Academic journal article The Hymn

Hymns in Periodical Literature

Academic journal article The Hymn

Hymns in Periodical Literature

Article excerpt

Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff, "Roots of Birmingham's Gospel Quartet Training Culture: Spiritual Singing at Industrial High School," Tributaries: Journal of the Alabama Folklife Association 12 (2010): 9-27.

Jefferson County, Alabama, home to the city of Birmingham, was the cradle of black gospel quartet singing which became popular after World War I. This popularity was directly connected to music education in the segregated southern public schools. Industrial High School, founded in 1900, became a center for training in both vocal and instrumental music in the black community, thanks to principal Harold Parker, who served the school for 40 years (9). This essay chronicles the school's musical accomplishments between 1900 and 1937 evidenced through the high school newspaper (12).

Parker had a visionary concept of teaching "plantation songs," especially Negro spirituals, to instill a pride in self and education as well as to elevate this unique musical and cultural heritage. This was at a time when no "Negro melodies" were sung in churches or at community events. In a 1914 commencement speech defending spirituals, one student declared "these dear old songs have proven irresistible. ... In hours of trial and temptation, what balm can heal so well as, 'Lord, I want to be a Christian'?" (11)

The school's greatest singing instructor was Malachi Wilkerson, 1911 to 1935. During these years he directed a succession of choral groups, supervised "community sings," and directed church choirs, but most importantly, he led regular singing exercises at the school's morning assemblies (13).

A newspaper columnist in 1930 enthused after visiting a morning assembly: "harmony . . . pours from their throats, floods their faces and . . . swells with a mighty volume and vitality of sound." These students are truly "a wonderful part of the 'Voice of Alabama'" (15).

In 1935 Wilkerson conducted 3,000 voices in a mass chorus from the high school, the largest musical event that Birmingham had ever seen (16).

Several observations that can be made from this essay, the two most obvious ones being: (1) that all of these events took place during the era of racial segregation; and (2) that despite the cultural/educational restrictions and stigma imposed by segregation, this school was able to become a leader in promoting a vocal heritage that enriched individuals' lives, the black churches, and ultimately the whole community. …

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