Auburn University professor releases CD of African-American spirituals

AUBURN – After more than 15 years of researching African-American spirituals, Auburn University music professor and professional singer Rosephanye Powell has released a CD titled “Motherless Child.”

Powell, a professor in Auburn’s College of Liberal Arts, said African-American spirituals, songs that enabled slaves to develop a sense of community, are considered by many anthropologists to be the first true American folksong. However, Powell’s collection has been updated with a more contemporary sound. She has taken traditional spirituals and given them a mix of R&B, urban, gospel and jazz feel.

The project grew out of her concern that, because of its association with slavery, many African-Americans “do not embrace the spiritual or do not consider it relevant to the times in which they live; others are ashamed of it; and still others just see it as ‘old music.'”

By updating the sound, Powell says she hopes to spark a renewed interest in the African-American spiritual in mainstream America so that this part of black history is not lost. She notes the success of Wynton Marsalis in reviving jazz music as part of her inspiration.

Powell says she hopes to reach out to young people, especially young African-Americans, with the contemporary sound of her spirituals.

“While they’re enjoying the musical flavors, I want to be speaking to their minds,” she said. “I want to encourage young people to look back to history for the strength to succeed and achieve in today’s society. I believe that the African-American community can move forward as we appreciate our heritage and pass on to our children all of the wonderful accomplishments of our forefathers – including the strength and courage to overcome slavery.”

“Motherless Child” takes the listener on a musical journey into American slavery – from Africa to America. The 10 tracks are a tapestry of music, narratives and drama that provide insight into the heartaches, pains, joys and hopes of the slave community. The title track, “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child,” depicts the feelings slaves had when their loved ones were sold away, something to which every slave could relate.

“This song was a shared expression of heartache that provided a sense of community for slaves,” she said. “So, I felt that it was the perfect theme for the project.”

Other well-known spirituals that Powell has transformed on her CD include “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” “Balm in Gilead,” “Deep River” and “Soon-a-Will Be Done,” among others.

The songs, which feature Powell’s classically trained, yet soulful, soprano voice combined with passionate narratives and engaging harmonies, are meant to provide both entertainment and enlightenment.

“My goal was to produce a multi-faceted project that would serve as a tool for music educators, a means for outreach to diverse cultures, and, of course, artistic entertainment,” she said.

“Motherless Child” CDs and mp3 downloads are available online at, iTunes, Rhapsody and For more information or to view music videos, visit or

Powell is an internationally acclaimed composer and arranger of choral music. She has over 100 published works, including some for the Hal Leonard Corporation, the nation’s leading music publisher. As one of the country’s premier women composers of choral music, her works are in great demand at schools, churches and choral festivals around the world.

(Contributed by Lisa Marshall.)

Contact: Rosephanye Powell, (334) 844-3163 (, or
Mike Clardy, (334) 844-9999 (