This Saturday, Canadian musician David Sereda will be visiting the Limestone City to host a unique, interactive musical workshop. Dubbed Desperate Road to Freedom after his forthcoming musical, the workshop invites guests to learn traditional Spirituals from the era of the Underground Railroad. Blurring the line between audience and performer, these spiritual make use of call-and-response style and keep the oral tradition alive. Here, Sereda tells us about this fascinating work.
1. First, can you tell us a little bit about what inspires you as a musician and songwriter?
What inspires me is that music has a very direct affect on me, and probably on a lot of people, where it just is so present. On an emotional level, on an intellectual level, on a story level, on a rhythmic level, when I perform I’m trying to be aware that if I’m doing my job as a musician I’m hoping to be in the moment with everyone who’s listening. I’m also inspired by the way the voice and words and music come together. The songwriter Laura Smith coined the term “songwright,” like a wheelwright or a millwright. It’s this idea of working on a song as though it were a three-dimensional thing. I love that idea, as opposed to the idea of writing a song as one-dimensional, sitting down with a pen and paper.
2. What draws you to Spirituals and to call-and-response styles of music?
It’s a situation where the lines between audience and performer are blurred. The caller, or the person who’s leading the song, is in effect leading us through the journey of the song. One of the first songs I remember singing was “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” and the response part says, “Coming for to carry me home.” What does “home” mean? It could mean heaven, it could me New York, it could mean Canada—even Kingston. Maybe a place you’ve never even been before. It’s like these songs are maps. That’s amazing.
3. These songs come from a very old tradition; what keeps them alive today?
The spirituals changed and evolved over time because they were written by a community of people that were under those desperate conditions. We’ll never really know all the people that contributed to writing these songs. The reason I think that the songs survived and why they remain relevant today is that they just contain some amazingly powerful melodies and powerful emotions and thoughts. When I started writing songs, I wanted to write songs that I felt were useful in some way, ad I think that these songs are so amazingly useful. They’re inspiring.
4. What can guests of your workshop expect on Saturday?
What I’m going to do with the spirituals is really concentrate on people responding because of what they hear. I’m not going to be giving people a pile of songs and say “Here’s the lyrics, here’s the music.” In fact, I’m not going to give people any paper at all. We are going to learn things by ear. Some will be songs that people know, just as general knowledge, and some won’t be. And that’s all good. They’re very welcoming songs because once you hear the first verse, you can jump in. And then maybe you want to find a harmony. It’s not me saying, “You’re an alto, you have to sing this.” I also think it’s important for people to get in touch with their voices so I’ll also lead a vocal warm-up that uses the idea of call and response. It doesn’t matter if you read music or not; what matters is that you’d like to come and learn some new songs and maybe learn about your voice.
5. Have you been to Kingston before? What are you looking forward to doing in the city?
I have been to the city but I have not spent a huge amount of time there, and I’ve never led a workshop and I’ve never performed there. What’s great is I’ll be doing a range of things: along with the workshop I’ll also be going to some schools on Thursday and Friday and working with some students, which is really cool. It teaches them, don’t be afraid of singing; it’s all about finding your voice.
6. You’ve been working on the forthcoming musical Desperate Road to Freedom. Can you say a bit about the piece and what’s coming up next for you?
The project that I’m working on, Desperate Road to Freedom, is set in the 1860s in Virginia, moves up to New York and then Toronto and Owen Sound. It follows the journey of an 11-year-old girl and her family escaping on the Underground Railroad. But it should also resonate for what we are doing today as a country in terms of welcoming new refugees to Canada. Are we providing for them when they’re here? I think we’re falling down in both respects, and that’s not who we used to be as a country.
From what we know about the Underground Railroad, the people that were right at the centre of it were obviously the black people enslaved by this horrible institution. We also know that the abolition movement was also a movement of white people and black people. There’s that sense of people, whatever their background or faith, working together because they were so disgusted by such awful treatment of another human being. That’s another reason why I think these songs are alive: there’s this sense of humanity in them. And they point to questions that we should be asking today: how are we treating people that are in trouble today that need refuge and might want to come to Canada? What are we doing for those people?
The Desperate Road to Freedom workshop will take place at 130 Clergy St. (St. Andrew’s Church) from 9:30 to 12:30 on November 15th. For tickets and more information, visit Blue Skies in the Community.