Twelve Gates to the City 1
I remember an old gentleman who would tell us how they would go down to the Patuxent River. They would go out there on the riverside, and they would start singing. And then the African Americans on the other side of the river would start singing. And this would go up and down the river. It was their way of getting through the day and taking out life's frustrations. And they would take it out on the riverside, casting it away from them, so they wouldn't have so much to carry, because it got heavy. And so they would give it to all to the Lord, and they would start out a new day. It was like being born again every day. --Reverend Mabel E. Smith, Pastor, Mount Calvary United Methodist Church Lead Me, Guide Me: The African American Catholic Hymnal located in racks on the backs of the pews at Shiloh Community United Methodist Church in Newburg, Maryland offers a description of African American singing which might well have been written after observing a Sunday worship service at Shiloh, or at any number of other churches tucked away in rural settings and small towns of the southern Maryland peninsula between the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay: The music comes from a people who share and claim a common history, common experience, common oppression, common values, hopes, dreams and visions. The singers . . . voice the experience and faith of the community. The singers lift the Church, the people, to a higher level of understanding, feeling, motivation and participation. The worshiping community is active, not passive. People participate - sing, pray, clap, sway, raise their hands, nod their heads. Eye contact, voiced response, the silent testimony of tears, a smile of relief or contemplation or ecstasy says, 'This is my story; this is my song.' (1987, Preface) An effort by the Southern Maryland Folklife Project to document sacred singing in a number of rural churches reveals the power, diversity and evolution of religious songs of praise in a region African Americans have called home since the 1600s. African and West Indian influences overlaid with Euro-Christian rituals and symbology have shaped an unbroken continuum of harmonious, rhythmic expression, a spiritual shelter from the storm throughout Maryland's difficult history. Despite efforts of various mainline denominations to regulate the tone of worship down through the ages, African American singing here continues to evolve a distinct, soulful character and intensity which cannot, will not, be contained. Music scholar Horace C. Boyer refers to this rapturous vocal engagement 'as voices 'crying in the wilderness,' with no pretense of placing the voice 'in the head,' as was the practice of European singing masters.' (2000, p.11) It was not the sophistication of the text nor the brilliance of the melody and harmony of these songs, most often consisting of a verse and chorus, that so inspired the slaves and caused wonderment among white listeners. Rather it was the release and satisfaction that the songs brought to the singer. Melodies had only a few tones, often as few as five, and were laden with blue (or flatted) notes that would later serve as one of the principal elements of the blues. Harmonies were those of Protestant hymns, but rhythms were the intricate patterns remembered from Africa. (Ibid.) This anthology offers selections from field recordings made in recent months at Shiloh Community United Methodist Church in Newburg in Charles County and Mt. Calvary United Methodist Church in Charlotte Hall in St. Mary's County. Also included are individual performances by Brother Elmer Mackall of Prince Frederick, Sister Gertrude Young of Charlotte Hall and Sister Helen Jennifer of La Plata. Brother Elmer Mackall, 79, is the last vestige of a legendary family band from Huntingtown in Calvert County. Brother Mackall sings songs he learned from his mother, Rosie Mackall, who died in 1979 at the age of 102. With a style of piano-playing that blends ragtime with barrelhouse, he sounds like the musical equivalent of Mississippi John Hurt. Brother Mackall also has a solo CD, A Bright Side Somewhere, also available from Music Maker Recordings. Sister Gertrude Young's rendition of 'Wade in the Water' recalls the struggles and triumphs of her own family. In her words, 'When the old people were singing these songs that was because they had been beat down so bad. And they were trying to tell God how they were being treated.'(2003) African American sacred singing originated '. . . in the crucible of separation and suffering' (1987, Preface) in a strange and hostile land. Mount Calvary is fortunate to have for their choir director and pianist Sister Helen Jennifer, who is the eldest member of the congregation. Singing a solo on 'No Hiding Place,' she was born to a family of musicians and has played and sung since her childhood. The research and recording for the project focused most heavily on Shiloh Community United Methodist Church in Newburg, the oldest African American congregation in Charles County. The church was established in 1863 at the height of the American Civil War in the same year that President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. That proclamation freed the slaves of the rogue Confederate states, but not those of Maryland, which was occupied by Federal soldiers at the time. The role of the church in leading the local community through those stormy years and what followed is the kind of deep history evoked through recollecting songs and singers from previous generations. Though seemingly isolated, Shiloh and other churches of southern Maryland attract congregants from places in and outside the state who introduce new songs and singing styles. The congregations bring together a wide diversity of ages, backgrounds and professions. Shiloh's pastor, Reverend James W. Diggs, has been a generous collaborator in this documentation project. Called to preach after more than thirty years of federal government service, he says that Sunday is still 'the most segregated day of the week among Christians in the U.S.' (2003) But Pastor Diggs looks forward to a time when the sharing of music will bring people together in praising God. He envisions this anthology as a major resource to sick and shut-in church members and a celebration of interfaith relationships nurtured through shared songs of praise. The possibilities for healing work across ethno-musical boundaries are limitless. -- Michael and Carrie Nobel Kline with Clare Zuraw Southern Maryland Folklife Project St. Mary's City, Maryland, July, 2003 Works Cited: Bowman, Sister Thea, F.S.P.A., Ph.D. 'The Gift of African American Sacred Song,' Preface to Lead Me, Guide Me: The African American Catholic Hymnal. Chicago: G.I.A. Publications,1987. Boyer, Horace C., Ph.D. The Golden Age of Gospel. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000. Diggs, Reverend James W. Recorded interview with Michael Kline and Sara Jeanne Posnett. Southern Maryland Folklife Project. St. Mary's College of Maryland. St. Mary's City, Maryland, February 13, 2003. Smith, J. Alfred, Sr. 'Essays' in African American Heritage Hymnal. Chicago: GIA Publications, Inc., 2001. Smith, Pastor Mabel E. Recorded interview with Carrie Nobel Kline. Southern Maryland Folklife Project. St. Mary's College of Maryland. St. Mary's City, Maryland, 2003. Songs of Zion. Oxford University Press, 1997. The United Methodist Hymnal. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990. Young, Sister Gertrude. Recorded interview with Carrie Nobel Kline and Sharon Strickland. Southern Maryland Folklife Project. St. Mary's College of Maryland. St. Mary's City, Maryland, February 25, 2003.