The Role of Sacred Music : LUSENET : A.M.E. Today Discussion : One Thread

I recently attended the concluding services for the 135th Florida Annual Conference. Bishop Adams complimented the choir for providing musical "balance" e.g. one anthem, spiritual and a gospel selection. Bishop Adams commented that all are important and needed. I was brought up singing hymns, spirituals, common-meter and gospel but not anthems. I am a semi-retired gospel singer :-) but I can't read music and my choir director insists, much to my chagrin, I'm tone deaf. With roots in Neo-Pentacostlism [sp?] my sacred music taste run from the Soul Stirrers-Hawkins Family-James Cleveland-Clark Sisters-Mississippi Mass-Richard Smallwood-John P. Kee, well you get the picture. Is it my imagination or have AME churches shifted to gospel music compared to say 20 years ago?? Why do some churches still sing European anthems using printed music with the errily accompaniement of pipe organs? I for one hope the Kirk Franklin "revolution" remains a part of our liturgy.

-- Anonymous, August 23, 2000


Bill, this is an excellent question. As a body, the AME church remains blessed with musical diversity. In many churches on the east coast and in the south, the purchase in the late 1800s to mid 1950s of older homes for white congregations often left such facilities blessed with a pipe organ. Commensurate with the economic influence of that congregation and the resulting congregational makeup, you may still see a predilection to such fare.

A pipe organ need not be eerie. One of the treats at every general Conference is to hear an organ rendition from Don Lee White of the 5th. Another great pipe musician is Bill Marshall, also of the 5th (at last check). Bill is also tremendously skilled on the Hammond, having grown up in a Pentecostal church, but I have a tape of him interpeting James Weldon Johnson's "The Creation" on a Rodgers Pip-registration, and the impact of that is tremendous!

Some of our newer churches were established in the Neopentecostal/Charismatic era of the 1960s and later. In such churches you will find a predominance of the Hammond B-3, and for newer congregations you will find the presence of synthesizers. Both these instrument sets lend themselves to contemporary musical stylings, although a skilled musician can still provide anthemic fare on them as well. Both instruments are also more affordable than a pipe installation, which can run anywhere from $100K to $1M. Since the B-3 hasn't been manufactured for nearly 30 years, one can only buy a used instrument, but many musicians and pastors consider them a tremendous asset to ministry (prices range from $2K to $8K). Synthesizers bring a wonderful sound for a very small price, and often include patches for piano (reducing the need for that instrument), pipe, and B-3. Prices run from $800-$5K.

I am the Minister of Music at Clear Lake, TX, and served as Minister of Music at St. Paul, Cambridge for a number of years. In both situations (Clear Lake = 70 worshippers, St. Paul = 700) I sought to provide the balance that Bishop Adams commended. Just as we are not politically monolithic, we are not musically mono-dimensional. At St. Paul, we were able to achieve a diferent flavor across worship services, with one being more "Methodist" and the other more "Pentecostal". For example, in a "Methodist" approach I may select Old 100 for the Doxology tune, "Sweet Hour of Prayer" for the choral response, anthems and spirituals for the choir selections, and a hymn-book based sermonic and invitiation hymn. For the Pentecostal service the selections would be a Duke Street-based tune in 12/8 meter, "He is Lord", Gospel and contemporary Gospel (GMWA to Kirk Franklin), additional "Praise & Worship" songs, an organ solo for the sermonic hymn, and an older choir selection for the invitiation. Both work tremendously well, because each fits the spiritual need of the audience of the time. My 95-year old grandmother may reject the perceived cacophony of modern contemporary, but let me play the first three notes of "Precious Lord" on any instrument, and watch how the music ministers to her very being. The effective music department must be able to provide the right framework that complements the spiritual message of the pulpit as well as the spiritual needs of the people.

As for the use of European anthems, I think the answer there may be 1) that's what the musician knows, or 2) that's what the congregation likes. At St. Paul, the Chancel Choir sang the anthems. It was one of only seven choirs. At Clear Lake, I have had little success instilling anthems, although I love them, because this is not the interest of this younger congregation. I was raised on the likes of Mozart,Handel, Beethoven, Ralph Vaughn Williams and Bach. No matter their ethnicity, their literature appeals to my soul: Gloria in Excelsis, Messiah, Hallelujah (from the Mount of Olives), For All the Saints, Sheep May Safely Graze. It's beautiful music, and it can be an enriching experience, both aurally and spiritually.

I think spirituals should be retained. Despite their connotation as "slave songs", this rich body of work captures so much of the struggle of a difficult period in our history. I believe it's important for our children to retain this music - and knowledge - in their memory. "Those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it." At Clear Lake, the spirituals are rendered usually by our Male Chorus. At St. Paul, both the Chancel Choir and the New Temple Singers, whose literature is predominantly contemporary gospel, handle the spirituals.

Bishop Frederick Hilborn Talbot is the modern evangelist of Hymnody (and author of some of its contents). Certainly our hymnbook contains a broad literature, reflecting the diverse populations our Zion serves. We see the classic "Dr. Watts" hymns in the text, along with the spirituals of the 1800s, the Tindley and Dorsey texts of the early 1900s, the breakout "gospel" music of Margaret Pleasant Doureaux and Doris Akers, and finally more contemporary music, starting with Andre Crouch. All these tunes can be used with great effect in corporate worship, and the range is provided to facilitate the music department's ability to address the specific needs of the local assembly.

Regarding the shift toward gospel, one of the prime drivers in that is a reduction in music education. To sing the anthems, and some of the hymns and spirituals, a skill for reading music is desired (if not required). In public schools across the nation, as dollars have shrunk for "fringe" programs, music education is often one of the first cut. This reduces the pool of people in the community that have music reading skills.

On the other hand, gospel is usually constructed around simple lines (that may nevertheless build into a complex piece). These lines can be, and usually are, taught by rote. Just this morning (August 23) the Today show carried a piece on Japanese tourists visiting Harlem churches to learn how to sing (as well as to experience) gospel music. In the piece you saw a choir of Japanese tourists, and the pieces taught were "Praise the Lord (He Has Done Marvelous Things)", "Precious Lord", "When All God's Children Get Together (What a Time)". Under a skilled musician's directions these songs can be taught very quickly. I learned in workshops from the late Donald Vails, who would teach eight songs in 90 minutes or less - and they would sound marvelous!

At the root of all musical programming for the local assembly must be ministry. At Clear Lake I teach the music department the three E's: Exalt the Lord, Exhort the non-believer, Edify the believer. I have seen this achieved through the use of Anthem, Hymn, Spiritual, Praise tune, Gospel, Rap, and just instrumental expression (listen to Billy preston play "How Great Thou Art", and you know what I mean). Paul writes about adaptability to achieve the greater goal. I believe there is a role for each of these music forms, as long as we do not lose sight of the Greater Goal.

-- Anonymous, August 23, 2000

Bro Bill Where have you been. The most beautiful anthems that I have sung in my lifetime was composed and written by African-American.

-- Anonymous, August 23, 2000

What kind of a Republican are you?

-- Anonymous, August 23, 2000

As a 28 year old minister I have found that when it comes to music all people have their opinion. Living here in NYC our churches are exposed to all forms of music. I learned to read music in public school and have translated what I have learned into the church. I have been taught everything from hymns, to anthems, spirituals to gospels, rap to moans. To me it is a matter of how it moves you and ministers to you. I am someone who loves hymns and find myself singing them throughout my day because I find that it helps me to connect with a part of me that I can't find in any other form of music. When I am driving my car I like more upbeat contemporary gospel, during my private worship I find that I enjoy worshiping and singing songs such as "Bless the Lord O MY Soul", "He is Lord", and "The Glory of His presence" There are songs that I have heard in the pentoecostal church that I may never hear in the Baptist church, but I may hear in the Methodist/AME. To me once again it is a matter of how it moves on you. In working with the children's choir at my local church I try to instill in them an appreciation for all of the various forms of music, and I try to get them to understand what they are singing and the responsibility that comes with the ministry of singing. All forms of music should be appreciated because it is the diversity that makes us human and makes us appreciate the differences. In music we find the connection to the God of our ancestors, in music we find our way into the Holy Places, in music we find our history and our strength. Let me stop now because I am beginning to get happy because I have a praise in my heart and a song on my lips. Join with me in your own way, What a mighty God we serve!

-- Anonymous, August 23, 2000

Oh that savvy scholar Jerryl has truly edified us all about the history and sociology of sacred music. His 3-E model to music education better get patented or else I'm tempted to expropriate the concept :-) I really like Jerome's approach to the diversity of music being linked to the different environments throughout the day. He sounds like he wants to get an online choir started. I'm down, provided we eschew sheet music since I'm nothing more than an idiot savant :-) After re-reading Prof. Payne's erudite epistle a thought crossed my mind, are music ministries still receptive to quartet style songs in the tradition of the Mighty Clouds of Joy, Dixie Hummingbirds, Gospel Souternaires, O'Neal Twins, etc.? My oldest brother firmly believes quartet music is the "true" church music format because it combines singing with all the different musical instruments. On a personal note I believe the Soul Stirrers and the Gospel Caravans are indisputably the greatest assembly of male and female quartert groups respectively. Now that I think about it the Gospel Caravans may be the greatest of all time considering at one time they consisted of gospel divas like Shirley Ceasar, Inez Andrews, Albertina Walker and a young pianist by the name of James Cleveland. Now that was a true "dream team"! To borrow an all-too famaliar black churchy expression, I might "get my step in" before I leave my office today.

-- Anonymous, August 24, 2000

In actuality the churches with which I have always been familiar (specifically in Atlanta) did not, in fact, purchase churches from older white congregations but built them from the ground up with pipe organs installed during their construction. Additionally they often placed the "choir lofts" strategically high or even at the rear of the church so that there would be no mistake that the choirs role was to lead the congregation in the music of worship (mainly hymns, anthems, and prayer responses) and that the choir was to be heard (not seen) and was never to entertain those at worship. Examples of this type construction may still be found in both Emmanuel AMEC, and Morris Brown AMEC in Charleston, SC, as well as Saint James AMEC in New Orleans, LA. Daniel Payne tells us (in his historical works) that the choir was never even considered in the conception of Mother Bethel and that it was with considerable distress to the members that it was initially introduced to that congregation. This was true despite the fact that hymns had always been sung there and that Richard Allen both wrote and collected these hymns. These churches also had a rich heritage of musicians from which to draw such as Wendell Whalum and Frederick Hall who were most excellent organists/composers in their own right. This list also includes others across the Connection such as John T. Layton, Claude Dunson, and Edith White Ming. Samples of the writings of many these organists/composers are used in the present AMEC Hymnal and include both hymns and spirituals. I suppose Gospel music also had its roots in Atlanta with Thomas Dorsey who originally played in the nightclub the "Bailey's 81 Theater" on Saturday night and then took it to church on Sunday morning. Hence the quote; "Don't bring that Devil music in here." Dorsey later took the concept to Chicago and was able to push it with the help of Rev. James Cleveland, despite much opposition from many churches. It is also ironic that the Dorsey family has several musicians noted for their singing and composition of hymns and anthems. For example, the niece of Thomas Dorsey, Lena McLin--whose father was pastor of a Baptist Church in Atlanta--is a very excellent composer, and both her mother and sister were noted for their very fine singing. Even Dorsey's "Hear Our Servant's Prayer" and "Precious Lord" have more the feel of hymns than Gospels. It might be also noted that Coretta Scott King was trained as an opera singer and Mrs. Alberta King (Momma King) was an organist/ choir director of hymns and anthems who was killed at her organ at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Sunday morning. Of course, I have a bias for hymns and anthems and while I agree that we need balance and diversity in our worship, I certainly hope it will always remain in good taste, e.g. not just entertainment--which is so often the case nowadays--but in fact it will always be to the "Glory of God Alone".

-- Anonymous, September 26, 2000

For those interested in further reading, the following sites may be helpful:

-- Anonymous, September 26, 2000

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