For several Sunday mornings now, I have walked down to the Little Miami River following a path in the woods that takes me past some mossy stones that once made up foundations for several small cabins. Runaway slaves found refuge there on their journey north to Canada in the 1850s. The spot isn’t far from the Mill where I used to live, which was a stop on the Underground Railroad. The woods are so thickly overgrown now with honeysuckle that I have to search for the stones. In the quiet of the morning I’ve heard a wood thrush singing, even this late in August. I pause then and hum a little of Duke’s gospel masterpiece, “Come Sunday.” And I think of Emerson’s simplest statement of faith, “I believe in the still small voice.”
This clip of Come Sunday comes from Ellington’s First Sacred Concert in 1965. The singer is Esther Marrow. Mahalia Jackson recorded another live version with Ellington in 1958, on the eve of her own legendary performance at the Newport Jazz Festival.
Update 082910: Into this arc of connections from Emerson to Ellington comes Moncure Conway (left) , abolitionist preacher and biographer of Tom Paine, who died in Paris in 1907. Thanks to Sue Parker for introducing him in the comments. “The Grinnell’s old barn also still exists close by (although in much altered form!) where the formerly enslaved group resided, according to Moncure Conway’s autobiography… Underground Railroad lore is often only that, but in this case I feel confident because of these two sources. Sadly, the only other account I have found about Grinnell Road was in the Siebert papers at Ohio Historical Society. There I found an account of a running young woman captured (by slave hunters) on horseback on Grinnell Road.”