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African-American songbook ‘preparing heart and soul’ for worship

 


African-American songbook ‘preparing heart and soul’ for worship

June 14, 2005

By Ciona Rouse*

From the coasts of Africa, to the plantations of the south, from the churches of renaissance Harlem, to the radio waves of today, African-American religious music tells the story of a faith journey that guided people through oppression and freedom.

Music of the African-American heritage brought people together when the United Methodist Publishing House created Songs of Zion in 1980. The first hymnal compiled by African Americans and published by a predominantly white denomination, Songs of Zion has since sold more than one million copies worldwide. Its appeal is ecumenical and racially diverse, as congregations of all backgrounds purchase the hymnal.

Twenty-five years after publishing Songs of Zion, the Publishing House is working to create a new songbook to capture the ever-changing musical heritage of the African-American church.

A committee working on the songbook doesn’t intend to replace Songs of Zion.
“We hope Songs of Zion will continue to be used,” says Bishop Woodie W. White, chairperson of the African-American Songbook Committee. “Consider this a sequel.”

The Rev. Myron McCoy, president of Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo. and general editor of the songbook, says the committee hopes to include music written since the release of Songs of Zion as well as other music that congregations will use in the future.

Preparing heart and soul

The story of African-American religious music continues with varied sounds, different instruments and new tunes.

The soundtrack of worship at Emory United Methodist Church in Washington boasts various styles and rhythms.

The lively high-pitched sounds of the steel pan express the rhythms of the Caribbean. Congas and drums keep time for African songs. The choir lifts their voices with gospel songs of older and contemporary styles. Or sometimes they sing with joy, traditional hymns of the Methodist heritage.

Music is integral to the congregation, says the Rev. Joseph Daniels, pastor of the predominantly African-American church, because it “prepares the heart and soul to worship God.

“Music is at the heart of all people’s souls. It’s one of the major components that bring people together.”

The Rev. Denise Pickett of Woodycrest United Methodist Church in New York uses the Songs of Zion in her congregation in addition to other United Methodist hymnals. Even though they use traditional hymns, they transpose the tune to better speak to the congregation. Pickett looks forward to a songbook that already includes the type of music they use.

“The younger generation, they prefer music that is more upbeat. We do need to include them. It would be worthwhile to have music that is more inclusive of who we are,” she says.

White wants the committee to find at least 60 percent new material for the songbook, hoping the new material will speak to a younger generation and appeal to those who do not presently attend church.

“We hope the songbook will be a connecting one—reaching back to the past and reaching forward to the future,” he explains.

Some churches are living into this model already. Mark Miller, director of music and instructor of sacred music at Drew Theological School, Madison, N.J. and director of the gospel and youth choirs at Marble Collegiate Church in New York, notes that he might play a tune from a popular song of the late 90’s by the group Blackstreet while the choir sings traditional lyrics once sung by the late gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.

Miller, one of three committee members under the age 40, looks forward to capturing diverse styles of worship in the songbook, including spoken word, hip-hop and rap. Additionally, Miller hopes to find more songs speaking to issues of social justice in this book.

“Songs about social justice are part of our legacy—songs of resistance, songs of better life, songs of the civil rights movement,” he says.

Singing messages

Marilyn Thornton, music editor for the United Methodist Publishing House, recognizes the importance of music in this way for the African-American community.

“From an African-American heritage perspective, music has been a way for people to communicate when they could not speak to each other. When they were not able to speak, they could sing messages,” says Thornton.

Black slaves alerted each other of meetings and rebellions through spiritual songs. Because the slaves were religious, plantation owners believed the slaves simply sang about their faith when they sang songs like “Steal Away to Jesus.” In actuality, the slaves communicated with each other about gathering to escape the plantation with this song.

The slaves did not use the songs simply as code. Early African Americans leaned on music to revitalize and renew them “to push forward when systems of oppression existed and continue to exist,” says Thornton.

During the Civil Rights Movement, which was birthed in the church, African Americans motivated and inspired each other with freedom songs like “We Shall Overcome.” Such songs became anthems for the movement.

Representing past and future

In addition to songs of justice, Miller wants the committee to search for new music written by people in church pews who may not be popular musicians but are shaping the ways their congregations worship.

One challenge of the committee, according to McCoy, is to include the full scope of songs representing the future and the past into a songbook of a manageable size. The Publishing House projects the book should include about 250 songs, he says.

The nine members of the African-American songbook committee are intergenerational and multi-ethnic with some members having served on the design team for the Songs of Zion. The Rev. William B. McLain of Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, coordinated the Songs of Zion efforts beginning in 1973 -- long before any promise of publication from the United Methodist Publishing House.

“In fact, there was considerable doubt on the part of the chief administrators about whether such a book was needed and even if needed, whether such a book could sell a sufficient number of copies for the publisher to recover its initial investment,” writes McLain in an article about the history of the Songs of Zion.

While no publication timeline is set yet, the publication goal for the new African-American songbook is for fall of 2006.

*Rouse is a freelance writer living in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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