Commentary on the repertoire – Tom Mawhinney
It is exceptional to find a repertoire whose songs are anchored in experience, developed over generations, and respectfully, and even reverently, maintained over not only decades, but centuries. The Tuskegee Golden Voices Concert Choir presents just such a repertoire. It is a great pleasure at any time to encounter a pool of beautiful songs, filled with grace, rich in meaning. This is what you will hear from the choir. The songs, however, though often very spirited, also contain representations of suffering which it is important not to forget.
In an essay accompanying the Tuskegee choir’s 1992 recording “Spirituals”, WL Dawson uses lengthy quotations from the Virginia and South Carolina legislatures of previous centuries to demonstrate the severity of punishments allowed in the period of slavery which are nothing short of chilling. He exhorts listeners to acquaint themselves with the realities of the experience of slavery, the wellsprings from which the songs the Golden Voices sing emerged.
The hidden messages in certain of this large body of songs regarding the goals of succeeding in escaping (e.g. Deep River; I Want to Be Ready), evasion of pursuit (e.g. Wade in the Water), and finding a route to freedom (e.g. Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd) serve as remarkable examples of creativity and resilience. Ride the Chariot is said to have been sung as an ‘all clear’ signal to individuals who had evaded but not yet escaped from the search area. Remembering the symbolism present in these songs keeps the listener in touch with aspects of the meaning Dawson advises us not to forget. It is certain that we are not able to imagine fully the suffering and anguish involved, however strong our intentions.
Presenting a perspective from Canada on the Tuskegee repertoire is a ticklish enterprise: contemporary ‘cultural appropriation’ debates aside, no-one invites judgment from outsiders less than do Americans. Nevertheless, and even if Canada does not have an innocent history of its own regarding slavery, it is evident that social tensions are now higher in the US than in our country, and there are clear steps in civil rights there which have yet to be made. It is relevant in this context to remember the musical exchange between Neil Young (Canadian) and Lynyrd Skynyrd in the 1970’s. Young, in Alabama, after describing whippings and worse (of blacks by whites), asks “How long, how long?”. In Southern Man, he advises Alabamans, “Don’t forget what your Good Book said – Southern change gonna come at last.” In their musical response to this in Sweet Home Alabama, the group Lynyrd Skynyrd sings, “I hope Neil Young will remember – Southern man don’t need him around anyhow…”. It is the perception of many Canadians in the current day that the US South is ‘stuck’ in a maladaptive pattern, which has (self-)destructive effects on the entire nation. Booker T Washington was well known, and lauded for his maintenance of a conciliatory approach to race relations. He maintained an unshakeable commitment to using education as a positive force in establishing equality and resolving racial tensions. Thank you, Tuskegee, for following Washington’s lead, and upholding your contribution to the cause of justice for all with dignity, gallantry, and discretion.
The issue of slavery, its abolishment, and the subsequent and ongoing societal adjustments which eventually must occur needs open public debate to enable movement forward. In the early 1970’s I had a discussion about writing political songs with a South African black friend, Jugathason (Jagga) Moodley. He advised, “If you peep something, you must share it.” That is essentially the reason I have the hubris, as a white Eastern Ontario vegetable farmer, to write the above commentary.
The Tuskegee Golden Voices Concert Choir has a proud heritage, and maintains its repertoire with consistent excellence. Aside from the pleasure we derive from their music, we owe them a debt of gratitude for upholding the principles of their founder so well.
One collection of Canadian songs which, without equivalence to the Golden Voices’ repertoire, could be considered a parallel in our music is the set of folk songs les Québecois sing around their St Jean Baptiste bonfires every year in June. These are spirited songs, many emerging from life experiences in previous generations (e.g. J’entends le Moulin, Les Raftsmen) or representing parables or having a didactic intent (e.g. L’hiver Viendra, A la Volette). Many are call and response, such as Alouette in its various arrangements, and En Filant ma Quenouille, ensuring audience participation, and contributing to intergenerational joining and social continuity. In the era of near-universal personal listening devices, this tradition is bound to be in jeopardy. These pleasing and engaging songs are of cultural and historical significance, but do not have the intense and enduring emotional significance that songs about emerging from slavery have. The repertoire presented by the Golden Voices, by contrast, is certain to endure.
Some time in the 1980’s I had a prolonged and intense discussion with the late Chopper McKinnon, originator of the longest running folk radio show in Canada, Canadian Spaces, now hosted by Chris White at CKCU in Ottawa. The discussion focused on the negative effects of commercialism on new music and developing song writers. We agreed fully that the rapid-cycling and artificially driven succession of ‘styles’ of songs had a net negative effect on artistic endeavour in Canada. Of course the forces involved are even more powerful in the United States.
“Up steps a man with a big cigar, Says, ‘Come here, cat, I’m gonna make you a star.’ ” – All American Boy, Edwin Browne, 1958.
“…stoking the star-maker machinery behind the popular song…” – A Free Man in Paris, Joni Mitchell, 1974
“The music industry’s a total fake – Corner the market and then sell the breaks, and that’s show biz…” – Habits, Tom Mawhinney, 1984
“Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts.” – The Boy in the Bubble, Paul Simon, 1986
The Golden Voices’ historic songs represent a welcome and stable oasis in a vast desert of vacuous and transient commercialism.