While singer-songwriter Khari McClelland was reading a book about a couple that escaped from slavery in the 1800s by traveling from his hometown of Detroit into Canada, he suddenly stopped and thought, "What was the music that followed these people on their journey?"
The question was especially meaningful for McClelland, a member of Vancouver-based gospel group The Sojourners, as his own great-great-great grandmother had once traveled the same route on the Underground Railroad.
He retraced that journey last summer to learn his family history, and to resurrect the songs that inspired slaves who took the secret routes into Canada between 1840 and 1860.
McClelland will be performing some of the songs at "Freedom Singer" — a special Toque Sessions concert on Tuesday, Jan. 19 at the CBC Vancouver Broadcast Centre.
"There's an immense sense that there's a lot of loss for people, but there's also this enduring hope, and also this kind of dignity that isn't always reflected in the society or in the world around you, but that somehow you understand to be conferred to you at birth," said McClelland, describing the music he found.
He will be accompanied by a band and a six-member choir. A display at the concert will also show some of the images he collected from his research, which was funded by the Canada Council for the Arts.
When asked if there was a particular song that stood out for him, he replied, "They're all my children.
"It wouldn't be right for a parent to say that they have one particular favourite child.... I feel like I'm in relationship with these songs as if they were representative of people, and people's struggle."
McClelland said that while the songs feel like "history is being kept alive," they are like folk songs in the way that they are rewritten every time they're sung.
"While they feel like historical documents, they are also very reflective of contemporary issues as well."
To hear the full story listen to the audio labelled: African-Canadian singer-songwriter performs songs of the Underground Railroad.