Carysbrook celebrates black history with gospel

By Page H. Gifford

Horace Scruggs and Odyssey of Soul returned to Carysbrook Performing Arts Center on Saturday (Feb. 8), to perform the last chapter in a series of talks and music illustrating the black experience in music. Scruggs quiet demeanor does not hide his passion for music. He translates this through his arrangements and the skillful techniques of his musicians and singers who bring to life the music of the past.

The journey began with his three-part series on the history of black music from its origins in slave spirituals, the underground railroad, mistral shows, jazz, rhythm and blues, and gospel.

 “The early spirituals featured vocal inflections of West Africa and influenced other forms of music,” said Scruggs. This created their brand of music that defined the African-American culture for decades. “The reason for the mournful sound is what is known as the blue note.” The blue note was used for expression and is sung or played at a slightly different pitch than standard. It was the foundation for the early creation of blues and jazz.

The second and third parts of the series had focused on the evolution of black music, mostly influenced by events in black history, including events leading up to the Civil War, anti-slavery, the abolitionists, government policy, and the underground railroad. Abolitionist and political activist Harriet Tubman was recognized for her extraordinary work and courage with the underground railroad. For ten years, Tubman went on 19 missions and freed 300 enslaved people. The spirituals sung by the field hands became code for communication in the underground railroad.

Tubman remained active during the Civil War. She was a spy for the Union Army and became an armed scout and spy. She was the first woman to lead an armed expedition during the war, guiding the Combahee River Raid, and liberating more than 700 slaves in South Carolina. It was discovered that what plantation owners and overseers thought was just mere singing while working had a profound effect on the southern economy and changed history.

The music continued to define the struggles of African-American, with the early minstrel shows, Scott Joplin and ragtime, and later setting them apart in the music world with their  style of music influenced by the early spirituals and their native cultural rhythms. Jazz and blues have contributed to American music and included Jelly Roll Morton, W.C. Handy, singer Billie Holiday, and Louis Armstrong, to name a few.

The rise of these influential forms of music solidified a place for them in American culture but the struggles continued beyond the post-Civil War era with Jim Crowe and segregation. Their music continued to reflect the world around them and through the civil rights movement, which ushered in a more modern and urgent voice with such memorable songs as “We Shall Overcome.” Segregation ended and the civil rights act and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. determined their destiny and their music with the emergence of rhythm and blues.

The centerpiece to all of their music was gospel.

“Gospel means joy and started with the spirituals and were about overcoming struggles of slavery and becoming free,” he said. He noted that early spirituals were haunting and rhythmical whereas modern-day gospel music is joyous, upbeat, and praiseworthy. “R&B has its roots in gospel.” Songs included “Bless the Lord” and “I’ll Take You There.”

“This music comes from the soul of the black culture.”

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