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SLSO Songs of America | "Deep River"

Updated: Sep 17, 2020

"Deep River"

Traditional Spiritual, arr. Michael Casimir

Michael Casimir, Andrew Francois, viola

Peter Henderson, piano

Passed down by enslaved people singing to the next generations, this African American spiritual was first published in the 1870s in a collection of songs performed by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. While this version is purely instrumental, Michael Casimir and Andrew Francois’ violas sound strikingly close to a human voice, at times crying out.

Deep river, My home is over Jordan. Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.

Oh, don't you want to go, To the Gospel feast; That Promised Land, Where all is peace?

Oh, deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.

In the Bible, the River Jordan is a line past which liberation is possible. “To these early [enslaved] singers…the river may have been for many the last and most formidable barrier to freedom,” writes theologian and civil rights activist Howard Thurman. “To slip over the river from one of the border states would mean a chance for freedom in the North—or, to cross the river into Canada would mean freedom in a new country, a foreign land.” For others, the river symbolized the boundary between a brutal, arduous life and a peaceful, restful afterlife in “campground.”

The SLSO’s video, released on the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, features imagery from that historic day alongside recent marches and events where communities have come together to continue the march toward equality.

These powerful images, which include the late Congressman John Lewis, reflect that while much has been accomplished, there is still work to be done. As Lewis said, "Freedom is not a state; it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society."

This latest installment of the SLSO’s “Songs of America,” was inspired by an earlier recording of this piece, by Casimir, Francois, and pianist Michelle Cann, as a response to Anthony and Demarre McGill’s #TakeTwoKnees initiative. The original video features text by Michael Fernando imposed over the video, reflecting on the societal and cultural struggles in America following the killing of George Floyd. Fernando urges us to “acknowledge the tragedy of life lost, the tragedy of socialized hatred,” and the system that enables it. He leaves us with his hope “that as with most difficult things, people will continue to struggle with the knotty issues of social change.”


In addition to moments from the 1963 March on Washington, this video contains imagery from Selma, Alabama; Washington, D.C.; and Chattanooga, Tennessee.


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