Photograph of Charlyn Bethell and Guy Urban

Happy Holidays!  Yes, we must stay safe and well, and part of that is staying connected to each other.  Our community has never been more important than during this pandemic.  Now, with the holidays here, we are there for each other to provide light in this season of darkness and comfort to anyone who might feel alone.  In that spirit, I must tell you about what the choir is doing.

Besides singing for our services, many choir members are coming together on Zoom every other week to sharing what we are doing and thinking.  We do this at our usual choir meeting day and time, just to be predictable. Understand that at a choir rehearsal pre-pandemic, we have to be focused on learning new music.  We seldom take time to really connect except if people get there early or stay late.  Right now, with all of us present on Zoom, we might actually be more in touch with each other than ever!  It is pretty awesome. 

On the weeks that we are not in “connecting-mode”, we have started a Zoom Choir Study.  With the overall theme for the year of Black Lives Matter, we have been learning about the contributions of African Americans to the music of mainstream America.  This has been fun for me, as it lets me share music that I love that I never really had a reason to share at church.  For example, there is Little Johnny Brown.

Little Johnny Brown is a song brought to me through the materials shared by Miss Bessie Jones.  Miss Bessie’s repertory was published by Bess Lomax Hawes in a book called Step it Down.  It is a collection of music from the Georgia Sea Islands.  Many freed enslaved people moved to the Sea Islands post Civil War and remained separated from mainland America for many years.  Their culture remained intact and Miss Bessie brought that music, her music, to the world in the 1970’s.  I learned her songs, games, chants and plays as I was learning to be a music teacher in the 1980’s.  We were learning from primary sources and Miss Bessie was just the best example of a primary source.  She was born in Georgia and married someone from the Georgia Sea Islands, so she moved there.  She quickly became a moving force in the music she brought from Georgia and learned in her new community.  “Little Johnny Brown, spread your comfort down.”  This song says to me that when we share our burdens, we are comforted by our community. I hear Miss Bessie’s voice each time I sing this great song.

That was how we started.  I have been able to share some of the work that Ysaye Barnwell has published as well.  She was a member of Sweet Honey in the Rock, an all-women’s a cappella group founded by Bernice Johnson Reagan.  From Ms. Barnwell, we have learned the ideals that are basic to the music of African Americans:  Music is cooperation, not competition.  Music is joy, music is constant especially in everyday life, music is mutual support.  Music is for everyone, whether you think you are musical or not—all you need to do is sing.  Music brings an immediate musical community.  Music connects our lives: past, present, the unborn.  Music is spontaneous and open.  When sharing a musical moment, listen to everything happening in the room.  Hear the voices blending in and out and harmony all around.  Each person contributes something important that impacts the whole.  Music is process, and less about a final product.  Music is respect for each person.  We learn constantly from each other.  Music is movement.  All music is sacred. 

Last week, we learned some spirituals and the difference between spirituals and gospel music.  We learned how to do the hand-jive Hambone and we learned about Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Thomas A. Dorsey.  I am hearing from people who have been in attendance that they are going beyond to learn more on their own. 

We have lots more to learn!  There are more jazz, and blues artists.  There is more gospel music to discover.  Then there is rock n’ roll and the music from the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement.  In general, there are many African American musical heroes that we can be learning about, too!    We are doing this at the holidays while staying connected in this pandemic.  I feel grounded that this music has given us a blueprint for who we can be as we start 2021.  What we have learned from the music of African Americans affirms our values and gives us a pathway going forward. 

Charlyn Bethell
Music Director | + posts

Charlyn’s professional training has followed two paths: as a professional oboist and as a music teacher and conductor. As Music Director at First Parish, she joins these two paths of her musical life, conducting the choir, coordinating guest musicians, and performing on oboe.

Guy Urban
Pianist | + posts