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SCRIPTURE-GOSPEL Aug-27-2008 (1,180 words) With logo posted Aug. 21 and photos posted Aug. 27. xxxn

Catholic gospel music making a joyful noise unto the Lord

By Mark Pattison
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- It may seem as if gospel music has been with us all our lives.

But the genre didn't begin until Thomas A. Dorsey, widely regarded as the father of gospel music, changed his tune.

A blues pianist who once recorded the raunchy "Tight Like That," which sold an amazing 7 million copies, he dabbled in what were at the time called "evangelistic songs," getting two of them published in the Gospel Book, a publication of the National Baptist Convention, a predominantly African-American denomination.

Dorsey took credit for coining the term "gospel songs" -- church music with a blues underpinning. His dabbling had become a mission by the time his first wife died in childbirth in 1932, after which he wrote the much-loved "Precious Lord, Take My Hand." Dorsey went on to write more than 800 songs, helping to create a genre that came to be known as gospel music.

Catholic gospel music didn't get started until a few decades later, thanks in part to the renewal and aggiornamento, or updating, of the church brought about by the Second Vatican Council, and moves toward enculturation and the use of the vernacular in the liturgy.

Msgr. Raymond East, director of the Office of Black Catholics for the Archdiocese of Washington, traces the birth of Catholic gospel music to Father Clarence Joseph Rivers, an African-American priest who applied the principles he saw in the blossoming liturgical folk music scene of 40-plus years ago to his own experience.

"He was the first one to start publishing national resources, 'chronologuing' African-American culture and music and doing it from a scholarly basis," Msgr. East said in an interview with Catholic News Service.

"What was basically unique about Father Clarence Rivers was that he was a composer and a musician. One of the first compositions I heard was his 'Mass of Brotherhood,'" the priest said. "He had composed that, and it was a beautiful jazzlike liturgy, with all parts of the Mass (sung)."

It took time to gain acceptance -- Msgr. East said pastors of that time often declared that Catholic gospel music "wasn't traditional enough" or "not Christian" -- but it started gaining footholds in large U.S. cities with large African-American populations.

Today, most parishes with a sizable African-American population are likely to have a gospel choir, although most people who hear and lead the groups say Catholic gospel music sounds different from its Protestant counterparts.

"Our theological beliefs are different. Roman Catholic use of the Lectionary and liturgical seasons maps out a specific plan that is cyclical in nature. Our emphasis on feast days and solemnities is a different experience from that of our Protestant sisters and brothers," said Meyer Chambers, director of the Archdiocese of Boston Black Catholic Choir and co-chair of the special interest section for African-American musicians in the National Association of Pastoral Musicians.

"(Pope) Pius X said that music is the handmaid of the liturgy. In that role music has a place that serves several different needs," Chambers told CNS.

"Sometimes it is meant to accompany the ritual action. Sometimes it is meant to proclaim the psalm. Sometimes it is meant to stand alone. While a number of choral functions overlap between Catholic and Protestant choirs, I think it's more accurate to say that their primary functions are different," he said.

In some cases, because of a lack of Catholics skilled in gospel music, Protestants assume the roles of choir director and musicians.

"We embrace those people without training them in liturgy, so you end up with some odd musical selections at odd, inappropriate times," said Kevin Johnson, director of music at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Atlanta and at Spelman College, a historically black college in Atlanta.

But there are plenty of instances, according to Msgr. East, in which Protestants hired for liturgical ministry in Catholic parishes join the church.

"After they played in the Catholic Church for years ... after they witnessed the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) -- another area that makes black Catholic gospel unique is the music for the rite, there was no regular Protestant gospel music for the rite -- after you do (Easter) vigil after vigil and the rites, you start thinking, 'Maybe this Catholic thing is all right,'" Msgr. East said.

Rawn Harbor is one of them, although he says he considers himself "an exception, not the rule." In 1979, after eight years of doing gospel music in Catholic churches, "I decided, 'I'm here every Sunday, every week, because I'm teaching in the Catholic school. Why not become Catholic?'"

Msgr. East said Catholic gospel music has served to build bridges between African-American Catholics and their Protestant counterparts, as well as serve as a tool for evangelization.

Marjorie Gabriel-Burrow, director of the gospel choir for St. Augustine-St. Monica Parish in Detroit and a participant in the Metro Catholic Gospel Choir, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, confessed that being the director is hard work.

"It's not easy dealing with choirs," said Gabriel-Burrow, 53, a lifelong Catholic who started playing organ in church as a teenager in Washington, and whose pastor sent her to all sorts of workshops and conferences to learn more about liturgy.

She eventually co-edited the "Lead Me, Guide Me" hymnal, a near-mandatory resource for African-American Catholics for the past 21 years.

One time, she told CNS, she was so stressed she told God that "the day I get uninspired, I quit!"

"Thank God there was nobody else in church but him," she said. "Goodness! He has kept me doing something that's unbelievable. It's been an experience. ... It's been a good experience."

Chambers says he's gotten flak for accepting whites into his choirs.

"My response has been simple: one faith, one church, one baptism. For the most part, what affects group dynamics is the personality of the individual," he added. "This is sometimes evident in the assigning of solos. Not every person of color is meant to be a soloist. Not every white person is never meant to sing solos in a gospel choir. It's about talent, perseverance and practice."

"One cannot do an authentic version of a gospel song and not expect some reaction to it which elongates that piece of music, and the reaction is longer than what is expected by liturgical classicists as normal," Harbor said.

He added, "Gospel music also demands its own time and in many cases those services will be a little longer. It's not because of liturgical inefficiency on the part of the priest. One doesn't always sing four verses and the piece ends."

Gabriel-Burrow likes to feature works by African-American composers because, she said, "if I don't do it, I don't know who else will."

Still, she added, "I do a mixture of music. I also do music that is sometimes traditional, I will do something that is by the (St. Louis) Jesuits. I will do something that is old, or ancient. It depends on what fits for the sermons of that day."


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