Off North Road

Lift every voice

By Russell Hoxsie - April 6, 2006

The black man's presence was, as the French would say, for-mi-DA-bleh, formidable in American. Before we knew just what he was up to he sat at the grand by the upturned piano top and hit chords we hadn't heard at Grace Church ever before, loud enough to shatter glass and arouse anyone out of drowsiness, if any lingered following a lost hour of sleep on the first day of DST (daylight saving time). As the chords died away he spoke in a rich baritone with a whisper of black. His face was as dark as one could get, his smile as welcoming and energetic as his hands and body movements. He leaned on the piano, or took a step toward the congregation, then stepped back and sat down on the piano bench. Turning to us, he said, "Let's open to Hymn Number 120 in the LEVAS ("Lift Every Voice and Sing") and his voice modeled what he was asking for. "Now, I want to hear YOUR voices, loud, clear, not the way you sing from your Anglican hymnal."

I've taken liberties with his words because I couldn't hear well from where I sat but his body language communicated better than a telegraph. "Number 120. Now, begin!" And the entire roomful of us were off with a short rehearsal of "Sweet, Sweet Spirit." The chorus goes like this:

"Sweet Holy Spirit,
Sweet Heavenly Dove,
Stay right here with us -
filling us with your love.
And for these blessings-
we lift our hearts in praise;
Without a doubt we'll know
that we have been revived
when we shall leave this place."

"When you get to ... 'without a doubt,' I want to hear that D, poke it out, and I want to hear that T. Throw it right up here at me." And his large smile took us over. The hesitation before 'doubt' was perfect and he smiled again with us. This was a morning never to be forgotten at the little gray church on the corner of William Street and Woodlawn Avenue in Vineyard Haven on Sunday morning, April 2. The black man is Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer, retired Professor of Music Theory and African-American Music at UMass Amherst. He was the General Editor of "Lift Every Voice and Sing II, an African Hymnal." He is the fifth speaker in an annual series of black clergy speakers on race, endowed and arranged by the Burgess Committee of Grace Church. Notes for the 11 am service continue, "He was drawn to the Anglican Church as a young man because of its music and in 1982 worked with Black Ministries to publish a collection of 124 African-American songs - the first edition of LEVAS. Today Dr. Boyer is joined by Wes Nagy on synthesizer, Tauras Biskis on percussion, Tom Major on drum set, Geoff Patterson on bass, and Eric Johnson on guitar as we sing the music of "Lift Every Voice and Sing, II" ... and will speak to us of 'Gospel' and present a forum following 10:30 worship."

Imagine singing about being freed only after you "leave this place" [or die] to be "revived!" Many of the Negro spirituals are like this, very sad. Slaves from Africa came from disparate locations and spoke different languages; they came to America with no knowledge of English but somehow managed to learn spoken English which became their own dialect, difficult or impossible for white people to understand. Their songs told their story, often with hidden meaning - for instance, to signal a plan for escape. They sang to keep hope alive and left a rich history of the shame of slavery. With an ear for melody, they depended also on rhythm, body movement, and improvisation to enrich their music. Because of limited vocabularies, their song texts often included only a few different words and only one or two lines which would be repeated many times. The teaching they received at the hands of whites gave them knowledge of the Old Testament. "The New Testament got short shrift," Boyer says. [Of the Biblical characters used in speech and song,] "Where were Mathew and Luke?" he asks. His talk about the origins and importance of African-American music was authoritative and poignant. There were sorrowful songs and jubilee songs, the latter celebrations of freedom and liberty. Many eyes were teary as he spoke. I heard one comment that tears flowed during his entire sermon.

Sunday's service was well served by members of both Grace and St. Andrew's Church choirs. They sang "It's My Desire" by Bagley-Boyer. Their command of the rhythm appeared flawless and Dr. Boyer's preparation was well learned. The band energized the atmosphere in the crowded parish house to a palpable intensity (the church sanctuary is being painted.) Wes Nagy at the synthesizer, Tauras Biskis on percussion, Tom Major on drum set, Geoff Patterson on bass, and Eric Johnson on guitar have been a steady influence over the past two or three months on what seems to be a new direction for music at Grace, to this writer's ear and heart, an uplifting adventure.

The Introduction to "LEVAS II" notes that it is not being published solely to enable stuffy black Episcopalians to become 'sanctified' ones. It is intended to be a resource for the whole church. Arch Deacon Murphy observes:

"White people, too, want to rejoice and sing 'Blessed Assurance' with abandon. This is especially true of young white children who can't get with the program on Sunday mornings after rocking out to Michael Jackson or Whitney Houston all week."

Dr. Boyer's closing remarks caught my ear especially. He congratulated the congregation on being such a friendly and open group and he said with an amazed expression how inconceivable an invitation for him to speak at an Anglican church like ours would have been 50 years ago. As he was about to leave the piano, he searched us with a serious eye and said soberly, "I hope in the future you will remain as friendly and open as you appear to be today. I mean that." I wondered as I drove home that a black American like Dr. Boyer - of high renown, impeccable credentials, and a fellow Episcopal Churchman - must still harbor doubts about his standing with white people.