Celebrating and reviving traditional spirituals and hymns on 'Soul Sanctuary'

Maria Thomspson Corley and Maria Clark by Rashun Hayes
Maria Thompson Corely (left) and Maria Clark (right) collaborated on the album, "Soul Sanctuary." (Rashun Hayes)

Empowering spirituals and graceful hymns fill the newly released album “Soul Sanctuary,” a collection sung by soprano and Spelman College educator Maria Clark, with the arranger and pianist Maria Thompson Corley. They both joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom to talk about their new collaboration celebrating and reviving the spiritual music traditions of America. 

Interview highlights:

What spirituals can mean to the singer:

“They were a coping mechanism for our people, and the adversity that they were going through, the oppression, and they were born out of slavery and post-slavery times,” said Clark. “I know that I still use them today as a coping mechanism. I don’t know what I’d do without them, and I grew up listening to my mom, aunts and grandmother using them as a coping mechanism.”

“I actually was raised in Canada, of Jamaican ancestry. So obviously, being enslaved was also part of the Jamaican Black experience, but my parents, who met at Montreal’s McGill University — my mom is from Bermuda — sang spirituals, some of these same tunes in a choral society that was formed there,” Corley explained. “I also wanted to mention the coded language that sometimes is included. For example, in ‘Steal Away, Deep River,’ you can see it as a coping mechanism. You can see it as talking about going to heaven. Or you can see it as talking about going across the border to Canada, where … it was a better situation if they could get there.”

Corley’s explorations of gospel music from a classical background:

“Maria wanted to include some things that were more, I guess, gospel, hymn-oriented. So we improvised those on the spot, basically for the recording. And then she wanted me to do something for solo piano, so I did my version of ‘Hold On,’ recorded it in my living room because I don’t know, somehow I feel a little more intimidated, I guess, if something’s a little more up-tempo,” she recounted. “But I felt like we needed something more up-tempo, and I wanted it to be something that was kind of jazzy. So I then recreated something that I had come up with off the top of my head.”

“I didn’t grow up playing gospel piano. I grew up … studying classical piano, and I listened to all kinds of music,” said Corley. “I was never just fully grounded in the idea that classical music is the best music so to speak, or the ivory tower of music. I think any music that communicates emotion, human emotion is, is fine with me. So I don’t know that I could ever be a gospel pianist who felt secure in doing the up-tempo things as I mentioned, but when I wrote it down, then I could do it and have a lot of fun with it.”

On finding a “soul sanctuary” in these hymns:

“People often ask me which spiritual on the CD that I feel most connected to, and mine is ‘I Want Jesus to Walk With Me,’” said Clark. “Because I’ve gone through some very trying times in my life, and particularly lately also. I recently had to go into the hospital with my son, and he had brain surgery … In the hospital, he was getting ready to go into surgery, and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m about to lose it.’ The only thing that I could think to do to calm myself down, really, was to take my phone out and play ‘I Want Jesus to Walk With Me.’ When I listened to that, it immediately calmed my spirit, and I just knew everything was going to be okay.”

“Even if you didn’t understand the words, they’re some of the most beautiful melodies ever. I mean, can you think of a more perfectly constructed art song melody than ‘Deep River,’ for example?” said Corley. “I think everybody has had the experience of feeling like something has been lifted off their shoulders, or I’d hope that they have, or at least they can aspire to the day when they wouldn’t feel that they were burdened down. So there is obviously a deep current of worship involved, but I think you can just listen for the beauty and the common sharing of deep emotion … Or honestly, I think you could just listen to Maria Clark’s voice all day long.”

The new album “Soul Sanctuary” by Maria Clark and Maria Thompson Corley is available now through Navona Records. Streaming and links to purchase are available here.