Let me start out with the meaning of “rock.” As in “Elijah Rock,” the overall reference is to God, but this song spells out a couple of specific ones. God is “a rock in a weary land.” You might think that the word “weary” was put there by the slaves who sang it, but it's straight from the book of Isaiah in the old King James Version: “The shadow of a rock in a weary land.” Other translations substitute the word “desert” or “parched” for “weary.” So the original meaning probably doesn't have anything to do with actual physical weariness, but that aspect must have appealed to people whose lives were one great stretch of it. The idea of shade and rest is implicit in the text, as is that of protection: “a shelter in the time of storm” is also from Isaiah. It's not at all uncommon, by the way, for us to say, “He's my rock” to refer to a person in our lives who keeps us on track and is always dependable.
So the source of the “rock” imagery seems pretty clear. What about the “chapter” lines? There is a soloist who takes us through ten of them, introducing each one by saying, “Stop 'n' let me tell you 'bout de. . . .” The chorus responds each time with a commentary on what the soloist has just said. It seems clear to me that this is another example of the call-and-response style that I discussed in an earlier commentary. The word “chapter” is simply being used to mean “Bible story.” Chapter one refers to “when de Lord God's work was jes' begun” at the beginning of Genesis and chapter ten describes the Second Coming of Christ from the Book of Revelation at the end of the Christian New Testament: “John says He's comin' in de world again.” In between those two endpoints the spiritual doesn't follow any kind of strict chronological order. So chapter three is about the Crucifixion: “When de Lord God died on Calvary.” Then there are several references to Jesus' work on earth before that: ministering to the poor, healing the sick, raising the dead. Chapter eight has Him standing at the “Golden Gate,” surely referring to Heaven, but then for chapter nine we're back on earth with the New Testament miracle of Jesus turning the water into wine. So, as far as I can tell, the order of the chapters depends on what works for the rhyme. I can imagine a group of slaves, probably out in the fields or on some other type of work crew, singing to keep their spirits up and give themselves a work rhythm. One man has a booming voice, and he's the one who leads out with the chapters. He's making this up on the fly, so whatever fits as he goes along gets incorporated. Eventually, as with our other folk spirituals, someone wrote it down.
Our arrangement is by a couple of true powerhouses in American choral music: Robert Shaw and Alice Parker. Just about everyone has heard of Robert Shaw and his chorale, but I hadn't ever heard of Alice Parker. Apparently I should have! She is, get this, 89 years old and still going strong, has six honorary doctorates, and has written hymnals, books, and numerous compositions. Had you been in Massachusetts on Dec. 28, 2014, or New York City on Jan. 18, 2015, you could have participated in one of her famous “sings,” for which, if I'm understanding this correctly, anyone can come and participate in an “instant choir” that Ms. Parker leads. Apparently these are quite the events: “There is no one who is not a singer when she leads” says one review. Her website lists many venues in which she is continuing her teaching, with dates far into 2015. You can watch her in action on numerous youtube videos or visit the website of her organization, Melodious Accord, at http://www.melodiousaccord.org/. Robert Shaw is sadly no long around to frighten the living daylights out of his chorale members and thereby get them to produce superb performances, but Alice Parker is still very much with us. It's a privilege for us to get to sing this result of their collaboration.