African American church music has played a continuing role in the civil rights movement throughout history. Spirituals in particular have provided solidarity and hope, when hope was in short supply. In the late 1930s, a Cleveland church choir achieved national fame through a weekly radio broadcast that made its own impact on race relations. 90.3 WCPN's David C. Barnett tells us about this "joyful noise."
David C. Barnett: Imagine a summer Sunday morning on the eastside of Cleveland. People are walking to church and there is a sound in the air. It's not coming from bell towers, but from radios - in most every house you pass.
Helen Turner Thompson: Everybody knew them. You could walk down the streets of Cleveland and at 9:00 WGAR you would hear their intro.
Howard Roberts: If you left in time, you could hear the complete program because I used to walk from E. 67th street where I grew-up, down to 40th street where I attended St. John AME church and all the way we could hear the program.
HTT: And their harmony had clarity, very pronounced. And you knew that Cleveland, especially the east side, and to the south... Kinsman, and on out. They were listening to Wings Over Jordan.
DCB: The Wings Over Jordan Choir was organized in 1935 by Glenn T. Settle, pastor of Gethsemene Baptist Church on East 30th and Scovill Avenue. Thanks to Rev. Settle's promotional abilities, the choir made it's local radio debut on WGAR a couple of years later, under the name "The Negro Hour". Well-known contemporary choir director Helen Turner Thompson was a young girl when she first heard them.
HTT: I think I was about 8 or 9 years old. They were an a cappella group and they sang spirituals and a few gospel numbers.
DCB: Musician and Cleveland native Howard Roberts has kept the music of Wings Over Jordan in his head ever since he was a teenager at Central High School.
HR: It was very male oriented, despite being SATB. Even though it was a small group they had a marvelous bass section and some of the arrangements were very grounded in rolling basses, even though it was a mixed group with both men and women.
DCB: The sound of the Wings Over Jordan choir was the inspiration for Howard Roberts career as composer and conductor. A respected music director of Broadway shows and national television programs, Robert's choral compositions have been used by schools across the country. And he traces it back to those Sunday mornings in Cleveland.
HR: In fact some of the choral writing I do to this day is modeled after the old Wings Over Jordan. They probably had the widest audience that any African American group had ever had, because of the popularity of their radio broadcast.
DCB: That radio broadcast went national on the CBS network in 1938 and continued for ten years, racking up a number of accolades, including the Peabody Award. The program was a cultural landmark for hundreds of thousands of African American families across the U.S. and it served as a musical awakening for many white listeners as well. Helen Turner Thompson says that was an intention of Wings founder Glenn T. Settles.
HTT: The message in the Choir was one that we could identify with. They sang: [sings] "I've been 'buked and I been scorned." We could identify with them because at that time, there was still segregation and prejudice in a lot of the country.
John Foxhall: ...and they also talked about other issues that were of interest to the African-American community, in particular.
DCB: John Foxhall's father was one of the original members of Wings Over Jordan. He says the radio broadcasts were also a source of news.
JF: It was part of Rev. Glenn T. Settle's dream to have prominent members of the African-American community on the program, such as Mary McCloud Bethune, Adam Clayton Powell, and Langston Hughes. And, of course, at that time, we now know there were many lynchings, many instances of violence against African-Americans, particularly in the South. These sorts of stories were not generally carried by the white media, so Rev. Settles would use those Sunday broadcasts to tell the rest of the country about the injustices being done in many areas.
HTT: I think this was a calling that they had. And they were regular everyday working people.
DCB: A modern group of "everyday working people" is trying to keep that legacy alive. Glenn Brackens directs the revival group known as the Wings Over Jordan Celebration Chorus. John Foxhall says the Chorus was founded in 1988 to mark the 50th anniversary of the original Choir's first national broadcast.
JF: They sing in pretty much the same format of the original group. And we use what little income we get to give scholarships to young people who plan to study black sacred music.
DCB: The original Wings Over Jordan choir took a message of solidarity to black audiences across the country 60 years ago and it gave many in white America their first exposure to black culture. Helen Turner Thompson hopes that history will someday lead to the fulfillment of a dream that's been long deferred.
HTT: The messages that they sang gave the black people hope, as it still does today around this time of year when we sing the songs that Dr. King liked, like the Battle Hymn of the Republic, Take My Hand, Precious Lord, etc. We still sing those songs, written by black writers, because we're still in that hope that one day we will be... just... people. As the song says "ordinary people... God chooses ordinary people." And we want to come away from God choosing skin color, or where a person lives, or what school they went to. Just know they are people who have come together and God has blessed us all.
DCB: In Cleveland, David C. Barnett, 90.3 WCPN News.