Festival of Negro Spirituals packs Shiloh Baptist Church

A standing-room-only crowd packed the sanctuary of Shiloh Baptist Church Saturday afternoon for the 23rd annual Festival of Negro Spirituals.

“Looking forward from way back,” was this year’s theme for the 13 high school and adult singing groups that hailed from Baker, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Monroe and even as far away as Denver.

The music, performed both with and without accompaniment, ranged from traditional, historical spirituals to eclectic, jazzy gospel numbers that had the crowd cheering and clapping along.

The concert kicked off with a rousing introduction by the host group, Heritage, slowly pacing down the center aisle singing in powerful, a cappella harmony: “Walk, don’t get weary. Walk, don’t get weary. Walk, don’t get weary. There’s a great camp meetin’ in the promised land.”

The group’s performance was rewarded with a standing ovation.

“The Negro spiritual is a form that was started by the slaves, and because they could not read or write, the spirituals were passed down through oral tradition,” said Clarence Jones, Jr., founder and director of Heritage, the nonprofit professional choral ensemble.

“Out of the spiritual came gospel music, came the blues, came jazz and R&B and a number of other genres,” Jones said in an interview prior to the concert.

The spiritual was anchored in the Christian faith, he said, but was also a communications tool.

“They got messages around by changing words and let folk in the slave camp know what was going on,” Jones said. For example, he said, the spiritual “Steal Away to Jesus,” is also an escape-from-the-plantation anthem.

Jones estimated about 6,000 Negro spirituals were composed but said many were lost over time. “For a long time our people did not commit suicide because they had faith in God and it got them through the experience of slavery,” Jones said.

Bennie L. Williams, said she brought her 34-member, mixed-race group Spiritual Voices to Baton Rouge from Denver for the second year because, “this is the only opportunity we have to actually be in an African-American culture these songs come from and to hear African-American choirs sing the spirituals.”

She continued, “Negro spirituals are not about race — they are about struggle. They come from faith in God and give you the courage to go on.”

Laddie Bolden, a founding member of Heritage, said they have grown from a handful of members initially to “Baton Rouge’s finest” singing group. He said they ask the high school groups to attend because they are passing the torch to them. “When you see these high school kids hear these songs, their eyes just light up,” Golden said.

Breland Leon, 16, who is president of the 40-member Eleanor McMain Secondary School Concert Choir in New Orleans, agreed with Golden and said they are being role models for their peers.

“Even though we weren’t here to experience some of the things the older people have experienced, we should still appreciate our heritage,” Leon said. “Many teenagers are seen as being troublemakers and the choir list shows we are not troublemakers — we are all about worship.”

For decades the concerts were held at Mt. Zion Baptist and Christian Life churches, but this was the first meeting at Shiloh Baptist. The Rev. Fred Jeff Smith said his church was flattered to host the event.

“With all the various genres of music that exist today, there is a sense of loss of the heritage of our music that brought us to where we are,” Smith said. “How the Heritage group has perpetuated this music is admirable, and we’re glad to have a role keeping that history alive.”

Mary Mikell and a half-dozen of her friends from University Presbyterian attended the concert and obviously enjoyed themselves.

“The music goes from mournful to uplifting to really capturing, to me, the essence of what the spiritual is all about,” Mikell said. “In a time of trial and tribulation and challenge, people find a way to overcome and to have faith in God.”

Ensembles that performed Saturday were: McKinley High School Concert Choir, Baker High School Concert Choir, Eleanor McMain Secondary School Concert Choir, Landry-Walker Charter High School Concert Choir, Southern University Concert Choir, The Heritage Chorale, Monroe; New Orleans Black Chorale, New Orleans; New Dimensions Choral Society, Shreveport, and New Dimensions Youth Chorale, Shreveport.

Special guest choir was The Bennie L. Williams Spiritual Voices, of Denver. Bennie L. Williams is director of the nationally known 40-member ensemble.

The Heritage ensemble has presented concerts throughout Louisiana as well as in Mexico City, Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Nashville, Memphis, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Atlanta, Paris and London. In Rome, Heritage was received in an audience with Pope John Paul II.