The late music educator Dr. Lee Norris Mackey of Chatta- nooga, Tenn., received a grant in the 1980s to conduct a study that revealed a decline in the performance of Negro spirituals. As a result he co-founded the Chattanooga Choral Society for the Preservation of African American Song.
He didn’t have to start from scratch as former students and choir members influenced by the late Mrs. Edmonia Johnson Simmons — as was Dr. Mackey — had gathered for several years to lift their voices together informally or in churches.
It is a long name, but one that explains the group’s important role. Since 1990, the choir has benefited from the excellent skills of composer Dr. Roland Carter, a professor of American music at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
The group’s first concert was held on Nov. 17, 1984 at the historically African-American First Baptist Church on East 8th Street and the most recent one was last Sunday at the historically white First Baptist Church in the Golden Gateway of downtown Chattanooga.
Beautiful renditions of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” Ride On Jesus,” “I Know that I’ve Been Changed,” “Dwell in this House,” “Close to Thee” and “You Must Have that True Religion” wafted through the massive sanctuary and the hearts of those blessed to be there.
Then the choir gave way to internationally-known vocalist Wintley Phipps — who sang a wider array of music including Negro spirituals such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Go Down, Moses,” “Down by the Riverside” and “I Got a Home in that Rock (Don’t You See).”
He explained that Negro spirituals could be played on the five-note scale found on the black keys of a piano — what some call “the slave scale.”
Since slaves were not taught to read, the great stories of the Bible were passed along by song, Phipps said, calling that approach “the most effective way of teaching anything.” He commended those who are helping preserve “the greatest volume of music by a people in slavery.”
While the Bible teaches that the Israelites hung up their harps when in Babylonian captivity, said Phipps, African slaves raised their voices in song.
Phipps closed the inspiring evening with his booming version of former slave ship captain John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” — a “white spiritual” that was follows the “slave scale.”
Newton likely heard the melody from the slaves he once transported before his heart was changed, said Phipps, who has sung the beloved song thousands of times before everyone from Mother Teresa on down to several U.S. presidents.
Someone has called the spirituals “a disturbing kind of joy,” he said, noting that those kept in bondage were able to look beyond their earthly masters and embrace their heavenly Master.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.