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The Signed Music of Shirley Childress

Recent decades have brought about an increased awareness of musical modes of expression among the Deaf. Whereas hearing loss had once been thought to exclude people from musical experience and participation, scholars over the past twenty years have drawn attention to the diversity of musical practice among “song signers”—artists, both Deaf and hearing, who draw on signed languages to craft their musical performances.

Shirley Childress was one of the pioneers of signed music. From 1980 until her death in 2017, she interpreted as a member of the all-women gospel group Sweet Honey In The Rock. Childress’s first language, as a Child of Deaf Adults (CODA), was American Sign Language (ASL). Her performances served not only to make the music of Sweet Honey accessible to d/Deaf audience members, but also to inspire sign language interpreters that came after her (Gallaudet University, n.d.). In this essay, videos of her performances are examined to identify the musical and poetic techniques that led others to recognize Childress’s excellence as an interpreter and song signer.

Background

Three authors provide useful frameworks for analyzing signed music. Jessica Berson lays out a continuum, from Inside at one extreme to Outside at the other, on which any performance can be located (Berson 2005, 43). Inside performances are created by Deaf performers for a Deaf audience, while Outside performances are translations of existing works in an effort to make them accessible to those who are d/Deaf. Ben Bahan assigns all signed music to the categories of Translated Songs and Percussion Signing: translated songs are interpretations of existing pieces of music, while percussion signing is a rhythmic genre of signing that developed within the Deaf community (Bahan 2006, 34-6). Anabel Maler outlines four categories of signed music—live music interpretation services, live performances by song-signing artists, videos featuring the performance of an original song, and videos featuring the performance of a preexisting song—while acknowledging that some performances may not fit cleanly into any of the categories she proposes (Maler 2016, 76-7).

There are three precedents for the current work that warrant discussion. Rachel Sutton-Spence’s Analysing Sign Language Poetry, a collection of analyses of poems in ASL and British Sign Language, contains discussions of many literary devices employed by sign language poets (Sutton-Spence et al. 2005). Anabel Maler’s “Songs for Hands: Analyzing Interactions of Sign Language and Music” draws heavily on the poetic devices outlined in Sutton-Spence’s book, applying them to the overtly musical ASL translations of pop songs by Stephen Torrence and others on YouTube (Maler 2013). “A Case Study on Signed Music: The Emergence of an Inter-performance Art” contains descriptions and discussion of two musical performances by Deaf artists, collaboratively analyzed by a group of artists and scholars both Deaf and hearing (Cripps et al. 2017).

This paper takes Maler’s “Songs for Hands” as its starting point, discussing the artistic techniques she lays out, and noting similarities and differences between Childress’s and Torrence’s performances where the comparison is illuminating. Since Maler’s analyses deal with worked-out performances made to accompany preexisting pieces, a number of additional considerations are dealt with, relating to the spontaneous and interactive aspects of Childress’s performances. The main topics addressed include the use of productive signs, repetition of signs, treatment of musical space, use of alliteration and rhyme, expression of musical rhythm, mouthing of words, and improvisation. For each of these topics, relevant connections to Berson’s Inside-Outside spectrum and Maler’s four categories of signed music are highlighted.

All of the examples in this essay are drawn from three performances by Sweet Honey on YouTube: two individual songs, “Let There Be Peace” and “Wade in the Water,” and an hour-long performance demonstration for a group of students. Whereas the analyses of Cripps et al. involve the participation of artists and scholars fluent in ASL, and Maler’s article draws on ASL glosses created by Torrence, no published transcriptions of Childress’s performances exist. In order to conduct the analyses below, a professional Deaf interpreter was engaged to provide glosses for a number of video clips, which were selected based on their their length and clarity. These video clips, annotated with the interpreter’s glosses, form the set of examples upon which this essay is based. Although the video evidence of Childress’s artistic techniques are limited to these few clips, they amply demonstrate the wide variety of artistic techniques Childress employs in her interpretations and song signing.

Thoughts from Childress and Sweet Honey In The Rock

To begin, it is worth considering what the members of Sweet Honey thought of Childress’s contributions, as well as Childress’s own thoughts, in order to establish a starting point for exploration of the theoretical frameworks outlined above. Many of group’s comments suggest a position towards the Outside end of Berson’s continuum. For example, longtime group member Ysaye Barnwell noted how Childress “made musical performances by Sweet Honey in the Rock accessible to [D]eaf communities,” emphasizing how Childress interpreted the primarily auditory output of Sweet Honey, making it available to a demographic that would otherwise not be able to appreciate it (Wartofsky 2017). Similarly, in a message on their website after Childress’s death, the members of Sweet Honey stated that “because of [Childress], deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences have had access to the wonderful music and empowering messages that Sweet Honey gives to the world” (Bessman 2017). Comments such as these also suggest that Childress’s performances fit into Maler’s category of live music interpretation services. On the other hand, some of the group’s comments reveal that Childress’s role in the group was more integral. In the same statement, Sweet Honey’s members recalled how Childress “taught us phrases and words in sign language so we could be in tune with her singing and signing” (Bessman 2017). Actions such as these indicate that Childress’s role in the group was more interactive, with her signing having an influence on the group’s singing, suggesting that Maler’s category of live performances by song-signing artists is also worth considering.

Productive Signs: Modifications of Existing Signs

Productive signs, sometimes referred to as neologisms, are new signs that are invented to express a concept for which a sign does not already exist. While productive signs are regularly improvised in conversation, they play an especially important role in sign language poetry (Sutton-Spence et al. 2005, 7). Early in her career with Sweet Honey, Childress offered an anecdote in an interview about a conscious choice to use such a sign. A d/Deaf audience member suggested that Childress should change “the sign for ‘black people.’ Formerly they were referred to (only) by two fingers rubbing the nostril, [which] connotes ‘bad smell,’ something unpleasant.” Based on this feedback, Childress switched to using “a combination of the sign for Africa, the thumb drawing a line across the forehead, and the sign for ‘black’” (Murphy 1982).

Childress uses productive signs in many of the clips examined in this paper, but they are especially prominent in passages without sung lyrics. A simple example can be found in Childress’s interpretation of a chant from the Ituri Rainforest, as part of the performance demonstration for a group of school children (Example 1: Rainforest Chant). Explaining the challenges of interpreting a wordless chant, Childress outlines a number of general associations she made in creating ASL lyrics for the piece. As she walks the students through the signs she uses to express the meaning of the chant— RAIN, BREATH, respect for LAND and WIND, and a feeling of being CONNECTED—she creates a new sign, which she translates verbally as “wind blowing in our faces” ([1:05]). The Deaf interpreter identified this sign as BREATH, as the gesture uses the same movement as BREATH, but Childress uses the same open-5 handshape as for WIND, and moves the sign in space, performing it in front of her face instead of in front of her chest. This combination and modification of existing signs is characteristic of the kinds of productive signs used in sign language poetry and signed songs.

Example 1: Rainforest Chant

Such examples of modified, productive signs abound throughout Childress’s interpretation of Rainforest Chant, as nearly every sign she uses varies in some way from the sign’s established form used in conversational ASL. For this clip, the Deaf interpreter provided annotations describing the ways the signs have been adjusted, including various modifications to handshape, motion and position, with “arc” meaning that the sign follows a broad, sweeping path, and a plus sign (+) indicating that a sign is repeated multiple times. Two modifications merit highlighting. First, the signs Childress uses that follow a swirling motion were identified as SOCIAL ([1:09]). A number of ASL words related to groups of people involve creating a circle in front of the signer’s chest, with SOCIAL, GROUP, TEAM, and FAMILY using this motion, differing only in handshape. For audience members fluent in ASL, Childress’s adaptation of the signs WIND and LAND to use a similar motion to SOCIAL suggests the concept of community even before the sign CONNECTED makes this association explicit. Second, Childress modifies the handshape for a number of her signs throughout the chant, using an open-5 handshape with wiggling fingers ([1:19]). In her analysis of Dorothy Miles’s poem Christmas Magic, Sutton-Spence et al. note how Miles uses finger wiggling to add a sense of “sparkle” or “magic” to signs not normally associated with magic (Sutton- Spence et al. 2005, 28). In Rainforest Chant, Childress uses this gesture to imbue her interpretation with a similar shimmer, evoking the buzz of life in the rainforest.

Productive Signs: The Creation of New Signs

While many productive signs are modifications of existing signs, signers can also create entirely new signs. Maler identifies two new signs that Stephen Torrence uses to fill an instrumental passage in his interpretation of “Fireflies,” and Childress uses similar productive signs to fill moments without lyrics in a number of Sweet Honey’s songs. In “Fireflies”, Torrence uses an open-B handshape with a fluttering motion to accompany the song’s introduction, making visible the sound of the synthesizer while also evoking the movement of an insect in flight (Maler 2013, 4.2-4.3). In the meantime, he opens and closes his non-dominant hand to imitate the sound of bells, another productive sign used to visualize the sounds he is hearing. In the introduction to “When I Grow Up,” Childress uses a similar, open-5 handshape, with both hands in front of her body as the rest of Sweet Honey sings using vocables or nonsense syllables (Example 2: Vocables 1). And in the introduction to “Education is the Key,” Childress alternates between open and closed handshapes in interpreting a similar passage in vocables (Example 3: Vocables 2). These productive signs, though they convey no literal meaning, serve to maintain musical activity in much the same way that vocables allow singers to create music even in the absence of lyrics.

Example 2: Vocables 1
Example 3: Vocables 2

It is worth noting the ways in which Childress’s approach differs from Torrence’s. In “Fireflies,” each of Torrence’s motions can be mapped directly to an event in the sounding music: each opening of his non-dominant hand corresponds clearly to the onset of a bell sound, while the position of his dominant hand in vertical space corresponds to the pitch of the synthesizer (Maler 2013, 4.2). Childress’s signs, on the other hand, convey less information about the specifics of the sounds she hears and more about the music’s rhythm and groove—an organic response, rather than an attempt to create a literal translation of some of the music’s parameters. In this way, Torrence’s interpretation lies further toward the Outside end of Berson’s Inside- Outside spectrum than Childress’s does, occupied as it is with making the salient aspects of his experience of the music accessible to a d/Deaf audience. Childress’s interpretation, while still reflecting the sounds created by the rest of Sweet Honey, communicates the song’s general feel, offering an opportunity for audience members to engage with and entrain to the music.

Treatment of Open Space

This use of productive signs to express instrumental and vocable passages relates to a more general challenge in interpreting sounding music: how to treat passages where no new lyrics are being sung. Maler identifies two possible tactics in handling the ends of phrases: repeating signs or extending them in time, or leaving a gap. The first approach tends to be favoured by fluent, Deaf song signers, while the second approach is more often found in less experienced, beginning signers (where the void is frequently filled by dancing or head-bobbing) (Maler 2016, 84). While both Torrence and Childress employ the technique of sign extension, the range of approaches Childress employs extends far beyond this.

One approach, seen above in Rainforest Chant, is to add new words to a passage. In a similar vein, a signer can displace signs in time to occupy a temporal interval more evenly. For example, as the singing members of Sweet Honey hold the word “shine” at the end if their performance of “This Little Light of Mine,” Childress signs LET, YOUR and SHINY during the fermata (Example 4: This Little Light Ending). This displacement of signs can occur as a natural byproduct of translation between languages: since the syntax of ASL differs from that of English, corresponding words will simply not line up. An example can be found at the end of “Do What the Spirit Says Do,” when the signs corresponding to the last sung line spill into the fermata near the end of the piece (Example 5: Do What the Spirit Says Ending).

Example 4: This Little Light Ending
Example 5: Do What the Spirit Says Ending

Signs, of course, can be simply drawn out in time. Childress can be seen demonstrating this approach in two clips from Sweet Honey’s performance of “This Little Light of Mine.” At the piece’s final fermata, the final SHINY is drawn out with an embellished motion and the added sparkle of wiggling fingers (Example 4: This Little Light Ending [0:13]). During the group’s entrance, Childress’s signs are relaxed and deliberate, each lasting a few seconds (Example 6: This Little Light Entrance)—indeed, when compared to the flurry of signs used to interpret the uptempo “Do What the Spirit Says Do,” Childress’s delivery appears positively sedate. In addition to drawing individual signs out in time, signs can instead be repeated, as is evident in the doubled PRAY at [0:04] in Childress’s interpretation of “When I Grow Up” (Example 7: When I Grow Up).

Example 6: This Little Light Entrance
Example 7: When I Grow Up

Finally, for effect, a sign singer can leave a space where there was space left in the music. Before the final statement of “let it shine” in “This Little Light of Mine,” all the singers in Sweet Honey breathe together, creating a pause that contrasts with the many- layered music that came before it. Childress matches this moment by closing her hands in their places on either side of her face, where they had been in an open-5 handshape for the sign SHINY (Example 4: This Little Light Ending [0:08]). This moment of collective pause throws all of Childress’s other techniques into stark relief: elsewhere, she uses extended signs, repeated signs, displacement of signs, the addition of lyrics, and the invention of signs without literal meaning to create a sense of continuing musical activity, whereas here, she creates a striking moment of rest in anticipation of the song’s conclusion.

Rhyme and Alliteration

In her analysis of Stephen Torrence’s “Fireflies” interpretation, Maler identifies many instances of rhyme and alliteration, and while there are some comparable instances in Childress’s interpretations, she seems to use alliteration and rhyme less than Torrence does. In spoken language, poetic devices such as rhyme, consonance, assonance and alliteration depend on the repetition of vowel and consonant sounds. While all the parameters of a sign—handshape, movement, location, orientation and non-manual markers—can be repeated from one sign to another, words such as “rhyme” and “alliteration” remain but approximations and metaphors for signed poetic practices that do not yet have widely-accepted terms to describe them (Sutton-Spence et al. 2005, 42-3). Nevertheless, the repetition of different sign parameters is frequently used for poetic effect by sign language poets and song signers.

Maler’s analysis focuses on the ways Torrence uses rhymes to define phrases, a technique borrowed from the end rhymes characteristic of many spoken poetic traditions (Kaneko 2011, 237). Childress, however, tends to use the repetition of motions or handshapes for their symbolism. One example of this has already been discussed, where Childress uses circular motions in Rainforest Chant to evoke a sense of community. In their article on alliteration in sign language poetry, Michiko Kaneko surveys a dictionary to discover the associations of particular handshapes, concluding that open handshapes are more frequently used in signs with positive associations, while handshapes with bent fingers tend to evoke more negative emotions (Kaneko 2011, 240). In her interpretation of “Let There Be Peace,” Childress exclusively uses signs with open handshapes: the extended index finger of a G handshape for DISCUSS, and the open-B of PEACE, THEE, and LISTEN (Example 8: Let There Be Peace). While Kaneko cautions against finding alliteration too readily in signed poetry—many signs, after all, use open handshapes—the repetition of an open-B handshape in this example clearly reflects the hopeful message of the song it accompanies (Kaneko 2011, 244).

Example 8: Let There Be Peace

Rhythm and Pulse

Discussing the treatment of rhythm and pulse in the interpretations of fluent and inexperienced song signers, Maler notes that fluent signers tend to use pulsing for its role in ASL prosody, articulating important signs or the ends of thoughts, whereas beginning signers tend to pulse with the rhythm of the song (Maler 2016, 82-3). From one song to the next, Childress displays a range of approaches to the expression of rhythm in her body as she signs. In line with what Maler describes as the more fluent approach, Childress concludes her performance of “Do What the Spirit Says Do” with a head nod, a salient enough aspect of her gesture that the interpreter providing ASL glosses made note of it (Example 5: Do What the Spirit Says Ending [0:20]). Throughout this clip, Childress’s head and the core of her body remain generally still, with any movements used to articulate specific signs, such as HEART. This approach, however, is hardly characteristic of all of Childress’s interpretations. In “Let There Be Peace,” Childress shifts her weight from side to side in time with the music in much the same way as the other members of Sweet Honey (Example 8: Let There Be Peace). And her expression of the rhythm of the music is even clearer in the clips with vocables: in the first of these, Childress’s shoulders rise and fall in time with the song’s pulse (Example 2: Vocables 1), while in the second, her hands open and close on beat, and she repeats a sign with shoulders raised to reflect the rhythm of a small break in the sung performance (Example 3: Vocables 2 [0:10]). These expressions of the sounding music place Childress’s interpretation in these moments closer to the Outside extreme of Berson’s Inside-Outside scale, though Childress clearly traverses this continuum throughout her performances.

Mouthing the Words

As she interprets, Childress’s face is nearly as active as her hands. Sign languages such as ASL include a variety of non-manual markers (NMMs), and among these, “mouth patterns” can play as important a role in communicating meaning as the hands (Sutton-Spence et al. 2005, 10-2). In spite of this, during “Let There Be Peace,” Childress can be clearly seen mouthing the lyrics of the song as they are sung (Example 8: Let There Be Peace). In “Wade in the Water,” however, Childress’s use of lip movements and facial expressions is less straightforward (“Sweet Honey In The Rock - Wade in the Water" 2012).

Sutton-Spence et al. identify two main categories of mouth patterns: “mouthings,” which tend to accompany established signs, and “mouth gestures,” which are used to elaborate or modify the meanings of the signs they accompany (Sutton-Spence et al. 2005, 10-2). Mouthing words in English can get in the way of using the mouth for grammatical purposes in ASL, as some signs must be accompanied by NMMs to be correct, while other signs can be enhanced by optional NMMs (Vicars, n.d.). In a discussion about interpreters mouthing English words on the AllDeaf online forum, however, a number of users commented on how the use of English mouthings can clarify the meaning of an interpretation: user respectoyda notes that “one sign can be the equivalent to so many words in English so it helps to understand which word was being actually used by the hearing person” (AllDeaf Forum, n.d.).

“Wade in the Water” offers an example of how Childress navigates this particular interpretation challenge, moving fluidly between mouthing words and using other NMMs over the course of a single song. At [2:50], Childress mouths “God’s gonna trouble the water” in time with the lyrics of the song, whereas a few moments earlier, at [2:25], Childress uses the NMM of pursed lips and puffed cheeks, with the sounding lyrics not visible on her lips at all. Throughout the thirty seconds beginning at [0:34], she mouths “wade” at [0:37], uses a series of ASL-specific facial gestures at [0:53], before mouthing “God’s gonna trouble” in time with the rest of the ensemble at [0:59]. It is hard to tell, during passages when her lips are not synchronized with the words being sung, whether her signs are accompanied by the mouthed English equivalent of the sign or with an elaborative mouth gesture.

Sweet Honey in the Rock: "Wade in the Water"

It is possible that Childress’s facial gestures are entirely for the benefit of a d/Deaf audience, with her choosing to mouth in English to communicate the song’s message as clearly or fully as possible. In terms of Inside-Outside spectrum, this aspect of her interpretation would nudge the performance toward the Outside end, as she expresses the meaning of a sounded art-form as faithfully as possible in ASL. But another possibility is that many of her mouthings are for the benefit of hearing audience members, making clear the relationships between her signs and the sounding music, and demonstrating that she is in sync with the rest of the ensemble. If the second possibility is the case, it would have the effect of turning Berson’s spectrum itself inside-out, with Childress’s mouthings serving to unlock the meaning of the signed music for the hearing audience.

Improvisation

Performing with a group like Sweet Honey In The Rock creates unique challenges for an interpreter. Whereas song signers on YouTube such as Stephen Torrence interpret pre-existing songs that do not change when they are replayed, Childress interprets in-the-moment with a group whose performances involve a significant amount of improvisation. Childress, as a member of the group for nearly four decades, was thoroughly familiar with the group’s repertoire. But the fact that any one performance could differ significantly from the next sets up a set of choices that must be made, balancing temporal coordination of sound and sign against faithful interpretation of the words being sung. At the end of the performance of “Do What the Spirit Says Do,” Childress appears to be signing a moment behind the lyrics being sung: as the singers hold a sustained, embellished note on the syllable “oh,” Childress signs GIVE-TO-ME, INSPIRE, GO-AHEAD, ENCOURAGE, and YOU (Example 5: Do What the Spirit Says Ending [0:12]). Evidently, these signs correspond to the last thought that was sung in tempo, and while they may have been worked out ahead of time, they have clearly not been choreographed to align with the sounding music. Childress, however, preempts the singing of the song’s last line, signing WHAT and YOUR before the singers begin their final “do what the spirit says do.” This allows Childress to arrive at her final sign, FOLLOW, neatly in time with the singers’ last syllable. In passages where improvisation is possible, then, Childress signs behind the song’s lyrics, allowing her to more faithfully render the message being sung. In passages that have been definitively worked out, however, Childress changes her approach, aligning and synchronizing the rhythm of her gestures with that of the singers’ words.

One brief moment of improvisation speaks volumes about the nature of Childress’s role in Sweet Honey. In “This Little Light of Mine,” Childress uses the sign ENCOURAGE to translate “come on people” (Example 6: This Little Light of Mine Entrance [0:08]). In her interpretation of Rainforest Chant, as the rest of the group begins to sing, she interjects this same sign, ENCOURAGE, between two instances of BREATH (Example 1: Rainforest Chant [1:56]). This sign was not part of the chant as she had taught it to the students minutes earlier, and there is no element of the sounding music that might prompt its inclusion: ENCOURAGE is a spontaneous exhortation, an invitation to the school children to sing and to sign along. Whereas much of Childress’s interpretation is consistent with Maler’s category of live music interpretation services, this small gesture reveals that Childress’s role in Sweet Honey In The Rock is not just to accurately translate the sounding music, but rather to communicate, express and emote, with license to elaborate and to improvise just as the other members of the group do. Through her interpretations into ASL, Childress expresses the message of the music in way the sound of the music alone cannot, as a full and integral member of the group.

Reception and Legacy

Through her performances with Sweet Honey In The Rock, Childress has had an impact on artists and audience members alike. Childress’s work was appreciated by many fans, both Deaf and hearing. One hearing fan noted that although she did not know any sign language, “Shirley made me feel like I did,” demonstrating the ways in which Childress’s role in the group went beyond simply providing translations of the lyrics for audience members who couldn’t hear (Wartofsky 2017). Childress inspired other interpreters, especially those who translated at live music shows. For example, interpreter Lori Abrams cited Childress’s approach to passages without lyrics as her model for interpreting during the long instrumental improvisations of rock group The Grateful Dead (Abrams 1995).

Conclusion

Bahan claims that signed music is either percussion signing or translated songs, Berson proposes an Inside-Outside continuum to categorize the works of Deaf artists, while Maler outlines four categories for the description of signed music—how does Childress’s work relate to the theoretical frameworks these authors propose? Childress’s performances are surely not percussion signing, but to reduce them to mere translations is to ignore the ways in which Childress’s signs add layers of meaning to Sweet Honey’s sounding songs, such as when she adds lyrics to the wordless Rainforest Chant. Childress’s variety of approaches also defies projection onto Berson’s one-dimensional continuum: she signs after the sounding music so as to accurately translate passages that involve improvisation, yet she also eschews direct representation of musical elements such as register in favour of expressing the music’s general feel, and mouths the words of the songs in order to offer non-signing listeners a way to appreciate the poetry and musicality of her gestures. Of the four categories Maler proposes, Childress’s performances straddle the boundary between live music interpretation services and live performances by song-signing artists. The music of Sweet Honey can stand on its own without interpretation, as it does on the group’s albums, in contrast to the works of many Deaf song-signing artists. Yet when she performs with the group, Childress’s signs become an integral part of the performance rather than a mere interpretation of the sounding music, as she adds asides and weaves new meaning into Sweet Honey’s songs.

Childress employs a wide range of techniques in order to contribute to the musicality of Sweet Honey In The Rock’s performances. She expresses the rhythm of the music in her body without overstepping the bounds of idiomatic ASL, and she draws on poetic tools to reflect the mood of the music. She uses innovative, productive signs to not only communicate the nuances of a song’s lyrics, but even to interpret wordless passages. She modifies her facial gestures to accommodate hearing audience members, and goes off-script to improvise with the rest of the group. With a thorough command of her native American Sign Language and a sensitivity to Sweet Honey’s message to the world, Shirley Childress crafts performances that resist easy categorization and are, above all, profoundly musical.

Works Cited

AllDeaf Forum. “Interpreters mouthing words in English.” Accessed May 8, 2020. http://www.alldeaf.com/threads/interpreters-mouthing-words-in-english.116701/.

Abrams, Lori. 1995. Interview by David Gans. Grateful Dead Radio Hour, Dead.net, June 12, 1995. Audio. 53:42 (interview from 25:50 to 32:30). https://www.dead.net/features/gd-radio-hour/grateful-dead-hour-no-351.

Bahan, Ben. 2006. “Face-to-Face Tradition in the American Deaf Community: Dynamics of the Teller, the Tale, and the Audience.” In Signing the Body Poetic: Essays on American Sign Language Literature, ed. H-Dirksen L. Bauman, Jennifer L. Nelson, and Heidi M. Rose. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Berson, Jessica. 2005. “Performing Deaf Identity: Toward a Continuum of Deaf Performance.” In Bodies in Commotion: Disability & Performance, ed. Carrie Sandahl and Philip Auslander, 42–55. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Bessman, Jim. 2017. “Sweet Honey in the Rock’s Shirley Childress–An appreciation” Centerline News, March 15, 2017. Accessed May 11, 2020. https://www.centerline.news/single-post/2017/03/15/Shirley-Childress–An-appreciation.

Cripps, Jody H., Ely Rosenblum, Anita Small, and Samuel J. Supalla. 2017. “A Case Study on Signed Music: The Emergence of an Inter-performance Art.” Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies 13, no. 2. http://liminalities.net/13-2/signedmusic.pdf.

Gallaudet University. “Biography of Dr. Shirley Childress.” Accessed May 4, 2020. https://www.gallaudet.edu/office-of-development/dr-shirley-childress/dr-childress-bio.

Kaneko, Michiko. 2011. “Alliteration in Sign Language Poetry.” In Alliteration in Culture, ed. Jonathan Roper, 231–46. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

Maler, Anabel. 2016. “Musical Expression among Deaf and Hearing Song Signers.” In The Oxford Handbook of Music and Disability Studies, ed. Blake Howe, Stephanie Jensen-Moulton, Neil William Lerner, and Joseph Nathan Straus, 73- 91. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

—————. 2013. “Songs for Hands: Analyzing Interactions of Sign Language and Music.” Music Theory Online 19, no. 1. https://mtosmt.org/issues/mto.13.19.1/mto.13.19.1.maler.html.

Murphy, Tara Anne. 1982. “Her Hands Sing for the Deaf.” Washington Post, January 7, 1982. Accessed May 11, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/1982/01/07/her-hands-sing-for-the-deaf/a4f7d709-32e9-4953-8fbc-3375c97849ce/.

Sutton-Spence, Rachel, Paddy Ladd, and Gillian Rudd. 2005. Analysing Sign Language Poetry. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Vicars, William. “ASL Linguistics: Mouthing in ASL / Mouth Morphemes.” ASL University. Accessed May 8, 2020. https://www.lifeprint.com/asl101/pages-layout/mouthinginasl.htm.

Wartofsky, Alona. 2017. “Her Sign From Above.” Washington City Paper, March 22, 2017. Accessed May 4, 2020. https://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/arts/music/blog/20855924/shirley-childress-obituary.

Videos Cited

“Example 1: Rainforest Chant.” 2020. YouTube video (unlisted), 2:13. May 8. https://youtu.be/X97yYb1aJGc.

“Example 2: Vocables 1.” 2020. YouTube video (unlisted), 0:15. May 7. https://youtu.be/OFGgUa4z08w.

“Example 3: Vocables 2.” 2020. YouTube video (unlisted), 0:18. May 7. https://youtu.be/-o50aRyDiKc.

“Example 4: This Little Light Ending.” 2020. YouTube video (unlisted), 0:21. May 7. https://youtu.be/coY9dq7kaWU.

“Example 5: Do What the Spirit Says Ending.” 2020. YouTube video (unlisted), 0:24. May 7. https://youtu.be/52fIshTkoaU.

“Example 6: This Little Light Entrance.” 2020. YouTube video (unlisted), 0:27. May 7. https://youtu.be/X4wsMUak1is.

“Example 7: When I Grow Up.” 2020. YouTube video (unlisted), 0:16. May 7. https://youtu.be/Dnk2YXP3SkA.

“Example 8: Let There Be Peace.” 2020. YouTube video (unlisted), 0:19. May 7. https://youtu.be/6EA79TNEl1A.

Sweet Honey In The Rock, 2010. “Sweet Honey In the Rock – Let There Be Peace.” YouTube video, 4:35. June 6. https://youtu.be/FzICwz28qVw.

“Sweet Honey In The Rock (Performance/Demonstration).” 2018. YouTube video, 58:41. Posted by Kennedy Center Education Digital Learning, September 17. https://youtu.be/yQc6SUtUhL4.

“Sweet Honey In The Rock – Wade in the Water.” 2012. YouTube video, 5:38. Posted by Riddle Films, May 11. https://youtu.be/RRpzEnq14Hs.

This blog post began life as a term paper for Joseph Straus's Winter 2020 graduate seminar in Music Theory and Disability at McGill University. I'd like to thank both Dr. Straus and my colleagues in the class for their suggestions and feedback in crafting this essay.

I am not fluent in ASL, and while I took great care in fitting my interpreter's transcriptions to the video in my examples, it's quite likely that I have made errors in my examples or my interpretation thereof. I encourage you to get in touch with me with any thoughts, comments, questions or corrections you may have.

Posted: Feb 04, 2021. Last updated: Apr 15, 2021.