The origins of the tour – Tom Mawhinney
From 2004 to 2009 I was director of the fundraising gospel choir Voices of Joy in Kingston, Ontario and began then to write songs in four parts. I had been taken with songs arranged by William Levi Dawson, and started writing in that vein, which I call ‘emancipation gospel.’ (For an example, listen to my recent video version of Lizzie and her Baby).
In time there were enough songs to record a CD, which I did, partly with the choir in concert, and partly with a smaller group in the studio, the first Shacklebreaker Singers. In 2012 I sent a copy of the CD to Dr Wayne Barr of Tuskegee University, the successor choir director to WL Dawson, to see what he thought. His response was very gracious.
In February, 2014 I decided to see if Dr Barr would think of bringing the choir to Canada, so I sent an email . . . and he responded positively in short order. So, we set up a meeting for April, and have been meeting once or twice a year since. The choir usually sings a series of concerts in March during the University’s reading week in different regions of the USA. We agreed to follow this practice in 2018 in Canada.
I started looking for ‘host choirs’ in a number of communities, and in looking for collaborators, I made contacts in Montreal, Ottawa, Hamilton, Kitchener, Kingston, Toronto, London, Peterborough, and St Catharine’s. Responses were mixed, and not that encouraging. Then I came across Andy Rush in Kingston, and Brainerd Blyden-Taylor in Toronto, both of whom showed pronounced enthusiasm, and committed to hosting the Golden Voices in their respective cities. I decided for practical purposes to focus on Ottawa and London as the other concert locations, and with the help of friends, eventually connected with Chris White in Ottawa and Terry Head in London, both of whom responded most positively.
The meetings with Wayne have been a treat, as we have had no difficulty in developing plans together, and with only one exception, I have heard the choir either in concert or in practice at the time of our meetings. The campus in Tuskegee is a pleasure to visit, with the Booker T Washington statue, the two on site museums for George Washington Carver and the Tuskegee Airmen, and lively student activities evident everywhere. I remember sitting with Wayne at lunch at the time of our first meeting, when I commented that I felt I was on hallowed ground. He immediately responded, looking me in the eye, “You are on hallowed ground.”
I saw the choir once on their annual spring tour in Tampa in 2016. The range and sense of their material, with its unique historic aspect, their precision entries, their intricate rhythms and counter rhythms, and their exquisite tuning and dynamic variation make their music compelling for me every time.
I have read Booker T Washington’s autobiography, Up from Slavery, and the history of the Red Tails, The Tuskegee Airmen: The Men Who Changed a Nation by Charles Francis, and find those compelling, as well. I would recommend both titles to anyone with an interest in history.
It is hard for me to believe that the tour is going to take place . . . but we are in the countdown months, now, and I am anticipating a very exciting time next March!