into slavery to serve as the cheap labor force to build an important economic fabric of the budding American society. The wide variety of Negro spirituals serves not only as testimony to the lives of a noble people who persevered through the storms of life, but also a rich chronicle of the history and communal life of the African American people.”
In the realm of music, understanding the context and history behind a piece is often as crucial as the notes themselves. During my graduate studies, I extensively researched the history of 17th-century southern Germany, pre- and post-war 20th-century France, and 1980s New York City, including the AIDS epidemic. Immersing myself in these contexts greatly impacted my performances, allowing me to comprehend the influences that shaped the compositional techniques employed in different musical works.
The same is true with hymns, especially when it comes to spirituals. André Thomas emphasizes that merely knowing the music is insufficient; one must also grasp the culture and history of the folk music and, most importantly, perform the music with respect for that culture.  So, in that context, we begin our exploration of “Let us break bread together”.
First, what is the historical context of "Let us break bread"? The first group of Africans arrived in America in 1619, landing on the shores of Virginia. African culture played a vital role in the development of the spirituals. Song and dance were integral to every significant event, and master musicians held esteemed positions. Bruno Nettl asserts that music in Africa played a greater and more significant role than in Western civilization.
Over the next two centuries, the majority of Africans were brought from the West Coast of the continent, totaling approximately fifteen million people brought to the Americas. The conditions and treatment they endured were unimaginably dreadful. Thomas notes, “It is said that it is amazing that out of man’s inhumanity to man should come forth America’s greatest art form – the Negro spiritual.” According to slave narratives, the Africans were often compelled to sing, and slave songs were created for specific tasks. Up-tempo songs accompanied the slaves while they worked, with the tempo adjusting to match the nature of the task. These songs often carried double meanings, serving as signals within the slave community.
According to the Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnody, “Let us break bread” originated in the West African Gullah/Geechee slave culture in the coastal areas of South-Eastern colonial America, including St. Helena Island, Beaufort and Charleston, South Carolina.
The songs and lyrics were passed down through oral tradition for nearly three centuries. Although the music transcribed is similar to what we know today, the words transcribed in 1925 were as follows:
Let us break bread togeder on our knees . . . When I fall on muh knees wid muh face to de risin’ sun Oh Lawd hab mercy on me.
While the dialect may appear as broken English to the casual observer, it is crucial in tracing the hymn's origins. In creating a new hymnal, these dialects often present a challenging decision for hymnal editors—to retain the dialect or alter it to a form easily understood by modern people? However, even in the earliest transcription of the spiritual by African American composers James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson, the language had already been modified into common English.
It has been suggested that the spiritual may have been sung as early as 1676, a time when various colonies prohibited slaves from congregating due to fears of uprisings. The spiritual likely did not refer to communion, as we understand it today. Although not substantiated, "Let us break bread together" might have carried a double meaning, such as signaling an illicit gathering in violation of those laws.
The phrase "face to the rising sun" appears in every version of the hymn. Michael Hawn suggests that this may have originated from the worship practices of Islamic West Africans. Another theory speculates that the sun symbolized spiritual light in West African traditions.
What about the music? Would we recognize what was commonly sung in the 1700s today? Most likely, yes—with slight variations depending on how the tunes were transmitted among the population. The first written collection of spirituals was published in 1867, a few years after the abolition of slavery. These early collections were transcribed by white musicians who felt the urgency to preserve these songs before they disappeared. African American musicians would later take up the mantle in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with composers such as Harry T. Burleigh, John Rosamond Johnson, Nathaniel Dett, Hall Johnson, William Grant Still, and others providing the initial arrangements of the spirituals. "Let Us Break Bread" emerged during this period, with John Rosamond Johnson publishing the first arrangement in 1926.
The question often arises: "Should a congregation that is not predominantly Black sing this music?" In the words of Anton Armstrong:
“The wide variety of Negro spirituals serves not only as testimony to the lives of a noble people who persevered through the storms of life, but a rich chronicle of the history and communal life of the African American people. In the twenty-first century, these slaves’ songs transcend any one race of people and have become a universal musical expression of people seeking release from whatever personal or society oppression enslaves us. They provide us with an inspiring treasure of song filled with the human exploration of pain, pathos, hope, courage, faith, and freedom. Ain’t a that good news!”
 Armstrong, Anton E., forward to “Way over in Beulah Lan’: Understanding and Performing the Negro Spiritual”, ©2007, Heritage Music Press.
 Thomas, André J., “Way over in Beulah Lan’: Understanding and Performing the Negro Spiritual”, ©2007, Heritage Music Press.
 Bruno Nettl, Folk and Traditional Music of the Western Continents (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, Inc. 1965)