The sound of the Celestial Choir was otherworldly. The singers had filed into a windowless rehearsal room in the basement of Bright Hope Baptist Church. It seemed like an unlikely place for an epiphany, yet soon the music was bursting forth, the room resounding with the line, EVERY TIME I FEEL THE SPIRIT.
Epiphanies take work. The choir spent long minutes on a single phrase. Music Director Donald Dumpson separated them into sections and then rejoined them. He stopped them short when their heads drooped into their choir books. “I don’t conduct crowns of heads,” he warned them. “I conduct hearts and souls.”
The Bright Hope choir straightened up and got decidedly more soulful after that. The parts meshed, the singers melded. The cinder block walls could not contain their sound. The church could not contain it. The melody rose in waves, and swept away negativities. Call it therapy by harmony.
If North Philadelphia’s Bright Hope represents a mountain, West Philly’s Sharon Baptist Church is closer to the valleys where people live. Here in this simple, woodpaneled church, leaders have taken the radical step of inviting rappers to preach the Word. Sharon’s young Poets of Christ unleash sermons of rap punctuated by throbbing bass and cranking drums.
Of all the paths to reach God, this is a rocky, percussive way. The Poets’ work has the force of a bracing street sermon:
“To LIVE this LIFE of TEMPorary PLEASure,
I’ve been THERE, and NOW I KNOW that NOTHing can MEASure
UP to LIFE with CHRIST, the REAL TREASure.”
Bright Hope and Sharon present two extremes of what’s commonly dubbed gospel music. That term, though, doesn’t do justice to the current sweep of African-American sacred music.
The entire spectrum of black church music has expanded. Gospel is no longer solely a folk art. It’s diversifying into other realms. Many more gospel artists have become classically trained and are further melding European traditions with their own store of hymns, anthems, and spirituals.
After decades of obscurity, the music also is becoming more prominent. Major record labels such as Sony and Warner Bros. have created new divisions to present the contemporary style of gospel, which in turn has ignited interest in more traditional forms.
Few cities are as well-endowed with traditional gospel as Philadelphia. This is the town where MacArthur Award winner Marion Williams lived and prayed, where the Clara Ward Singers helped save souls, and where the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Savettes, the Davis Singers, and the Brockington Ensemble all proudly sang the Gospel. Anyone seeking to enjoy vintage gospel can do little better than rediscover those artists.
These days, the array of singers is even more diverse and arguably as talented. They have to be good, because in the black community there’s a wealth of vocalists sitting in the pews who aren’t just talented: They’re dedicated prayer warriors fueled by a larger force.
“I’ve seen people sing well and have nobody moved because they weren’t sincere,” says the Rev. Walter Arthur Sr., Sharon Baptist’s pastor of music. “You can’t mix mechanics with spirituality. The Spirit is something that you can’t quantify. It just happens. It happens at the will of God, because we don’t control it. God decides to rock the church, and we’re no good for half an hour.”
Philadelphia has six gospel radio stations and also can boast of three local record labels devoted to gospel music - Paradise, Sweet Rain and Messiah Records - as well as a nonalcoholic club at 11th and Vine called Winners that presents local gospel acts twice a month.
Singers like the Gabriel Hardeman Delegation, songwriters like Carol Antrom and producers like Steven Ford, Joel Bryant and James Poyser have developed national reputations in gospel and beyond.
It isn’t considered rude to visit a church for its music. Singing represents a traditional inducement to churchgoing. “You don’t have to be black to walk into a black church or enjoy music of the AfricanAmerican experience,” says Bright Hope’s Dumpson. “There are many blacks who appreciate the orchestra and the opera. Good music is universal, and people are universally welcome.”
Some churches like Bright Hope present the musical gamut from the sublimest classical music to the most rending spirituals of the black experience. Other churches with similarly inclusive outlooks, Dumpson says, include Zion Baptist Church in North Philadelphia, the Ebenezer Seventh Day Adventist Church in South Philadelphia and the Salem Baptist Church in Jenkintown.
Others such as the Tindley Temple United Methodist Church are even more conservative. This fabled church bears the name of Charles Albert Tindley, a former slave who became one of the nation’s most celebrated hymn writers before his death in Philadelphia in 1933. Tindley’s current music director, Dr. J. Edward Hoy, not only studied classical music, but was baptized by Tindley. “I have the link,” he says.
Tindley presents traditional gospel only the last Sunday of the month. Other Sundays, the choirs sing a rarefied regimen of Bach chorales and works by the 16thcentury Italian composer, Palestrina.
Traditional gospel holds sway at the largest number of churches, and picking one depends on individual tastes. Drummer Chuck Jefferson favors the New Covenant Church in West Oak Lane for its mix of contemporary black gospel with anthems and spirituals.
Gospel is played everywhere. Harold Thompson, director of the Main Line Interdenominational Choir, is drawn to his own Memorial Church of God and Christ in Haverford as well as two churches in Ardmore: Mount Calvary Baptist and Bethel AME.
Such a list remains ridiculously incomplete. “Almost any black church you go in, you’re going to hear (some form of) gospel music and it’ll be strong,” said WDAS’ Bishop. “It’s a part of worship. So you really can’t have a church without it.”
MEMO: For further information, contact the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau at (800) 321-9563.