In our latest installment of the KPBS Summer Music Series, we turn to the world of gospel music and learn about the history of African-American spirituals and how they sowed much of American popular music.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Community Choir San Diego, or MLKCCSD, was formed in 1996 and has since released gospel music to the region and around the world. Ken Anderson is their founder and director, and he also directs the beloved UCSD Gospel Choir.
The influence of the spiritual on American music
“From the Negro Spiritual comes rag, swing, jazz, blues, rock and roll, American country music, soul, pop, disco, and even hip-hop and rap,” Anderson said. . “They all eventually find their ultimate roots in the Negro Spiritual.”
Including, of course, the gospel.
Anderson notes that these genres of music can also be attributed to other cultures, regions, or ethnicities, but spirituals play a fundamental role in the development of modern American music.
Sing in the code
The history of spirituals is closely linked to the African-American slave conflicts and the work of abolitionists. Not all of the music is encoded, but many songs have been encoded, Anderson said.
“We are all sure that the Negro Spirituals are songs that the slaves sang to communicate with each other how, when and where they were going to flee – opportunities for freedom. In the songs you will find stories, mentioning the Jordan River which is a code name for the Mississippi, the Ohio River, the Cincinnati rivers, just about any body of water in the Bible – the Jordan, the Red Sea, is a code name for a body of water in America, ”Anderson said.
He also noted that the leaders of the Bible served as code names for the leaders of the abolitionist movement. Moses was often a backup for Harriet Tubman, Anderson said.
“They were leaders in the Bible, they were code names for abolitionists and other workers. They were blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians, just Americans everywhere working together to help the people. slaves to flee, to free states, to Canada. I even learned of some even escaping to Europe, “Anderson said.” And when they were singing about coming home or the Promised Land, or the Land of Beulah – pretty much any good destination – it was a code name for freedom. So in these songs, they were actually communicating. “
This communication system, said Anderson, was how the Underground Railroad could operate.
Some of the songs express a faith in God, even when the institutionalized religion in the southern United States was predominantly in favor of slavery. “And some of the songs they sang just cheered each other on. But when you get to songs like ‘Steal Away’ and ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’, ‘There Is A Balm In Gilead’, ‘ Let Us Break Bread Together on Our Knees, “and so on, when you get to songs like this, they were really communicating. That’s when, where and how we’re going to escape to freedom,” Anderson said. .
Encouragement and mutually uplifting during times of deep conflict and trauma was always an essential undercurrent of music.
“They were singing songs like ‘I’m so glad the trouble doesn’t last forever’ or ‘Lord help me hold on until my change comes’, you know and things like that, they cheer each other on. each other hold on, keep your hand on the plow, hold on, “Anderson said. “They were living in terrible times. They were mostly cattle. They were basically property, families broken up, beaten and forced to work for forced labor under contract.”
“Please take the kid off the piano”
Anderson made his debut with church music, the Black Pentecostal congregation of the Church of God in Christ.
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“I was four years old when my mom taught me my first song, ‘Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross,’” Anderson said.
At the age of five, he took an excursion to the opera and was inspired by how an orchestra took a song and divided it between instruments. With his piano playing, he would try to imitate that.
By the age of six, he was playing the piano in church, although not everyone was a fan.
“There were a lot of people in the congregation, if not all, who were like, ‘Please take the kid off the piano.’ The pastor said, “Leave him alone; he’s the only one showing interest, ”recalls Anderson.
His love for classical music grew and was introduced to Beethoven and Tchaikovsky in college, played in the band, and even after seeing a movie he would come home and try to figure out how to play a particularly good sheet music.
“I wouldn’t know which tone, I don’t have a perfect tone, but I can pretty much reproduce a sound in any tone,” Anderson said. Eventually, he started taking music lessons so that he could understand the theory behind the music.
In his late teens, he took over as head of the church’s music department. “From there I conducted and sang and performed. There you go,” Anderson said.
A choir for the community
“[The choir] comes from a tradition that across the country ministerial alliances come together on Martin Luther King’s birthday, and they also form what they call a memorial choir, for this particular celebration. So it’s a concert and the money raised provides scholarships for young people, ”Anderson said of the choir’s origins. Locally, the group sang to large audiences each year, usually at Copley Symphony Hall.
One year, Anderson was invited to prepare the choir that year in San Diego. “And after this performance, a handful of choir members approached me and said, ‘We would like to become a regular choir,'” he said.
They used the name Martin Luther King Jr. Community Choir San Diego, or MLK Choir San Diego. The ensemble performs from September to June, and funds raised through concerts and album sales continue to fund scholarships for young people. It is a choir without hearing: anyone who wishes can sing, and the group usually has 80 to 100 members.
“The amazing thing is this incredibly magical sound that comes from all of them together,” he said.
Anderson said the three things the choir enjoys doing the most are singing, laughing and traveling, and the group manages to achieve all three as often as possible.
Before the pandemic, they took a trip to Washington DC and performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and the United States Capitol. They also performed at the Martin Luther King Memorial, Jr. Anderson said they were the first musical group in the United States to do so.
Internationally, they have traveled to seven different countries so far.
“Very few people, even in the black church, know about music history. So I always give music history. I always educate myself about music before I start,” Anderson said.
The relevance of gospel music right now
“I don’t know if gospel music fits as much into a particular moment as it does in life. Gospel music speaks to all aspects of life, even the times of life we are in. we are currently finding, because the music was born from a I mean, this is not the first time that America has gone through a difficult time. And I think there are times when America seems to be going very fine, but there’s always a part of America that’s not doing so well, ”Anderson said.
As for the hope and joy found in gospel music despite conflict, Anderson compared it to the end of a TV newscast.
“They pretend to shuffle their papers while they smile and tell you have a good night’s sleep after they just tell you the world is about to go downhill,” Anderson joked. “There is a lot in this world to stress you out, but there is also a lot in this world that you can be grateful for and rejoice in.”
The choir recently resumed rehearsals for their new season and are working on their third album. You can find out more on their website.
Watch MLKCCSD’s Ken Anderson and Dale Fleming as part of the Bodhi Tree Concerts 10th Anniversary Celebration on Saturday, September 25 at 7 p.m. at St. James-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church.
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