The GOSPEL TRUTH Music: Convention brings 5,000 people together to lift their voices and immerse themselves in a tradition that has brought joy out of sorrow.

August 08, 1996|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Alberta Carter Bradford conducts the huge gospel choir at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church with both hands, her entire body, her whole heart and no doubt her everlasting soul.

She spikes the air with her arms, punching and hooking and jabbing as she directs the voices of the Metropolitan Washington Unity Choral Union. Her white gown billows and floats as she rises from the chancel so high she seems about to levitate.

Donald Milburn plays a rolling gospel piano and the choir claps and sways in blue and white waves. Thelma Herring sings "After It's All Over" with a coloratura deep and dark as a flooding river. Cleo Johnson's voice is rolling thunder singing "Too Close to Heaven." Samuel Shufford pierces the stratosphere with his brilliant falsetto on "Since I Met Jesus."

A joyful noise is being made unto the Lord at the new Mount Pleasant church, and if He doesn't hear He must be deaf. (Just in case, there's a woman in the choir signing with an emotion as deep as the voiced singing.)

The 63rd annual National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses founded by Thomas Dorsey is meeting this week in Baltimore. The convention has brought 5,000 people to the city and 3,500 of them have found their way to Cedonia. Every seat in the church is taken.

This is traditional gospel singing, but there's nothing old-fashioned about it. Among other things there's a powerhouse percussion section raising the pulse rate, not to mention the decibel count, like Elvis Jones driving the John Coltrane quartet. And an orchestral ensemble with strings, woodwinds and brass swells behind many of the works, including Franz Schubert's "Omnipotence."

"We believe in going back to the roots of gospel," says Alberta Bradford, whose late husband Alex Bradford was a gospel composer.

"If you don't know where you've been, how can you know where you're going?" she asks. "We're letting young people know gospel music didn't start with 'Oh Happy Day.' "

At 54, she's taken her husband's music virtually around the world. Alex Bradford's most famous work is probably the title song from "Your Arms Too Short to Box with God," a play based on her husband's music.

A handsome woman whose finely honed facial planes reflect the strength of her music, Bradford grew up in Baltimore and began her gospel career here. She was musical conductor and pianist for the original Broadway production of Langston Hughes' "Black Nativity" when she was just 19. She's been back in Baltimore since 1985 at Jones Tabernacle Baptist Church, where she's musical director.

The union choir she directs at Mount Pleasant is 300 strong. Singers emerge from the chorus to sing solos of astonishing power and passion. The music takes on an otherworldly quality when Eugene Anderson, a counter-tenor of great purity, sings "Great is My Faithfulness" with Morgan State's Nathan Carter directing the choir.

In the beginning

The joyfulness of the sound pouring forth at Mount Pleasant almost makes listeners forget gospel is a music with roots in what W. E. B. DuBois called the sorrow songs of slavery.

"They were once the code words for escape from slavery," says the Rev. Kenneth Heath, who sings along with the choir on "I'll Fly Away," an old spiritual.

"Now it has been transformed from the natural to the spiritual," he says. "It has the significance of flying away to heaven."

Both spirituals and the blues grew out of the sorrow songs. Thomas Dorsey, the founder of the convention, brought these two strains together in the late '20s and early '30s to become the "father of gospel music."

He began his musical life as "Barrelhouse Tom," a talented pianist, composer and songwriter who played with celebrated blues singer Ma Rainey. He even had an early song he wrote recorded by King Oliver, Louis Armstrong's mentor.

But in the early '30s, he turned exclusively to gospel music. He would eventually write 3,000 blues and gospel songs. He worked with such gospel luminaries as Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward and Rosetta Thorpe. "Peace in the Valley," which he wrote for Mahalia Jackson, sold a million records for Elvis Presley.

His most famous song, "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," was written in 1932 after his wife died in childbirth and his newborn son died the next day.

"And they were both buried in the same casket," says Bishop Kenneth H. Moales Sr., who became president of the convention after Dr. Dorsey died in 1993. He's been singing gospel since he was 7.

He's a wide-shouldered, thick-bodied man who wears cream-colored brocaded vestments as he speaks to an audience of 1,200 in the Omni Hotel's International Ballroom. His address is a combination of speech, sermon, prayer, song and exhortation. He holds an impassioned conversation with his audience, call and response. An organ and piano underscore and embellish his words. He leads his congregation in a medley of Dorsey songs that includes a rousing "Jesus, You Brought Me All the Way," and a soulful "Peace in the Valley."

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