I made a whirlwind trip in March to Vermont, a place I had never been. I wished I had had the time to actually explore the place but that was not to be. Though I did not get to see much, I did get to meet some truly outstanding people. We spent the better part of a day singing and breaking bread. There was such friendship and love in the space; I was honored to be a part. Though I did not have full use of my voice (this has been an ongoing journey and a story I will tell before long; I know God is doing a mighty work), things went beautifully. It is amazing to teach people who truly want to learn. I left there thinking I may just start my own ensemble, I so miss singing with others at a higher level of excellence. Brendan, the director of the ensemble, wrote the following words in his newsletter. It filled my heart with joy on many levels. I am learning to truly love and accept me, the person God made without the burden of ‘work’ to qualify me. So I share these words just as I share the love I felt when my sisters and brother drove from Maryland to be with me when I was awarded the 2014 University of Dayton College of Arts and Sciences Outstanding Teaching Award. It is a joy to be recognized……
Thanks for reading!!
Brendan wrote: ” The day after I got home from the studio, the whole Bright Wings gang assembled at my place for three days of rehearsal and a weekend of performances. This has been our model from the start, but this time we had the opportunity to spend the second day of rehearsal with Rev. Donna Cox, a gospel choir leader and university professor who traveled out from Ohio to work with us for a day on our performance of African-American gospel and spirituals. As Bright Wings has branched out from our initial roots in shape note music, we’ve really enjoyed exploring some early gospel. But as a group of white singers in a predominantly white state, I felt it was important to do everything we could to insure we were honoring the tradition in our performances, especially in light of some of the events of the past year.
Donna is a gem, and it was a joy to work with her. She was able to coax a better performance out of us almost instantly and gave us some really excellent new repertoire to work with. She also framed spirituals and gospel in some ways that were really helpful to me, and that I’d like to share a bit of here. The first thought has to do with how that music, all of it, is coded and can be understood on multiple levels. Most of you will be aware that songs like ‘Wade in the Water’ or ‘Follow the Drinking Gourd’ were understood spiritually and as advice/ directions for slaves wanting to escape north (the drinking gourd in question being the Big Dipper, pointing north). But what Donna pointed out is that every song, not just the obvious ones, operates on multiple levels of understanding. She taught us the spiritual ‘Great Day’. It says:
Great day/ great day the righteous marching
Great day/ God’s gonna build up Zion’s walls/ God’s gonna build up Zion’s walls.
While this is obviously a promise of spiritual deliverance, it could also be sung with the intent that it will be a great day when Harriet Tubman comes, a great day when we cross that river into Canada. And the advantage of the code then was that it could be sung in that way without the slave-owner knowing. The advantage of the code now is that it means, as a singer, you can choose how to approach the song. You can choose what intention you bring to it. For those of us, like me, who didn’t grow up in a church, I can invest those words with more personal, more visceral meaning: it will be a great day for me when marriage is available to all, when black teens don’t fear the police, when we stop tearing down the mountains in West Virginia for more coal.
Understanding this coded nature of the music also means—and this is what’s new and so important to me—that you can approach the songs on multiple levels as a listener, not just as a singer. That you can find in this old and powerful music meaning that apply to you and your world, and that you can do that in a way that is part of the music’s heritage.
Because that’s the other thing in approaching a musical tradition: it is a tradition, it has a history that needs to be respected. In everything I do musically I’m aware of trying to balance a respect for tradition with the need for personal expression. Donna captured it beautifully when she said, “You bring to the music your experience. You honor where it comes from. You make it your own.”
That feels so important to me, all three parts of that equation. We all have to deal with this history, with the fact that our European ancestors brought slaves from Africa to this country. The ramifications of that are obviously deep and complex, and a bit too much to take on in an already long e-mail. Musically, the response to that experience created an incredibly rich vein of song, music that is now the most popular music in the world: spirituals, blues, jazz, gospel, rock, r&b, soul, hip-hop. Music that is with us every day and that allows us to make these intentional choices, as listeners and as singers, on how we approach the different levels of meaning.
And all that from just an afternoon of rehearsal. Just think if we had had a week… We were supported in doing this work by a crowdfunding campaign, something that many of you contributed to. Thank you for that. Thank you for supporting us, for helping us develop as musicians and to think more deeply about the intersection of race and music.
This ramble has been even longer than usual, so congratulations if you’ve made it to the end. It is Easter Sunday as I write. In the spirit of understanding something on multiple levels of code—wherever you are and whatever you believe, may your spirits rise today.”