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For many, gospel music 'allowed us to breathe'

Two musical events planned to celebrate Black History Month

POSTED: February 12, 2011 12:30 a.m.

Like the steady click of a metronome, music has always played an important background role in black history.

It has been used for worship, for inspiration and even story-telling.

"I think music is a liberating vehicle for relieving any kind of stress and any kind of oppression. It provides a kind of freedom of expression that can be used in so many ways," said the Rev. Rose Johnson-Mackey of Truth and Deliverance Outreach Ministries in Gainesville.

"So much of the release that our people have sought through the years has been provided through music. It has allowed us to breathe during the difficult times of our nation's history."

To commemorate the important role that music has played in the black community, Johnson-Mackey and Marsha Arendall have planned two special events for Black History Month.

The first event, "When Sistas Sing the Gospel," is planned for 3:30 p.m. Sunday at Truth and Deliverance, 701 Main St., Gainesville. The second event, "Gimme Those Old Negro Spirituals They Are Good Enough For Me," is planned for 3:30 p.m. Feb. 27 at the same location.

"Music was one way that people were able to cope with what they were going through during slavery. Mothers sang to their children and grandmothers used songs to tell stories," Arendall said.

"For us to remember and honor that is important."

During slavery, and even afterward, field workers often sang songs to help them through their day of hard labor. According to Colonial Williamsburg historians, call and response "work" songs could be used to give direction in the fields and to also set a pace for workers.

For instance, in one song, the caller, or song leader, would say "Hoe Emma Hoe, you turn around and dig a hole in the ground, hoe Emma hoe." The rest of the workers would then repeat what was said.

The songs could also have coded meanings.

"Certain songs were used to give signals for the Underground Railroad, since slaves weren't able to talk freely amongst each other," said Arendall, a Gainesville resident.

One such song, "Follow the Drinking Gourd," gave clues to tell slaves how to escape from their plantation and travel north to Canada, where slavery wasn't practiced.

"Follow the drinking gourd, for the old man is waiting for to carry you to freedom, if you follow the drinking gourd. The river bank makes a mighty good road. The dead trees show you the way. Left foot, peg foot, traveling on follow the drinking gourd."

The "drinking gourd" is more commonly known as the Big Dipper. By following the constellation, which contains the North Star, escaped slaves were able to navigate north to freedom.

Singing and music continued to play an important role after slavery.

"Even during the Civil Rights marches, they used songs to express how they felt," Arendall said.

"We Shall Overcome" was one of the more popular songs from that time period. Although the song has a more somber melody, the lyrics are hopeful: "We shall overcome some day. Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day."

Tomorrow's tribute will feature a number of different performers, including: Jerri Buffington, Kathy Teasley, Roxie Reed, Lisa Smith Holmes and the Mack Sisters.

For Gainesville resident Elizabeth Westbrooks, who will also be a featured performer, the tribute is an important one.

"To me, black gospel music is a part of our heritage. We depended on our gospel songs to get us through," Westbrooks said.

"When we moaned, ‘Soon we will be done with the trouble of the world,' it gave us relief."

Also important is how the songs are delivered.

"I've been singing gospel music since I was a teenager and now I'm 82. It gets me fired up," Westbrooks said.

"Back in the day, we didn't have music. Patting your feet and hand clapping - that was your music. We all started singing that way, if you couldn't sing without music, well then you just couldn't sing."

"When I perform, it will be a capella. I got the music in me."



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