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Sunday Music Musings on MLK Music January 16, 2021

January 17, 2021
My grandfather, journalist and commentator Taylor Grant with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This week I am celebrating Martin Luther King Day in music, as I look and pray for a peaceful and just future in our nation. Our prelude is We Shall Overcome by Adolphus Hailstork (b. 1941). Dr. Hailstork lives in Virginia Beach Virginia, and is Professor of Music and Eminent Scholar at Old Dominion University in Norfolk. His “Great Day” was our postlude right after the fall election, so please read more about this great African-American composer in my blog from November 14.   He explained in a recent video  how although his music is influenced by African American culture, he is steeped in classical and liturgical traditions. This setting of We Shall Overcome is like a classical trio, with a walking bass, lilting left hand, and tune in the right hand.

We Shall Overcome is a gospel song that became a community anthem for the civil rights movement. The song is descended from “I’ll Overcome Some Day,” a hymn by Charles Albert Tindley that was first published in 1901. (Even before Tindley, the slave song “No More Auction Block” contains the melodic beginnings of this song).  It was sung during a tobacco worker strike in 1945 and by 1947 made it onto a publication of People’s Songs, an organization of which Pete Seeger was the director. It was a favorite of Zilphia Horton, then-music director of the Highlander Folk School of Tennessee, an adult school that trained union organizers. It was taken up by folksingers in the early 1960s, from Bob Dylan to Joan Baez, and used in a protests and marches. As a good child of the sixties I knew it well. I am wondering – do our kids still know it? I think we’ll be singing it in zoom Sunday School! I must say, there is so much amazing content on YouTube, if you are interested in hearing more about the roots of this song, try this History of the Song.

We will also be doing two pieces by Mark Andrew Miller (b. 1967), another favorite composer (I talked about him on August 29 when we did another piece from his publication “Roll Down Justice, Sacred Songs and Social Justice”.) We are singing a short setting of the Amos text Let Justice Roll. Originally it is a central theme of the larger work “Let Justice Roll” with chorus and narration from Dr. Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter from the Birmingham City Jail’. You can hear a performance of the larger work (highly recommended) below, performed live in 2004 at Marble Collegiate Church, New York City, by the Marble Collegiate Community Gospel Choir (Mark Miller, conductor), and the Newark Boys Chorus (Donald Morris, conductor) and James Earl Jones, Narrator.

I really miss my work as a choir director and the many rehearsals and concerts, but the one blessing of pandemic has been the time to practice for hours on a Saturday (and write this blog!). Actually having time to learn new repertoire! The postlude is Mark’s Toccata on “Lift Every Voice,” “the African-American National Anthem.” I’ve been practicing this since the summer, because Mark is a really great organist with much bigger hands than me!—but I have enjoyed every minute. Mark wrote the piece while he was Director of Music and Organist at Covenant UMC in Plainfield, NJ in 2008, the same church where his father served as pastor 1989-1994. It is dedicated to his kids, Alyse and Keith. The piece itself is currently self-published at MarkMillerMusic but has garnered some attention recently and will be included in the next volume of Organ Music of African American Composers, Dr. Mickey Thomas Terry, Editor; MorningStar Music, publisher. Congratulations, Mark!

The great Hymn Lift Every Voice has its own story and deep meaning for black Americans. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was first written as a poem. Created by James Weldon Johnson, it was performed for the first time by 500 school children in celebration of President Lincoln’s Birthday on February 12, 1900 in Jacksonville, FL. The poem was set to music by Johnson’s brother, John Rosamond Johnson, and soon adopted by the (NAACP) as its official song. ( Here is a good video for learning more!

Our more liturgical music includes a setting of Psalm 139 using the Epiphany hymn that I played a lot last week, Nicolai’s Wie Schon leuchtet der Morgenstern (How Brightly Shines the Morning Star) as the basis for the chant.

The beloved Catholic hymn I the Lord of Sea and Sky or Here I am, Lord is so appropriate when we have the calling of Samuel in the reading. This hymn is loved for its tuneful, pop style.  Daniel L. Schutte (b. 1947), grew up in Wisconsin and became a Jesuit. He was one of the founding members of the St. Louis Jesuits who popularized a contemporary style of church music set to sacred texts sung in English as a result of the liturgical reforms of Vatican II. Schutte writes his own texts, grounded in scripture. He also wrote many mass settings. Here I Am, Lord (1981) found its way into the hymnals of many denominations.

Our Offertory Solo is Hymn to Freedom by Oscar Peterson, arr. Seppo Hovi. Oscar Emmanuel Peterson, (1925 – 2007) was a Canadian jazz pianist, virtuoso and composer. He was called the “Maharaja of the keyboard” by Duke Ellington, simply “O.P.” by his friends, and informally in the jazz community as “the King of inside swing.”  He released over 200 recordings, won eight Grammys and received numerous other awards and honors. He is considered one of the greatest jazz pianists, and played thousands of concerts worldwide in a career lasting more than 60 years. (Wikipedia). Read more about his amazing career if you have time. This song was on the album Night Train by the Oscar Peterson Trio, released in 1963 by Verve Records. With lyrics by Harriette Hamilton, it was embraced by the civil rights movement. Later it took on new life as a children’s choir piece. Listen to the great man himself play here:

All the lyrics had to do was express hope for unity, peace, and dignity for mankind.

It was easy to write.   –Harriette Hamilton

Finally, please join me Sunday afternoon for a Virtual Justice Concert in which my choral society, Harmonium is participating with The Children of All Others by Mark Miller.

As well as teaching at Drew and Yale, Mark Miller has also been composer-in-residence for Harmonium Choral Society since 1998. The text of The Children of All Others is from a book of poetic renderings of the Articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (All One Family Sing) by my husband, Jabez Van Cleef. Along with rights come responsibilities; Article 29 states that we are all responsible for each other. I am glad to have this piece to meditate upon this week, and I look forward to the offerings from other groups in this concert:

Here is the live link:

Let me leave you with the words to Hymn to Freedom:

When every heart joins every heart and together yearns for liberty
That’s when we’ll be free
When every hand joins every hand and together molds our destiny
That’s when we’ll be free
Any hour any day, the time soon will come when men will live in dignity
That’s when we’ll be free, we will be
When every man joins in our song and together singing harmony
That’s when we’ll be free

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