Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Singing in Mississippi

Dee Thomas-Bomer working with the altos
I have just spent a remarkable weekend in Oxford, Mississippi catching up with old friends and singing. Oxford is the home of the University of Mississippi and I first arrived there in 1997 with a guitar and a suitcase seeking my fame and fortune – or that is what I jokingly tell people these days.

I went back this year to attend the Music of the South Symposium and also the Black Alumni Reunion Weekend. The symposium was organized by the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and I was asked to speak on a couple of panels. To prepare for the “Music, Religion and Creativity” panel I reread the master’s thesis I wrote 13 years ago. The thesis--Singing a New Song--was on the University of Mississippi Gospel Choir (UMGC) and sitting on the flight to Memphis I read this:

My reasons for joining [UMGC] were tied up with my reasons for coming to Mississippi - to experience and study a living tradition. My exposure to gospel music in Britain, and the people who make it, opened my eyes to the power of a living tradition. I envied those who could say, "I make this music because it is our music," as opposed to "I play this music because it is my personal taste." I feel myself to be disenfranchised from a consistent, living musical tradition, by a culture which lifts the making of music from the reach of many with the insistence that it must be written down and taught by professionals and with the creation of a dichotomy between performer and audience. 
In joining a gospel choir I am still an outsider to this tradition, yet I am able to be immersed in a music which joins audience and choir, choir and soloist.  Most attractive of all is that gospel music can transcend the distinction between performance and worship. The power of the music is the power of religious expression and experience. When things are as they should be, the audience, choir, and musicians "have church" and are united in their praise of God. C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya have described the function of this music as being, "to transcend or to reduce to insignificance those social, cultural, or economic barriers which separate individuals in their secular interests in order that genuine corporate worship might take place." (Lincoln and Mamiya, 1990, 347)
I guess I didn’t come to America simply to seek my fame and fortune (or infamy and penury!): at least a part of me was in search of a living musical tradition that unites people in their praise of God, that has the power to break down the dividing walls of age, sex, economics and race. Fifteen years after arriving in the Magnolia State I had forgotten I had ever been aware of, or articulated, my search so clearly.

I have spent the years since living in Mississippi thinking a lot about race and church and not much about singing; however, after starting to lead worship in Ashland, the search that brought me to America has resurfaced. It turns out, as so often happens, that what I thought was a new idea had been mouldering in the compost heap of my mind. In revisiting my MA thesis, the proposal for my new research project now seems remarkably familiar. Here is what I wrote a couple of months ago:
I propose to research and write a book concerned with what it means to sing and what it means to be the Church: how an understanding of Church shapes our singing and how an understanding of singing shapes our churches. Central to the work is my thesis that congregational singing is a constitutive practice and discipline of the Church that unites a community of dissimilar people in singing God's praise. The book will be a lived ecclesiology weaving together theology, history, sociology, musicology and ethnography in a single narrative: an Englishman’s journey in search of congregational singing and the Body of Christ.

Singing with the Black Alumni Reunion Choir last weekend brought me back to the ground zero of my search.

The sixty-voice choir of current students and choir alumni rehearsed on the Saturday afternoon and then sung on Sunday morning. I had had to work pretty hard to get permission to join the choir even though I hadn’t paid the registration fee; when I walked into the rehearsal I wondered what I had gotten myself into. As in most contemporary gospel choirs, the men all sang tenor and so I had to rediscover my range – also we were learning four songs without notation so I also had to rediscover the way I had learned to memorize music. I had also forgotten the volume that is produced—this however was a joy,  I was back singing with a group where I couldn’t hear myself sing!

Sunday morning was an emotional experience for me: just to have the privilege of singing with such a wonderful gospel choir again – something I didn’t think would happen. Also realizing the extraordinary situation of being a white Englishman in Mississippi surrounded by black friends praising God.

This is how we sounded (the choir was unamplified, the room was very live, and the gain was too low on the recorder . . . but you'll get the idea):

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