First Rehearsal

The Spirituals Choir kicked off its 10th anniversary year with a fine rehearsal last night, at the parish house of Trinity Methodist Church in the Campground. Returning singers greeted each other and welcomed new ones. Director Jim Thomas introduced some new songs, resurrected some we haven’t sung in a while, and of course led us in some staples of our repertoire.

Our summer schedule is taking shape, with June engagements planned for the Anchors (Edgartown Council on Aging) and Katharine Cornell Theatre and July performances at Union Chapel and the Unitarian-Universalist Society chapel. Details will be added to the “2014 Schedule” page as they become available. A couple of off-island trips are also in the works. If your organization (church, temple, school, library, council on aging, etc., etc.) is interested in hosting Jim and the choir, get in touch!

This year, thanks to the efforts of Nan Doty, we’ll have a program to pass out at our gigs. It will include information about the spirituals and the U.S. Slave Song Project. If you’d like to advertise in the program — the rates are very reasonable — let us know.

Accompanist Phil Dietterich (left) and director Jim Thomas

Accompanist Phil Dietterich (left) and director Jim Thomas. Phil’s spiffy new T-shirt says “B♯, Never B♭, Always B♮.”

The sopranos

The sopranos

Jim directs the basses -- Alex Palmer on the left, Warren Doty on the right.

Jim directs the basses — Alex Palmer on the left, Warren Doty on the right.

 

 

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Our 10th Season Begins!

Jim Thomas is back on Martha’s Vineyard, and rehearsals of the Spirituals Choir will resume on Wednesday, April 16, from 6 to 7 p.m. Location to be announced. New singers welcome!

This is the choir’s 10th season. We’re looking forward to a great one.

Wearing a rainbow of colors, the Spirituals Choir sings at the West Tisbury Congregational Church, August 2013. That's Jim on the left. In bright yellow toward the left end of the choir is soloist Elizabeth Lyra Ross.

Wearing a rainbow of colors, the Spirituals Choir sings at the West Tisbury Congregational Church, August 2013. That’s Jim on the left. In bright yellow toward the left end of the choir is soloist Elizabeth Lyra Ross.

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Twelve Years a Slave

Jim Thomas’s Spirituals Choir is in winter hibernation mode, so there’s been nothing musical to report. Last night, though, I went to see Twelve Years a Slave, a film based on the memoir of Solomon Northrup, a free black man from upstate New York who was abducted and sold into slavery in 1841.

This is the world the slave songs came from. Call-and-response work songs help the slaves maintain momentum as they pick cotton or cut cane. “Roll, Jordan, Roll” is heard after a dead slave is laid to rest.

Others have raved about all aspects of the film: the superb performances, the deft direction, the story itself, and more. Twelve Years a Slave is in the running for the Oscars and other major movie awards, as well it should be. What struck me hardest as I watched, and now as I recollect, was the visceral feeling that there’s no escape. Not for Solomon, not for the viewer. Certainly not for the other slaves, but not for the white plantation owners and their hirelings either. This is a closed system. It magnifies the human failings of the slave owners — jealousy, anger, hypocrisy, pride — and turns them lethal. It turns the smallest act of empathy or trust into something heroic.

No escape. Solomon Northrup’s old world might as well be on another planet. He might as well have died and gone to hell. Only the title of the film tells you that years are passing — that, and the fact that when Solomon does manage to return from the dead, he finds his daughter married and himself a grandfather. The film doesn’t touch on the drama that must have been playing up north, as Solomon’s family realized he’d disappeared, presumably tried to find him, and gradually became reconciled to their loss. Only in myth can the living attempt to bring their loved ones out of hell. The results are rarely happy.

I could go on, and on and on. Suffice it to say that Twelve Years a Slave will be on my mind next spring when the Spirituals Choir reunites for its 10th season.

If you’re on the Vineyard, Twelve Years a Slave will be screened at the M.V. Film Center three times this coming weekend: Friday, Nov. 15, at 4 p.m.; Saturday, Nov. 16, at 7:30; and Sunday, Nov. 17, at 4. Elsewhere, the film is being released more widely and shouldn’t be hard to find, at least in urban areas. Solomon Northrup’s memoir is in print and available from the usual online outlets. And for an insightful take on slave narratives in general and this one in particular, see Eric Herschthal’s blog on the New York Times website.

– Susanna J. Sturgis

 

 

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Season Finale

The Spirituals Choir finished its 2013 season with a busy, busy weekend. Saturday afternoon we sang at the memorial celebration of the life of our late colleague, Bob Lee (1947–2013). What a celebration it was! Stories about Bob, poems for Bob, lots and lots of music, and lots and lots of food, all on a gloriously sunny September afternoon at the Ag Hall in West Tisbury.

Here’s a video of our performance. Professional it’s not, but here’s hoping it’ll give you a glimpse of just how special the event was.

On Sunday afternoon, we sang at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs, as part of a benefit for the recreation program at Windemere, the island’s nursing home and rehabilitation facility. The program included the Windemere residents’ bell choir and chorus, as well as several musicians and ensembles that perform regularly at Windemere.

It’s been a full and exhilarating season for Jim Thomas and the Spirituals Choir. We’re already looking forward to 2014, which will be our 10th anniversary season.

This blog will continue through the fall, winter, and spring, featuring news about the choir and the U.S. Slave Song Project, and historical information that may be of interest. Thank you so much for your support!

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In West Tisbury

A belated report . . .

On August 18, the Spirituals Choir sang at West Tisbury’s First Congregational Church. The theme of the service, led by the Rev. Cathlin Baker, was “water,” that essential source of physical and spiritual sustenance. Our contributions included “Wade in the Water” — which director Jim Thomas explained is not about baptism, although that’s when many churches sing it. With the congregation we sang “Down by the Riverside,” “I’ve Got Peace like a River,” and “I Shall Not Be Moved.” Water figures prominently in all of them.

Wearing a rainbow of colors, the Spirituals Choir sings in West Tisbury. That's Jim on the left. In bright yellow toward the left end of the choir is soloist Elizabeth Lyra Ross.

Wearing a rainbow of colors, the Spirituals Choir sings in West Tisbury. That’s Jim on the left. In bright yellow toward the left end of the choir is soloist Elizabeth Lyra Ross. Photo by Lynn Christoffers.

We were joined for this performance by soloist Elizabeth Lyra Ross. Wow! Backing her up on “Ride On, King Jesus” was a thrill, and her “Steal Away to Jesus” filled the church with passionate sound. She had her CDs for sale after the service, and quite a few of us jumped at the opportunity to bring her voice home with us.

The end of the choir’s 2013 season is fast approaching. We’ll be singing at the potluck memorial celebration for our beloved colleague Bob Lee on Saturday, September 7, 1 p.m. at the Ag Hall in West Tisbury. And the following afternoon we’ll be at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs, participating in a benefit for Windemere nursing home. Hope to see some of you there.

2013 WT church program

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Porch Concert

This year the Spirituals Choir has sung in churches and senior centers, in theaters, at Union Chapel, and at East Chop Light. Late Thursday afternoon we sang at the Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown. The hotel features a wrap-around porch with stupendous views of Edgartown harbor. We were part of the hotel’s annual Porch Concert series, which this year is co-sponsored by MVY Radio. MVY, formerly WMVY @ 92.7 FM, is now a listener-supported online station with deep roots on Martha’s Vineyard.

As always, founder-director Jim Thomas welcomed questions from the audience in between the songs. Thanks to Jim’s knowledge and ongoing research, we learn more at each performance about the anonymous slaves who made these spirituals and the world they lived in. The songs open a window into that world.

Jim Thomas and some of the choir

Jim Thomas and some of the choir

partial choir

Phil Dietterich on keyboards and singer Janet Holladay

Phil Dietterich on keyboards and singer Janet Holladay

The choir’s summer schedule is beginning to wind down, but Sunday, August 18, will be a busy day. At 10 a.m. we’re singing as part of the regular service at the West Tisbury Congregational Church. We’re thrilled to be joined by guest soloist Elizabeth Ross.

Then at 6 p.m. we’ll help open the Tick-Borne Disease Alliance (TBDA) fundraising dinner at the Grange Hall, also in West Tisbury (and barely a stone’s throw from the church).

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Fare You Well

Bob Lee had been in frail health, but yesterday’s news of his passing came as a shock. He sang and drummed with the Spirituals Choir when we performed our annual lunchtime concert at the Oak Bluffs senior center last Thursday. He was at rehearsal the night before. He’s been at virtually all our rehearsals and (many!) performances this year, and he’s been part of the choir since it began nine years ago.

Bob Lee

Bob Lee

Many of the slave songs deal with journeys. In “Fare You Well” slaves who’ve been sold away take leave of family and friends. Separation could happen at any time. The slaves sang the hope of reunion, in the next world if not in this one:

You may bury me in the East
You may bury me in the West
But I’ll hear the trumpet sound
in that morning

For slaves escaping on the Underground Railroad, the journey ahead was long, the partings hard, but the destination — freedom — made it all worth while.

Done made my vow to the Lord
and I never till turn back
I will go, I shall go
to see what the end will be

We’re singing for you, Bob, and missing you so much. Hear the angels singing?

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Our July

July was a busy month for Jim Thomas and the Spirituals Choir! Undaunted by relentless heat and humidity, the choir continued to rehearse every Wednesday. The hard work culminated in three successful performances.

July 2013 poster smOn Saturday, July 20, we sang our annual full-length concert at Union Chapel to a very appreciative audience with many new faces in it. We were joined by guest organist Lavert Stuart.

The very next morning, we were featured at the Unitarian Universalist Society’s Sunday service. The theme was “From Africa to the Underground Railroad,” and again Lavert Stuart was at the organ.

Maybe because it built on the previous evening, maybe because so many of us had the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial on our minds, maybe because the congregation and the choir raised our voices together in several songs — whatever the reasons, this was one powerful event.

To conclude the service, we all rose together to sing “America the Beautiful.” Before we finished the first verse, I was so choked up I could barely sing. Turns out the same thing was happening to a lot of other people. At the end many eyes were shining with tears and hope.

On Sunday, July 28, Della Hardman Day, we returned to East Chop Lighthouse to help celebrate the life and creative powers of the late Della Hardman. The sun was in hiding so we saw no sunset, but the rain held off and we sang well.

Our summer season is beginning to wind down, but it’s not over yet. On August 8, we’ll be singing at the Oak Bluffs Council on Aging, to thank the town’s seniors for letting us rehearse in their space. Then on August 18, we’ll be part of the service at West Tisbury’s First Congregational Church. It’s our first time there, and we’ll be joined by guest soloist Elizabeth Ross.

In early September the choir will participate in a fundraiser for Windemere at the Tabernacle.

– SJS

2013 UU program

Program for the July 21, 2013, UU service.

 

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Choir to Sing at East Chop Light

With Vineyard Sound spread out before in front and the historic lighthouse behind, there are few more scenic places to sing on Martha’s Vineyard than East Chop Lighthouse. This Sunday at 6 p.m. the Spirituals Choir returns for its eighth annual visit. There’s no charge. Bring a chair or a blanket to sit on.

Jim Thomas (left) leads the choir.

Jim Thomas (left) leads the choir.

Thanks to Marie Allen for taking these photos as last year’s performance!

The choir’s appearance is part of the annual celebration of Della Hardman Day, which honors the life and work of the late artist, community inspiration, and Oak Bluffs resident.

“Savor the moment,” a Della axiom, is the theme.

In previous years, the lighthouse has been open for visitors. The view from the top is spectacular.

jim 1Jim Thomas manages to direct the choir, sing lead, play the drum, and provide historical context for the spirituals all at the same time. We think he has eyes in the back of his head!

partial choir

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Trayvon Martin, Race & Anthropology

Many eloquent writers are trying to come to terms with the not guilty verdicts in State of Florida v. George Zimmerman. Leith Mullings’s essay is one of the best I’ve seen. She’s the president of the American Anthropological Association. “Anthropology,” she writes, “is the discipline that fostered and nurtured ‘scientific racism,’ a world view that transforms certain perceived differences into genetically determined inequality and provides a rationale for slavery, colonialism, segregation, eugenics, and terror.”

She notes as well that “our discipline also has a significant tradition of anti-racism that emerged from the tumult leading to World War II,” and, a little later: “In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, cultural anthropologists in particular have understood race to be a social construction—not a biological given (indeed, this is almost a mantra). Race is constructed in the sense that racial hierarchies are created at specific historical moments, frequently linked to labor exploitation, conquest, nation-building, and racialized definitions of citizenship.”

The essay contains a link to Charles Blow’s excellent New York Times op-ed, “The Whole System Failed Trayvon Martin.”

Leith Mullings is also the widow of the late Manning Marable, author of the stunning, Pulitzer Prize–winning Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.

 – SJS

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