Don't Be Weary, Traveler

R. Nathaniel Dett

R. Nathaniel Dett was one of the earliest composers to treat African-American folk melodies. In his four-volume Dett Collection of Negro Spirituals, which contains simple hymn settings, he is credited as editor – distinct from his more artistic interpretations as composer. In his compositions, he was inspired by Russian composers who incorporated folk melodies into serious classical works. Critics agreed that he excelled in this endeavor, here highlighted by reviews of a tour performance by two rival Nashville newspapers:

  • " who has been uniquely successful in translating the rich folk music of his race into an art form that is already the treasured possession of the musical world." - Nashville Banner, Feb 27, 1923
  • "He has glorified the Negro folk song as did Chopin and Grieg the songs of Poland and Norway." - Nashville Tennessean, Feb. 27, 1923

This compositional perspective is especially salient in Don’t Be Weary, Traveler, a "Negro folk song" explicitly presented as a motet which won Harvard’s prestigious Francis Boot Prize. It would be interesting to rehearse this piece alongside a Renaissance motet. What features of the composition strike students as motet-like or spiritual-like? What traits do the two styles hold in common? How can the students make performance choices that honor the duality in this work?

Reflection Questions

  • Why might Dett, one of the first composers and arrangers to treat the spiritual, have chosen such classical influences?
  • What is the difference between someone who arranges a folk song, and someone who composes a piece on a folk song?

Explore More

Dett composed several spirituals for three-part treble chorus, including There's a Meeting Here Tonight and Done Paid My Vow to the Lord.

His original SATB setting of America the Beautiful is an interesting comparison to the traditional melody.

Learn more through my Teaching with the Library of Congress blog.