Story Jan Swoope | Photographs Whitten Sabbatini
A winding, rural road near the eastern reaches of Lowndes County, Miss., leads to Providence Missionary Baptist Church. On a late summer’s eve, entry lights flanking its sanctuary doors beckoned visitors to the small, red brick building. Their golden glow penetrated the night, mutely gleaming off clusters of cars crowding the graveled parking lot, while muffled sounds of jubilation hinted at events unfolding inside.
Gospel music, it has been said, is great truth simply stated. The 100 or so souls filling the Providence pews would say “Amen.” The very floorboards shivered, as if the close walls might not hold the energy vibrating within the ranks. Ceiling fans whirred overhead as women, men and children on their feet clapped, sang and swayed with the music spilling from a choir loft filled with singers from 12 different churches. Female ushers dressed all in white kept benign watch and delivered, with gloved hands, tissues and fans to those overcome by emotion. The choir sang “Hallelujah,” and the congregation understood.
The concert — concluding a five-day gospel music workshop led by Terrance Bonner, Penesha McDowell-Harrison and Michael Jackson — was an extension of the vast network of gospel choirs filling community churches large and small every Sunday, especially throughout the South. Churches in which, far from being a prelude to a sermon, the songs themselves are acts of worship.
While everyone may not ascribe to the same concept of a higher power, one thing — music — seldom fails to bring us together. And when it’s bathed in the spirited conviction inherent in most gospel choirs, the connection between chorus and congregation can be at once symbiotic, spontaneous, even electrifying.
A surging love of singing and the message they share brings these mothers, fathers, sons and daughters to, not only their own church choir loft every week, but also to neighboring churches and venues for combined choir workshops, choir days and gospel celebrations. Singing, to them, is a ministry.
“We can’t control anybody’s circumstances, but we want to pick up the spirit, lift it higher, make people feel better about those circumstances,” said McDowell-Harrison, who serves as minister of music at Oak Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Columbus. She’s also a member of the renowned Mississippi Mass Choir and the Noxubee Mass Choir. When this mother of three sings, her deeply held faith is manifest in each expression, each movement.
Like everybody else, she’s endured hard times.
“But they didn’t break me, didn’t shake me,” she smiled. “So, no, I can’t stop singing. Who would want to?”
A BRIEF LOOK BACK
The singing, in fact, has never stopped, only evolved. Springing from an oral tradition, gospel music has long been a repository of black history in America. In the 17th century, songs sung by slaves often utilized repeated lines in a call-and-response fashion, so those who couldn’t read could join in worship.
As spirituals and work songs emerged and spread, gospel music grew into a distinct genre, deriving its name from its close connection to the gospels — meaning “good news” — of the New Testament.
Jerry Brown of Columbus taught a class on gospel music this fall for Mississippi University for Women’s Life Enrichment Program. The music minister and worship leader at Faith Bible Church in Tupelo also co-founded and directs MUW’s United Harmony Choir.
“There is the theology of gospel music, and then there is the musicology,” said Brown, who is a member of the Mississippi Mass Choir. “There is not a defined musicology, not like a sonata, where you have set form.”
Instead, gospel drew from other styles, whether they were classical, romantic, baroque or secular arenas. Influenced by hardship and historic events like the Great Depression, songs reflected the times.
Origins of what most people characterize as gospel today were inspired by pioneers like Thomas A. Dorsey. In the 1930s, he married secular blues and jazz to sacred text and eventually became known as the father of black gospel music.
“The music is a real expression of faith and a music that kept people centered and focused and driven, even in times that were adverse,” Brown shared. “It’s often termed a black art form, but it wasn’t just in black communities; it was in other cultures as well.”
It would be the musical culture of the 1970s to 1990s that brought significant changes to the gospel music world.
“It took on a real celebrated traditional form, your basic — what I would consider 12-bar-blues phrases — changed to a more contemporary sound,” said the instructor.
As more musicians with formal training and music degrees came on the scene, the music was marked by expanded harmonies and orchestration. The impact is seen in even small churches today, where choirs are usually accompanied by guitar and drums, as well as keyboard or piano.
The messages changed, too.
“As people learned from their experiences and overcame a lot of adversity, you saw gospel music that inspired, that offered hope,” said Brown.
‘THE SHOUTIN’ CHOIR’
Hope, talent and expressive emotion are assets the Noxubee Mass Choir has in abundance. That was evident at a Monday night rehearsal in September, at Calvary Missionary Baptist Church in Shuqualak, Miss.
If the brisk high-five from an alto to a tenor on the front row didn’t tell the story, faces wreathed in joy did. Put through their paces by a dynamic leader, the choir had just learned a jubilant new song in short order, and the air still crackled with exhilaration.
Director and founder Freddie Poindexter paced in front of the choir railing, spent, mopping his brow. But like a proud papa, he was visibly pleased. He had challenged the quick-study singers with a musical mountaintop, and they had made the summit.
He paused, then turned to the group he describes as his second family and quietly said, “That’s the first song I ever wrote. It is now your song; it belongs to you.”
Composed of vocalists and musicians hailing from churches in Noxubee, Lowndes, Oktibbeha, Clay and surrounding counties, the mass choir — “they call us the shoutin’ choir,” said Poindexter — performs at concerts, funerals, services and celebrations of all kinds. Its members clearly relish the fellowship. Even rehearsal seemed cathartic, where stresses of the day were checked at the door and all singers were free to express themselves.
Veranice Hill of Shuqualak has been in the mass choir since its formation in 2003.
“I love it more every time I do it. And we love Freddie; there’s nothing he could ask us to do that we wouldn’t do,” she pronounced.
“When we all get together, it just does something for you,” acknowledged Poindexter. “If you come in here sad, you’ll be feelin’ glad by the time you leave.”
AND FROM HERE?
Like most genres, gospel music has more avenues to explore.
Earnestine Hicks has been programming tracks for WTWG 1050-AM Radio out of Columbus for most of the past 15 years. She’s watched trends move from “hip-slapping” traditional gospel to the more “foot-stomping, hand-clapping, body movement” contemporary version.
“And back in the day, you might have a guitar,” she remarked. “Now it’s saxophone, drums and lots of instruments.” But traditional gospel, she is certain, will always have a place of honor.
From Brown’s perspective, gospel is at a “new window,” one opened by technology embraced by younger generations. Gospel rap artists, for instance, enjoy their own niche and can forego authentic instruments altogether, replacing them with computer programs. Where it will all lead remains to be seen.
The form of gospel music, then, continues to evolve — in churches, family bands, recording studios and on front porches. But the profound inspiration is age-old. The songs still offer praise and glory, their power transmitted from one heart to another.
It is, as Freddie Poindexter told the mass choir at rehearsal’s end, a simple matter: “If you’ll just be real when you sing, somebody, somewhere, is gonna feel somethin’.”