Easter is a good time to appreciate American black gospel music, so important in many black religious services. Two of its sounds, spirituals and traditional gospel chorus or quartet, are heard anew, the first on a new compact disc, "Spirituals in Concert," and the second, in a Baltimore-flavored Maryland Public Television program, "Joyful Gospel," at 10 p.m. Friday.
Opera sopranos Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman perform superbly on the CD (Deutsche Grammophon), recorded at Carnegie Hall March 18, 1990, shown on MPT since then and coming on video. They sing 18 spirituals, backed by Metropolitan Opera chorus and New York Philharmonic members led by James Levine.
When Battle sings the sorrowful "Lord, How Come Me Here," she is steady, true and in perfect pitch, echoing the slave mother's lament. She creates the most beautiful tones to carry the most ugly message, and the listener is near tears:
"There ain't no freedom here, Lord. I wish I never was born.
"They treat me so mean here, Lord. I wish I never was born.
"They sold my chillen away, Lord. I wish I never was born."
Norman carries her conviction just as boldly but joyously in "Ride on, King Jesus" ("No man works like him") and "You Can Tell the World" that "He brought joy, great joy to my soul." The two solo in a rainbow of emotions but also form duets and join the ensemble, not as opera stars of exotic plots but as black artists feeling and emitting the message of family.
Then there's the show-stopping, knock-out, not-so-religious duet "Scandalize My Name." Battle and Norman take turns, with gossipy bravado, having fun feeling sorry for their names tossed lightly to the winds by sister, neighbor, deacon and preacher.
Gospel is considered "more upbeat, more soulful, not a style by itself but rather a song with a message," says Millicent Williamson, associate MPT producer who has put together six "Joyful Gospels" since the winning series debut in December 1989. A gospel singer with The Victorians, she says spirituals need to be darker in tone and gospels lighter when sung.
Baltimore groups dominate the vibrant Friday communal singing. Upbeat expression prevails. There are heavy hints of crossover into the secular. While still church music, gospel has a strong following beyond Sundays. The program's moderator is Cal Hackett, known to his WGBR gospel radio audience as "the sunshine spreader."
Tyrone Wright, director of the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church Male Chorus, opens the hour singing a forceful "Holding on to My Faith" while another member, Byron Ransom, closes up shop with an all-out, driving song, "I Can Go to God in Prayer." They follow the camp meeting tradition of leader and chorus.
Spirituals in the tradition of the great arranger Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949), work songs, hymns, jazz, blues all come together in gospel's different forms. In "Joyful Gospel," Cassandra Carpenter, a Baltimore singer for 23 years, is especially dramatic with "Glory to His Name." Andrew Rowe and the D.C. Choral Ensemble set the studio audience to applause and tambourine-tapping in "The Old Time Way."
Also offering musical hope are a Baltimore quartet led by soloist David Harrison, The Bells of Joy, ("I feel good when I think about my Lord") and Baltimore's New Generation Gospel Singers (formerly The Family Tree), singing "Nobody but Jesus." Pianist and singer Glen Roscoe sings like there's no tomorrow (and not much left today).
Easter Sunday in Baltimore, black churches will hear different families of gospel music, traditional hymns, spirituals, classical sacred music or mixtures of these, depending upon their type of music programs, observed Wendell G. Wright, veteran local tenor and classical music series director.
"Gospel is often based on the jazz idiom," he said. "The spirituals came out of the slavery experience. They're heard in church but they often carried a double message, secular as well as religious. People who sang 'Gospel Train' were thinking about taking the train to freedom."