Baton Rouge Traditions

Singing To the Glory: Church-based Choirs and Ensembles in Baton Rouge

By Liz Williams


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Quartets and Ensembles

David Shaler of Broadmoor United Methodist Church described his love for southern Gospel and the "old tradition going back to the touring quartets." He also mentioned a Baptist tradition of different churches coming together on Sunday evenings to share sacred music. These well-documented traditions are vibrant in Baton Rouge. Two of the groups within this essay exemplify these traditions. Celebration is a southern Gospel quartet led by Randy Gurie of University Baptist Church and Heritage is an ensemble led by Clarence Jones dedicated to the preservation of the Negro Spiritual. Both of these groups have Baptist origins and sing intricate harmonies. They are two of the most active sacred music practitioners in Baton Rouge who travel, gather, and share sacred song.

Randy Gurie
Music Coordinator, University Baptist Church
Coordinator, Celebration Quartet

Randy Gurie is the bass singer in and the leader of Celebration, a traditional Southern Baptist Gospel quartet based at University Baptist Church. Mr. Gurie is a coordinator; in addition to sacred music, he coordinates a number of community groups that involve university students and veterans. He is a person that brings people together.

Mr. Gurie was born and raised in Jonesville, Louisiana, which is in Catahoula Parish. He comes from a farming family and was raised as a Freewill Baptist. His mother sang in the church choir and he played the piano there. As a young man, he took one voice lesson and played trumpet and cornet in his high school band. Through his extended family, he was exposed to other Protestant faiths. One aunt married a Pentecostal and another married a Methodist and he learned to appreciate different styles of sacred music in these churches. He moved to Baton Rouge to attend Louisiana State University (LSU) and "never went back" to Jonesville.

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Randy Gurie talks about how Celebration got started. Field recording by Liz Williams.

The Southern Gospel quartet is a major cultural tradition of Protestant North Louisiana. Celebration is an example of this tradition and an example of how sacred music traditions from around the state have become traditions practiced in Baton Rouge. Celebration has been singing together in Baton Rouge for 25 years and all of the members are from University Baptist Church. During their one quarter of a century together, only one member has left the group. That member left because he had to move to Mississippi for work. Although another singer has taken his place, the member who moved occasionally travels home to sing with the group when he can. The group formed to fill a void; they got together to bring traditional Southern Gospel music to their church. They were very well received; word spread and soon they were invited to sing at other churches. Mr. Gurie said that singing together is pure joy for the members of the group and they have found that their music is "enjoyable, meaningful, and worshipful for those for whom we are singing. It doesn't matter if it is a church, nursing home, whatever." They did not start out as a group with a name but the pleasure of joyful worship through singing made Celebration an obvious choice.

Celebration! sings during University Baptist Church's annual sacred music concert in 2016 entitled An Evening of Sacred and Gospel Music. Left to right: Randy Gurie (bass), Fred Dressel (2nd tenor), Trippe Hawthorne (lead), (Lionel Bailey (1st tenor). Photo: Liz Williams.

Mr. Gurie spoke of the "unbeatable" harmonies created when immediate family members sing together and cited examples such as The Lennon Sisters and the Jackson 5. He said that although the members of Celebration are not relatives, their voices "jelled." People told them that they "sounded like one voice," and he said, "That is what you are trying for, unison in sound." Mr. Gurie said that their audience appeal lies in the variety of music they perform. They can sing "Halleluiah" with their church choir, they can sing with Sweet Adelines, they can do choruses, patriotic music, and hymns. Their Gospel repertoire includes songs by the Gaither family, Thomas A. Dorsey, and former Louisiana Governor Jimmie Davis. In addition to a wide range of songs, Mr. Gurie said that they sometimes "rework the chord structures of well-known songs to get a different sound" from a familiar song. He added that it is important not to change the key of a song, however, because that type of change can "take away the power of the song." Mr. Gurie, like others in this essay, stressed that the music they choose has to be within the range of the group's abilities:

What you have to do with music with [quartet] groups, normally, you have a high tenor, second tenor, melody, and bass. Your lead guy, your main guy who sings melody needs to have a strong voice, your high tenor needs to have a strong voice because if not, he is going to be overrun by the other voices. You find pieces that balance with the voices in your group. You try to do songs that complement the voices that you have. (Gurie 2016)

Celebration has found many songs that work with their voices and they use them in church and at concerts to facilitate worship by creating an atmosphere and creating connections to God and to each other:

Music is good for the soul. You can do a number of things with an atmosphere with music. You can change it dramatically, very quickly. They [congregation or audience] may not even recognize the song, but they will recognize the tenor, the tone of the song. You can bring pleasant expressions to people's faces. You can bring sadness to their faces. Music can bridge a lot of things. Words do not always do it, but music seems to have that ability, that capacity, that whatever. I think that is part of why the church is trying to say maybe what we can't do otherwise, we can do with music. But it can't be just that, it has to tie all together. (Gurie 2016)

As powerful as music is, Mr. Gurie is not sure that music by itself can address the issue of drawing people to the church. This is an issue that all interviewed for this research have in common; the challenge of growing the church and straddling modern and traditional forms of worship. He said there is truly a dilemma and a struggle when churches "try too hard" to attract people because it can cause the church to swerve away from being itself. Mr. Gurie said he sees many successful churches around town whose services resemble rock concerts. To him, this looks like worship becoming entertainment. He wonders if when young people tell him they are looking for something "different" that they might mean they are looking for something "genuine." He worries that as churches try to provide something "different," they may be misinterpreting the need for "reality and genuineness." He said, "It is a challenge and music is part of that challenge."

The reality and genuineness that he believes most people are seeking, that the "world longs to hear and needs to see lived and personified," is the "unconditional love" that "God tells us in Christ." He quoted Jesus as saying, "If I be lifted up, I will draw all men under me" and said "If music lifts Him up, I believe people will be drawn to that because they will see in Him that which they do not see in rest of us which is essentially, forgiveness, and compassion that really rings true as unconditional love."

This is the message that Mr. Gurie works to impart through music. He said, however, that congregants have a role, "In the worship setting, everyone has a part, you have to be hungry and ready to receive in church, receive from music, scripture, message, and from those who are around you. If you aren't feeling or sensing a need, you need to look inside and figure out why."

Mr. Gurie and many others in Baton Rouge spread the music far and wide in the hope of meeting the needs of those who seek. Celebration has performed at many churches, nursing homes, and with the Baton Rouge Concert Band and the Baton Rouge Symphony. In 2015, Celebration collaborated with the Baton Rouge Concert Band to perform a Patriotic Salute to America and, performed in a Christmas concert with the Baton Rouge Symphony Chorus. In 2013, Celebration was part of the very first Louisiana Gospel Traditions Concert initiated by the Baton Rouge Symphony Chorus. In addition to being a part of Celebration, Mr. Gurie and University Baptist Church coordinate an annual sacred music concert titled An Evening of Sacred and Gospel Music. Sacred music has always played an important role in his life and he works and sings to share the blessing of music with as many people as he can. The April 2016 concert was the 3rd occasion of this annual concert and was dedicated to the memory of Earl T. Taylor, a pillar of Baton Rouge sacred music tradition, who passed away in 2015. Participants include many talented singers, musicians, and a variety of choirs from University Baptist Church's music ministry including violinist Christy Lee Gandy and Celebration. Repeat guest performers include Heritage, the group led by Clarence Jones that performs Negro Spirituals, Professor Jacqueline Paige-Green of Southern University, and a young trio of sisters, The Foto Singers who sang and played string instruments. The performers included people of many ages, faiths, and colors. The performers came and went from the stage and returned in various iterations with each other. The concert ended in a finale that included all performers. There was something for everyone who was ready to receive.

Clarence Jones
Founder, Choir Director, Heritage
Former Music Director, Mount Zion First Baptist Church

Clarence Jones has worked to preserve the practice of the Negro Spiritual for forty years. In 1976, he founded Heritage, an a cappella choral ensemble dedicated to keeping Negro Spirituals alive by singing and performing them locally and internationally. Mr. Jones has dedicated his life to this pursuit because he sees the spirituals as the embodiment of the cultural origins, the oral history of African-Americans. Within the spirituals, one can hear the trauma of slavery, the resilience found in Christian faith, the beauty of hope, and the direct lineage and connection to the first Africans in America.

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Clarence Jones explains why it is important to remember the Negro Spiritual today. Field recording by Liz Williams.

He does not want young African-Americans to forget their history or for other Americans to be unaware of this history. He hopes that people will appreciate this history through the lens of the spirituals because they express it in the terms and perspectives of enslaved Africans who "improvised" a new world view by blending African and European traditions in the crucible of 17th century America (Robinson 2016, Heritage 2016). He described the role of the Negro Spiritual:

It was a part of their faith, it was a part of their communication. Sometimes they had to get a message around that the master was not supposed to know about, so things were thrown into the spiritual to let people know what was going on. Sometimes there was a code wrapped in it. Sometimes it was satire—making fun of. . . . For a people who were as depressed and under the heavy weight of slavery, it was also a psychological release that allowed them to get through one day at a time. Not being educated, they were able to take advantage of this mechanism that they created and get through the drudgery of the conditions they found themselves in. They weren't allowed to learn to read, they weren't allowed to write, therefore it [the spiritual] was not bound by the rules of 20th century harmony, 19th century harmony, or the harmonies that were found in the structure of European type music. They could change it [snaps finger] on the flip of [a] dime to do what they needed it to do when they needed to do it. As I look at Black culture, that simple little thing that was involved in the music is carried over into everything that we do: improvisation. (Jones 2016)

The spirituals that exist today, Mr. Jones explained, are from pioneering African-American composers who recorded spirituals—in writing—when former slaves were still living. Heritage has performed at least 300-400 arrangements of spirituals, he said:

In the beginning, we were basically doing four-part harmony, but we have been able to do some more difficult things through time. Then, I've been writing myself, a number of spirituals for them. I endeavored to find spirituals that were part of the old, Black college choir tradition. We started out doing things from Nathaniel Dett, Hall Johnson, Harry T. Burleigh, and William Dawson. (Jones 2016)

Clarence Jones directs the ensemble Heritage during the concert, An Evening of Sacred and Gospel Music at University Baptist Church. Photo: Liz Williams.

Some of the songs arranged by these men that have been performed by Heritage include "Oh Holy Lord" and "The Lamb" by Nathaniel Dett, "My Lord What a Mornin'" by Harry T. Burleigh and "Ain't-a That Good News" by William Dawson. These men were university-trained musicians who learned the songs directly from relatives or others who had been slaves. They acted as translators who could simultaneously perpetuate the life of the spirituals and translate them in terms of European classical music in order for white audiences to see the spiritual as art (Pershey 2000: 26-27). They were able to do this because they were fluent in both worlds; they were fluent in both European classical music styles and the musical order of the Spirituals. They had the means to create a syncretic melding of the Negro Spiritual with classical European music (Sweet Chariot 2004, Nathaniel Dett 2016). In 1871, the Fisk Jubilee Singers began to perform the arranged Negro Spirituals in concerts and this became a tradition at many historically black colleges (Fisk Jubilee Singers 2015). This is the style of music that Heritage sings today.

In addition to being a musician, Mr. Jones had a long career as a teacher and Principal at McKinley Senior High School. The spirituals can serve as a touch stone for young African-Americans, he said, because of their history as the foundation of musical genres and cultural patterns that have followed. He wants young people to know the original source:

There is something about preserving what was original because our kids don't know. Even from the time when I was growing up, the experiences that I had growing up, I grew up in a segregated school. Things weren't that bad for me, but I saw a lot of sociological changes. I know what was. and I know what it has gotten to be. It is important to remember where we came from and the circumstances out of which we have, . . . [and that] we have not arrived yet. We have a long way to go. Certainly if you don't know where you came from, you are not going to be well directed as to where you are going. (Jones 2016)

Mr. Jones was born in Berwick and spent his early life just across the Atchafalaya River in Morgan City. He is the oldest of nine children and his mother's independent sister played an active role in his family life, especially his. She introduced him to piano lessons when he was 12 years old. Once he mastered the piano, he began to play for his Baptist Church which was next door which meant he was there, "every time the door opened . . . almost." In addition to playing for the church, he played in a jazz band with men who were much older than him. He studied band in high school and credits his band director for teaching him to read chords. His exposure to "jazz and a lot of the old standards" led him to pursue music theory and composition in high school where he learned "to write the different harmonies and the styles of Bach. . . . I had a different reference so that when I saw something, I understood what it was doing and how it was all put together. . . . When I read [music], I don't only see the notes, but I see the choral progressions. It speaks to me a little more totally about what the music is all about." He sang and played piano in high school and decided that music was what he wanted to do. Frequently, people would bring him pieces to sight read and if it wasn't too complicated, he could "capture" a piece quickly.

Clarence Jones directs the ensemble Heritage during the Good News Gospel Showcase in 2016 at Florida Blvd Baptist Church. Photo: Liz Williams.

When he graduated from high school, the same aunt asked him about his plans for college. He told her he could not go because there was no money. She told him not to worry about money and not to worry about his family because she would continue to help his parents to look after his brothers and sisters. He left Morgan City to study at Southern University where he majored in voice, but was often mistaken for a piano major. Before he completed his first semester in 1962, his aunt died. He turned to music to support himself while he continued his studies. During his sophomore year, he got jobs playing for two churches, Elm Grove Church and Green's Chapel. Green's Chapel burned and he moved to different churches. In 1965, he was playing for a church convention, and Reverend T.J. Jemison heard him playing and offered him a job. Reverend Jemison was a nationally known Baptist leader who organized the Baton Rouge bus boycott in 1953 which served as a model for the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. Reverend Jemison learned that Mr. Jones was playing for two churches and he offered to make it worth his while to leave those churches and play only at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Baton Rouge. Mr. Jones collaborated with Reverend Jemison for 48 years from 1965 until Reverend Jemison's death in 2013.

As President of the State and National Baptist Conventions, Reverend Jemison traveled frequently. He organized the Baton Rouge bus boycott in 1953 which served as a model for the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. Mr. Jones traveled with him and played for him on the road. The Mount Zion choir would also travel with Reverend Jemison but when they could not, the President's Trio would take care of the music and song. This trio consisted of Clarence Jones, as well as Bruce Broussard and Earl Taylor who would become members of Heritage. Mr. Jones recalled the early days of Heritage in 1976:

Reverend Jemison was instrumental, I told you about tours to Atlanta, Washington DC, Chicago, St. Louis, Memphis, Nashville. I did not have the necessary contacts in those places. He could pick up the phone and say, "I've got this group that is coming through, I want you to have them at your church." Having that kind of contact would open many, many doors for us. . . . [He] was a good friend as well as a pastor. (Jones 2016)

In the 40 years since its founding, Heritage has traveled beyond the southeastern U.S. and internationally, including a performance in Rome with the Pope in attendance. In 1991, Mr. Jones instituted the annual Festival of the Negro Spiritual on the first Saturday of February, during Black History Month. He invites other choirs to come and celebrate the Negro Spiritual. For several years, the Festival was held at Shiloh Baptist Church but last year people were flowing out of the church and many were turned away because there was not enough room for everyone who wanted to be there. In 2016, the twenty-fifth Festival of the Negro Spiritual was held at Christian Life Fellowship which seats over 2,000 people.

Liz Williams is an anthropologist based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. This article was prepared in 2016 as part of the Baton Rouge Folklife Survey.