The Legacy Day committee kicks off its 2019 festival week with an Old Time Gospel Sing and Reception at Bethel A.M.E. Church, 237 N. College Avenue, Chestertown Saturday, Aug. 10, from 2 to 3:30 p.m.
This year’s Legacy Day program honors the historic black churches of Kent County. The gospel concert features five groups representing a combined nine churches. Leslie Prince Raimond of the Legacy Day committee wrote to the churches asking, “Please sing the oldest songs you know, a capella.” Anyone who enjoys gospel music should make it a point to come hear how the choirs respond to the challenge.
Opening the concert is the Rock Hall/Edesville Charge combined choir, bringing together singers from Mount Pisgah United Methodist, Melitota; Asbury United Methodist, Georgetown; Aaron Chapel United Methodist, Rock Hall; and Mount Pleasant United Methodist, Fairlee. Next on the program are the New Gospelites, representing Saint George United Methodist of Worton Point, a quartet made up of Irene Moore, James Phillips, Hester Newnam, and Mary Hynson.
The combined choirs of Janes Methodist Episcopal Church, Chestertown, and Emmanuel Methodist Episcopal Church, Pomona, will be the third group to perform. Following them will be the Bethel A.M.E. choir, directed by Delvin Steward. And closing the concert will be the Mount Olive Praise Team of Butlertown, with Denise Jones, Nita Thompson Harris, Iris Brown, Portia Turner, and Marian Wilson.
In addition to the musical selection, Airlee Ringold Johnson, Legacy Day chair, and lead historical researcher Bill Leary will speak briefly on Legacy Day and the history of the African American Church in Kent County. Nivek Johnson and Leslie Raimond will also speak about gospel music in Kent County and introduce the singing groups.
Gospel music was one of the earliest examples of African-American culture to gain recognition, with the enthusiastic international reception of the Fisk University Jubilee Singers in the years after the Civil War. Of course, the importance of hymns and spirituals in the black community goes back many years before the war, with slaves and free blacks creating their own body of sacred music in addition to the standard hymns adopted from the white churches. The music often served multiple purposes, with many of the spirituals, such as “Go Down, Moses,” working as coded protests against slavery, or even as guides for slaves seeking freedom via the Underground Railroad, such as “Wade in the Water.”
Not surprisingly, gospel music evolved along with everything else in society, as records and radio made it possible for people all over the country to hear music from areas other than their own. Gospel music took a giant leap in popularity in the 1930s when Thomas A. Dorsey, the “Father of Gospel Music,” wrote and recorded a series of songs that have become standard parts of the repertory, notably “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”
Dorsey’s success led to many outstanding gospel artists, both soloists and groups, achieving national recognition through recordings and personal appearances. Some of the best known were the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, the Dixie Hummingbirds, Sister Rosetta Tharp, Clara Ward, Mahalia Jackson, the Staple Singers, and many more in the years since. With the addition of electric instruments and the influence of other, more secular musical styles, modern gospel music has continued to develop and has become a significant segment of the recording industry in its own right. At the same time, performers whose first experience was in gospel music – Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, and dozens of others – have changed the face of popular music, influencing singers from all over the world.
But the more traditional form of gospel music continues to live in the black churches, especially in Kent County, and it is this tradition that the Aug. 10 Legacy Day concert will carry forward.
Bethel A.M.E. Church is located at 237 College Ave. in Chestertown. Parking is available in a lot behind the church, shared with H.H. Garnet Elementary School. Attendees are invited to a reception in the first-floor community room of the church where light refreshments will be served. There is no admission charge for any Legacy Day programs.
The main Legacy Day program, which will be the next weekend, Saturday, Aug.17, features another gospel concert by recording artist Dr. Anthony Brown, whose theme will be the history of gospel music. The concert, which is also in Bethel A.M.E. Church, is from 2 to 3:30 p.m. An additional note of interest is that Brown’s keyboard player, Rusty Saunders, is a Kent County native.
Other Legacy Day events on Aug. 17 include a Genealogy Workshop at Kent County Public Library from 10 a.m.-12:30 pm. Then there will be Stories and Snacks for the Young and Young at Heart from 11 am to 4 pm at Sumner Hall on 206 S. Queen St.
Also, a special exhibition by local black artists will be on display at the RiverArts Education Center, 200 High St., from 1 to 6 p.m on Saturday, August 17.
The parade down High Street will begin at 5:00 pm and will end with dancing and music at a big block party on High Street, next to Fountain Park. Music, by the band Quiet Fire and by DJ Lonnie Butcher will continue until 10 p.m, The evening’s festivities will include a dance contest with prizes for the winners.