Black American Choirs 1926 – 1931
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This release affords a fascinating glimpse of various ways that African-Americans were approaching choral singing in the 1920’s. By the time of these recordings, the singing of the old spirituals had been a hotly contested topic for years. Many of the first generation of free-born blacks felt the old songs to be shameful relics of bondage. Another camp took their cue from Anton Dvorak’s famous pronouncement that any truly American art music would have to be based on the spirituals. This point of view was a driving force in the lives of many black Americans, from Fisk University figures like the Work family and Mr. and Mrs. James Myers to concert performers like Harry Burleigh to renaissance men like James Weldon Johnson.
One such champion of the spiritual-as-art camp was Henry Hugh Proctor, born in 1868 near Clifton, Tennessee. The recordings here show his flock to be a very polished group by congregational choir standards, though of course many were and are. The very early version of the Johnson brothers’ great anthem Lift Every Voice is probably the standout.
Another important figure for this movement was Hall Johnson who began his long life in Athens, Georgia in 1888. The Hall Johnson Choir was formed in 1925 and appeared in various Hollywood as well as Broadway productions. His very strong ideas about the performance of the spirituals are expressed in an article from 1960 (reprinted in Eileen Southern’s “Readings in Black American Music”), in which he vents his frustration at having had insufficient recording opportunities. Close listening to Ezekiel and Good News does reveal an approach that is quite different from the University choirs thought of as representing the Jubilee tradition nowadays.
The Seventh Day Adventists and the Primitive Baptist Church of New York give similar performances in which a leader “lines out” the words to be sung, a practice associated with camp meetings or other situations where hymnals might not be handy. The singing sounds congregational, if rehearsed, and the effect of these simple but emotionally charged performances is considerable. The powerful female lead on the NVC group’s Fight On is also noteworthy.
From aural evidence it would be a good guess that the Chattahoochie Valley Church had a choir with an ambitious director, and the Mount Vernon Choir sounds studied as well. Perhaps they were not strictly a church choir. But while these tracks are undoubtedly aiming at polish, a performance like When Jesus Comes seems almost folky in spite of itself, and has in any case a real impact tor the listener who gives it a chance.
The Great Day New Orleans Singers are obviously not a church group, nor, unless mistaken, are they from anyplace but New York. The piano is immediately identifiable as James P. Johnson, even before the exhortation to “Stroke that thing, Jimmy!”, so typical of the routines he did with Perry Bradford and others. James P. recorded “Modernistic”, which was likely from a show that included these delightful productions, on three other occasions.