Preacher & People – RPC Music Notes, 9 Feb 2020

“Fix me”, arr. J. Hairston – soprano Kathleen Battle in a Philadelphia choral performance

Every churchgoer, and for that matter nearly everyone else, is familiar with the concept of the lone preacher with the gathered congregation. But if you have heard choirs sing spirituals or sung them yourself, and have noticed the preponderance of soloists as compared with other styles of anthem, have you ever connected the dots?

As we consider Spiritual arrangements such as those heard at RPC throughout this Black History Month, we must try to untangle the sources and intervening factors that gave them shape. This is a complex fusion of a variety of African cultural building blocks, the imposed Christian faith both in African mission and American enslavement settings, and of course the omnipresence of struggle, suffering and oppression. But for the present we will consider just one obvious aspect, the Preacher and People.

Leaders, and the musical incarnation known as “Call and Response” is a cultural trope that spans the songs and societies, sacred and secular, of the globe: thus it is a simplification to suggest that the paradigm of the Preacher can explain entirely its presence in the modern Spiritual arrangement.

Practically any leader facilitates learning: cantor/choir forms the basis of the Hebraic and monastic chants that in turn founded all Western sacred music, but it is of obvious value to all cultures, allowing ideas and traditions to be led now, and passed on to the future.

The modern Christian Preacher finds their roots in the teachers and leaders of ancient faiths, and most recently Judaism and Islam. Through the lens of colonial Christianisation of African slaves, he adopts older known leader roles to teach the new faith, reinforce behaviors such as obedience and productivity, and strengthen a new stratified community model.

But in the Spiritual we find another dimension that stretches back thousands of years earlier into the songs and practices its founders brought with them: and followed richly into Gospel, Soul and arguably other genres: the role of emotional inspiration. When a soloist sings “Fix me Jesus, fix me” in the first person they are not really even preaching – they implore us, in a deeply personal way, to pray as they do. While a choir repeats John the Baptiser’s sober warning to “Don’t you let nobody turn you ’round”, in great authority the soloists recount his story and call the faithful to unity.

Indeed in our Presbyterian tradition, along with interpreting and sharing the scriptures the speaking Preacher, Wes Denyer and Seaton Brachmeyer as two fine examples, appeal to us in a deeply personal and often autobiographical way. And RPC’s long tradition of fine soloist leadership within its Choir offers a unique gift of beauty and humanity that goes far beyond the musical.

When you hear a voice raised in leadership, in teaching, in prayer or in community rest assured, both you and it are in an ancient social contract with a rich and powerful history – and continuing great potential for grace.

-CD