Giving voice to history

Cleveland Washington is on a mission to preserve the history of “old time” gospel music.

That’s why Washington, a choir director at St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church, quickly accepted an invitation from the Ascension Parish Library to perform gospel music as part of a Black History Month program.

“I’m a gospel music history nut,” Washington said after his nine-person choir performed at the library’s Donaldsonville branch. “I really want to spread the history of gospel music.”

The singers — five women and four men — donned traditional white and blue choir robes for the performance.

It was the first time in recent history that a church choir performed in the library, library staffers said. More than 40 people crowded into the small meeting room to listen to the choir and watch the church’s liturgical dancers and mimes perform.

Librarian Dionne Laborde said the “Music for Your Soul” program provided an example of the sounds of traditional gospel music that “have reverberated throughout churches and places of worship in the Southern United States since the late 19th century.”

Washington’s group started with a 1946 arrangement of “Walk with Me Lord.”

He said many gospel songs are performed differently in various parts of the state and country.

Music, especially in predominantly black churches, is a vital part of the worship service, he said.

“This kind of music invites the spirit in to prepare you to accept what the priest or pastor is about to deliver,” he said.

Washington is worried that traditional gospel songs are fading from popularity and may soon be heard in few churches.

He said it would be sad to lose not only the songs, but the rich history that accompanies those verses.

One such song, “I’ll Be Somewhere Listening for My Name,” Washington said, was sung by slaves in the fields to alert others “we’ll be running tonight.”

It’s important, Washington said, to preserve the history of gospel music, not just the words.

Young people, he said, need to know the role gospel music played in the history of the South.

“My goal is to keep this music alive and train those in the church to bring it back into worship services,” he said. “So many of these old songs are getting lost.”

One song, “Oh Savior Wash,” was only heard in select churches around the state, he said.

“Go to some parts of the state and you’ll never hear it,” he said. Washington said he first heard the song at St. Philip Baptist Church in Modeste thanks to choir director Lawrence Butler. Records show the church had been performing the song since 1939.

The song, he said, is an example of a “call and response song,” in which one singer would sing a verse and others would repeat.

“You’d get folks popping up from different parts of the church singing new verses and it would go on for 15 or 20 minutes,” he said.

In addition to spreading the history of gospel music, the church is also trying to preserve the tradition of dance in worship services.

Five girls wore colorful tunics and head wraps as they danced slow, deliberate moves to several gospel songs. They dance in their bare feet “to keep dirt out of the church,” Kerry Patterson said.

Patterson said liturgical dance is a type of dance movement incorporated into liturgies or worship services as an expression of worship.

Patterson and Louie hall, co-directors of the church’s liturgical dancers and mimes, said the nine youths that performed at the library are part of a 34-member group that performs at church.

They said the dance group is a way for young people to connect to the church.

“It takes a lot of dedication to learn and perfect these dances,” Patterson said.

The group’s choreographer moved from Donaldsonville to Idaho a year ago and “the group learns everything from a DVD she makes or YouTube,” Patterson said.

The dancers are ages 6 to 19, with one member in college.

The youth dance troupe takes their talents to out-of-town churches and events to promote liturgical dancing.

“It’s a way for them to express themselves in a church environment,” Hall said.