Many of the songs performed by a gospel choir based in Washington obviously celebrate Christ and the power of religion to move mountains.
And, then, there are those in the repertoire of such choirs as the Men of Friendship like “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” that have links to the brutal experiences of Southern slavery in America’s pre-emancipation years.
“A lot of them come from pain,” said George Robinson Jr. of Washington, a director of the choir at Friendship Baptist Church.
“A lot of it started in the cotton field, the tobacco field, from being abused. They would sing the songs for relief,” Robinson said.
Each Friday a dozen or so men from this city gather at the church at 17 E. Washington St. for rehearsals, which begin with the members joining hands in a circle of prayer before their emotional and powerful voices are released.
“If we don’t make you think about sorrow, Christ and pain, then we’re not doing our job,” Robinson said.
The meanings of many of the old black gospel songs have been lost to time since no one took the time to document them when they were first sung, sometimes as slaves gathered for church while hiding from masters who didn’t want them congregating. Others were originally given specific phrases to provide encouragement and hope, or to warn slaves that someone in their ranks was being whipped or wanting to escape to freedom along the Underground Railroad, Robinson said.
“You couldn’t stop to talk. You had to keep working,” he said.
The style of music caught on in a big way by the 1940s after the old emancipation songs were given a jazz beat and drum sounds borrowed from Indians, he said.
However, the Southern Baptist church was hesitant at that time to allow the music to be performed by its church choirs because ministers thought “hip-shaking” women appeared as if they were drawing up the devil.
Eventually, the church relented to the popularity of the music to avoid losing the faithful to other denominations. The immense popularity of Mahalia Jackson, otherwise known as the Queen of Gospel, in the 1930s and 1940s also succeeded in moving the music style into mainstream America.
“Once it got rooted in the nation, it became a very spiritual part of the church,” Robinson said.
“It ushers in the spirit,” said Tim Willis, choir president. “We just tear the house down.”
This choir formed in 1995 and has since become in such demand that it makes about 24 appearances a year at funerals and other events in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.
As the nation marks another black history month in February, the black church has found itself to be about the only segregated institution left, and that is changing, said Robinson’s wife, Nettie, who has performed in a number of black choirs in the area.
“There are a couple whites now singing,” Nettie Robinson said. “It’s starting to bring everyone together.”
However, she said, it’s important to keep the messages found in the old songs alive.
“How can you know where you are going if you don’t know where you’ve been?” she said. “We’re actually standing on the shoulders of (people who) couldn’t go to white churches.”