Celebrating city's musical history with sites, sounds

A music-filled tour of West Baltimore hears the blues, gospel and more

Baltimore ... Or Less

May 09, 2004|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Sun Staff

Earl Wilson, a tall, elegant guitar player, launched what would be a daylong song and history trek through West Baltimore with a jazzy romp through My Funny Valentine.

He told his audience at the Arch Social Club that My Funny Valentine is a ballad.

"We like to put a little blues in it," he said. "Some ballads are blues. Some ballads talk about the woman you used to have and the misery that caused. Some blues talk about the woman you're gong to get and the misery that'll cause."

"The ladies have the blues also," he said. "And that's about the man that did them wrong."

"Say it again," murmured a woman in the audience.

"Yes, madame," Wilson replied.

The Arch Social club, at North and Pennsylvania avenues, was the first stop on the Were It Not for the Music tour this past Friday, a joint project of Renaissance Productions, the Great Blacks in Wax Museum and the state Department of Tourism.

The focus was on women in music, and citations for worthy women were awarded at every venue. The tour brought together fifth-graders from Harriet Tubman Elementary School, students from Reginald R. Lewis School of Business and Law (formerly part of Northern High School), recovering addicts from the I Can't We Can program, jazz and gospel music fans and just plain curious folks. More than 1,000 people showed up altogether.

While Earl Wilson's Phase 1 band played in the Arch Social Club's downstairs lounge, upstairs in the old hall that is one of the hidden jewels of Baltimore, Reppard Stone, pianist, trombone player and professor emeritus at Howard University, illustrated a lecture about the women of Baltimore jazz with photos and music. He started with "If Women Ruled the World" by Ethel Ennis and "God Bless the Child" by Billie Holiday.

In a short lecture, Stone, 74, said, "you have to exclude people, so you have to decide who is included. I'm going to talk about women of Baltimore who are superlative, the most, the best."

Downstairs, Wilson, 66, who first played on Pennsylvania Avenue at Gamby's in 1957, told his audience "this is some of the music that used to be on this street. I caution you to keep track of what's going on in your neighborhood. When the arts die in your neighborhood, the community dies."

The tour next stopped at the 216-year-old Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church, an institution formerly located downtown at the site of the Days Inn at Lombard Street and Hopkins Place. Frederick Douglass worshipped there. Morgan State University began there as Centenary Bible Institute. And Martin Luther King Jr. rallied civil rights workers at the current site of the church on Etting Street.

Beneath a mural of Jesus preaching, Shirley Hunt, a lead singer with the Morgan State choir, sang the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" in a voice that swooped across about four octaves. Her brother Gary accompanied her on piano. She concluded with James Weldon Johnson's "Lift Every Voice and Sing." The song, long known as the black national anthem, stirred many to join in singing.

In the Room of Remembrance at the Rev. Vernon Dobson's Union Baptist Church, Margaree Long Lee's choir, clad in gold and black robes, sang songs of the civil rights era, while Dr. Lorenzo Handy, director of music at the Catherine of Alexandria Episcopal Church and associate minister at Union Baptist, recalled the songs of the movement. Two gray-haired ladies leaned on their canes as they sweetly sang "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot."

Verna Day, an early member of Baltimore's Arena Players, portrayed Harriet Tubman at the handsomely restored Orchard Street Church, which is now the home of the local Urban League chapter. Day recounted Tubman's life as a slave and "conductor" on the Underground Railroad to freedom, while the Douglass Memorial Church Choir, with Marco Merritt on piano, sang "Oh freedom, oh freedom, oh freedom over me. And before I'd be a slave I'll be buried in a my grave ..."

The tour came full circle musically at the Great Blacks in Wax Museum, where Dupree played African drums, Mary Carter Smith performed call and response music, and Deborah Pierce-Fakunle sang "Strange Fruit," the bitter song about lynching that was written for Billie Holiday.

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