Friday, March 23, 2012
Gospel Singing...Black Gospel, That Is!
I was personally invited to a concert by the choir of a primarily African-American two-year college in Texas, the Southwestern Christian College Choir. I was told that if I wanted to hear how music was really supposed to sound I wouldn't want to miss this concert.
I had visited the Black congregation where the concert would be held on several occasions and looked forward to seeing people I knew.
I understood the concert was to start at 2pm. The program showed a different line up. Congregational singing, a speaker, THEN the choir. That was ok I enjoy singing (obviously!) and looked forward to hearing the speaker.
My momma and I were the only whites in the assembly. This is significant only because there is a distinct difference in how southern whites worship in song (very proper, stoic, etc.) and how southern blacks worship in song. I would be out of my normal comfort zone as far as singing would be concerned. But I was very ok with that - I always enjoyed the freedom and expression that occurs during the singing at black congregations.
I attended the concert to hear the visiting choir. I did not realize that the congregational singing would be the highlight of my day.
One man would lead the majority of the songs. As I tried to harmonize with songs I'd never heard before OR songs I'd never heard sung that way before, I became comfortable with the style despite stumbling over the words. Nearly all of the songs were sung in the call & response style of singing. The leader would either introduce the phrase to be sung in echoed response by the congregation or else would sing a phrase that the congregation would respond to using the same lyrics/music.
During one song I heard clapping coming from the area where the college choir was sitting. Normally, in white congregations of churches of Christ, clapping is not permitted. I did not clap. But, I did sing along. The clapping "fit" the moment. (I will not go into a doctrinal discussion here. My response should give evidence to my view.)
Another man approached the pulpit to say a prayer. However, when he was done several in the congregation called out for him to sing THE song. Apparently he was known for leading a certain song. After a moment of feigned reluctance he took the microphone from the stand and began singing "God is Real" (I think this is the title). I recall this song from my youth but it was never sung in the manner with which it was sung on this day. He was soloist, he was leader, and the congregation responded and sang along with gusto.
The speaker was a vibrant Black man who traveled with the choir and would solicit funds for the college from those present. His lesson was dynamic. I frequently felt his intense stare as he spoke. I felt this was probably due to the fact that I was sitting as I would in a white congregation - stoic lacking expression or response - and he was wanting to elicit some sort of response. Sure, I was most definitely moved by his speaking, but after a while I was holding my stoicism to see how long I personally could hold out. Those around me were verbally encouraging him with "Amens" and "Preach it!" and the ever constant "mmHmmm" in agreement. Eventually I did feel a slow smile cross my face as he neared the end of his speech. So he did get a response though not as much as he perhaps wished for.
At 3:30 the choir took the front of the auditorium. (Remember, I thought the concert started at 2pm.)
It was a group of about 35 young people. They were dressed in jeans with choir T-shirts pulled over whatever top they might have been wearing on the trip to TN. After all, they had left TX at 4am in order to reach their destination in time. Their dress did not bother me. It fit the circumstances for many times I've traveled with students where they literally stepped off the bus in time to sing. I did find myself thinking, "Would our primarily white college chorus perform so casually to audiences?" (Our groups wear formal dresses and tuxes.)
After the 1.5 hrs of Black gospel singing I was ready for more from the choir. I was pleasantly surprised to hear a nice, though young, choral sound. Careful enunciation and pure vowel sounds. Their music was contemporary gospel (not the Black spirituals that our choruses keep as mainstays in their repertoire). My only criticism would be that it was difficulty, though not impossible, to hear the soloists who led the call & response songs the choir sang.
One thing SHOCKED me...something I've NEVER seen...something I would NEVER allow in one of my concerts: An audience member sent a note up to someone on the front row who gave it to the choral director. APPARENTLY, someone wanted the choir to sing a request AND the choral director complied! Before singing the next song a young man came from the group, found the song in the hymnal, asked the congregation to get a book, and proceeded to lead the song.
WHAT?!?!?!?! (Gives you an idea of the type of choral director I am.)
Then when that song was over the choir continued with their program.
While some business was being taken care of there was more congregational singing with the same song leader as before. He lead a version of "All Night, All Day" that I had not heard before. The words were the ones I'd learned many years ago in elementary music class, but the melody was definitely a variant - even the repeated response. However, the verses were different in that they used the lyrics to "Amazing Grace" and the response was always "Angels watching over me, my Lord."
It was over at 4:45pm. I left that day feeling refreshed and uplifted. I felt that I had experienced something that many do not get to experience - and I was thankful I was able to attend. I can't wait until next year! :)
Posted by The Musical Sojourner at 11:14 PM