Gospel Train: The Zion Travelers Spiritual Singers

By Joyce Marie Jackson



Today there are a small number of quartets who have remained relatively true to the traditional a cappella and close-harmony style of singing. The Zion Travelers Spiritual Singers from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, fall into this category. Organized in 1946, two of the founding members of the quartet, Joel Harvey, bass and Reverend Willie Washington, bass, are featured on this recording. Other featured members include lead singer, Reverend Burnell Offlee; baritone, and lead, James Harvey; first tenor, Ado Dyson; tenor, Robert McKinnis; and second tenor Esau Wright.

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The Zion Travelers perform "The Gospel Train," 1995.

The Zion Travelers are well known in Baton Rouge and the surrounding areas both in black and white communities. Two of the factors that have contributed to their popularity in the area is the unique a cappella sound and their involvement in radio broadcasting. In fact, the Zion Travelers have been broadcasting live on radio station WIBR in Baton Rouge every Sunday morning since 1946. In as much as this radio station is owned and operated by whites and its programming is basically targeted towards country and western music fans, one may safely assume the Zion Travelers have not only had a long standing African-American audience but an British American one as well, especially on Sunday mornings. These radio broadcasts along with festival performances have been primary vehicles featuring the popularity of the Zion Travelers among British American audiences.

The Zion Travelers Spiritual Singers of Baton Rouge in the studio recording The Gospel Train. Left to right is James Harvey, Joel Harvey, Ado Dyson, Robert McKinner, and Rev. Burnell James Offlee. Photo: J. Nash Porter.

Another factor that contributes to the ensemble's popularity is the fact that they maintain a fairly busy performance schedule. The Zion Travelers have numerous opportunities to perform in many different contexts including churches, auditoriums, concert halls, radio stations, and folk festivals. They have been featured in the Louisiana Pavilion Exhibit of the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition in New Orleans and in the 1985 Festival of American Folklife sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The Zion Travelers were the regularly featured quartet for the Sunday opening of the annual River City Blues Festival held in Baton Rouge every year and the annual Louisiana Folklife Festival. In addition, they have occasional performances at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

Community-Based Quartets

Independent community-based quartets, such as the Zion Travelers, are created in several ways, depending on the affiliation of the members in which could be familial, religious, communal, and/or social. The Zion Travelers were formed by a combination of these—some familial and a community of social affiliations. A few of the members are related; however, they have different occupations and are affiliated with different churches.

So what is the tie that binds them together? They all live in the same community, Scotlandville, a predominantly African-American section in North Baton Rouge near Southern University (the largest historically black university in North America). They also share an African-American cultural awareness that contributes to their musical and aesthetic unity.

Many community-based groups consist of singers who have either been trained or heavily influenced by members of university singing groups or public school music teachers but are not trained in Western European music themselves. For example, Reverend Offlee, leader of the Zion Travelers, was influenced by Reverend White, who was then a member of the school glee club at Southern University. Reverend Offlee recalls:

When I was real young I listened to Reverend White. He was singing at Southern University in a glee club and then from that he started singing at Mount Pilgrim (Offlee's church). I used to like his singing, and from that I joined the choir under his administration.

A large number of the community-based quartets that emerged in the early twentieth century were trained by people who had been teachers or students at one of the African-American institutions of higher learning or at least affiliated with one in a musical capacity. Many quartets also trained themselves by imitating other local and professional groups heard on radio broadcasts and on commercial recordings. the Zion Travelers' performance style is a product of both of these phenomena.

Repertoire And Performance Style

The Zion Travelers Spiritual Singers specialize in singing harmonized jubilees, spirituals, hymns, and gospel songs. The most popular with this group, the jubilee songs are moderate or fast tempo narrative songs. These are songs with verses recounting the stories of biblical events and characters such as the one in "John the Revelator," which is lead by the veteran gentleman in the quartet. The younger members of the group, those who were not singing these songs in the 1940s, only sing the background parts today; they never sing the solo parts.

The prominence of the bass voice is a key aspect in the early styles of quartet singing because many bass singers have a dual position in the group—as rhythm voice and second soloist. This is illustrated when the bass singer, Reverend Willie Washington sings the solo in the jubilee song, "What A Time," a song referred to as "semi-religious" because the lyrics recount experiences surrounding World War II. Because many quartets performed in nonreligious, contexts semireligious and secular songs were often part of the repertoire. Joel Harvey, another bass singer, sings the solo part of the spiritual that has been arranged as a jubilee song, "It's Gonna Rain."

Reverend Washington left the group many years in order to take care of his full-time ministerial duties. After Joel Harvey became ill and could not travel very well in 1985, the members asked Reverend Washington to rejoin the group and perform with them again when possible. Even though the Zion Travelers had two bass singers when this collection of songs was recorded, they did not sing together on all of the songs. Joel Harvey died in 1991, leaving the group with one bass singer.

Bass singers are also important to the quartet because they provide strong "bottom" or fullness to chords that jubilee quartets are known for. They provide the rhythmic movement known to most quartet veterans as the "walking, thumping, or pumping bass," which is a vocal imitation of the instrumental double sting bass. This technique can be heard in much of the Zion Travelers' repertoire. It was a development of a technique using a distinct repetitive series of vocables (meaningless syllables) or words to support the improvisations of the lead or the harmonies of the other background singers, "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" is one of the gospel songs where the bass line prominently illustrates the walking technique. This can be heard in the chorus underneath the smooth melody line of the lead, Robert McKinnis.

A device used to manipulate vocal timbre is "switching parts" in which the quartet switches after singing two or three verses of a song, each voice moving up one part. In one song that the Zion Travelers perform, "Get Right With God," the lead singer, James Harvey, moves up to a falsetto voice and the background voices follow through by moving up a part. The singers refer to it as "switching" or "elevation" because the range in which the quartet sings is being moved up.

This results in variation in vocal timbre. Voices in the quartet often imitate instrumental timbre. This is most often heard in the jubilee songs such as the imitation of the sounds of a train horn in "The Gospel Train," which is a favorite song among audiences. The singers imitate actual sounds of a train with "choo-a-luka, choo-a-luka" and "choo choo." "The Gospel Train" also has a very animated performance by Reverend Offlee, who is the lead soloist for most of the jubilee repertoire. These songs clearly demonstrate how the performer keys his performance using various instrumental timbres to achieve vocal contrast. They are sometimes called novelty jubilee songs.

These novelty jubilee songs are used basically to entertain in secular contexts and when groups performed for white audiences in the early twentieth century. the Zion Travelers have continued to include novelty and jubilee songs in their present repertoire because they still perform in some secular contexts. "Ezekiel," better known as "Dem Dry Bones," is another example of a novelty jubilee song in this collection. As Reverend Offlee sings the lead part, his total body is involved in the process as he points to the bones on his body when he "calls out" their names. He contends that body movements are essential not only to help communicate the message, but also to assist in the total music making process. Reverend Offlee states adamantly:

You just can't stay still! You got to move! It helps you get your words out too?Take "Dem Bones," "Dem Dry Bones," every time I sing that song, as I call out the name of a bone, I point to it on my body. I do it all for them [audience] and let them enjoy and See just what it is like, and it's pure Bible.

He tends to sing with the same artistic fervor and kinetic energy with or without the presence of an audience and this is evident in all of his performances. Another "calling out" song in this collection is the Christmas jubilee, "When Was Jesus Born?" lead by James Harvey. All the months in a year are eventually named in order to answer the question.

In the past, it was customary for Joel Harvey and his nephew James Harvey to "switch lead" on "Build Me A Cabin," however, since Joel Harvey is now deceased, James sings the lead part throughout the song on this recording session. The switch lead technique began to develop during the late 1930s when quartets expanded to five members instead of the usual four. Adding a fifth singer to the quartet enabled two lead singers to alternate verses or phrases in a single song. The device, known as "swing lead," or "double lead," was an innovation which redefined the basic quartet concept of four voices. Either lead singer could sing an extended solo similar to that of a gospel singer, and there were still enough singers remaining for four-part background harmony. Thus, you still have the designation of quartet even though you have more than four people singing.

Jubilee quartets came to be known as "gospel" quartets when they began to incorporate gospel performance practices into their performances. They were highly influenced by gospel singers and instrumentalists who were prominent by the mid-1940s. The concept of the soloist being an independent part of the group is definitely developed at this point. Lead singers began to perform extended solo passages, while incorporating vocal embellishments, the shouting cry, and other devices. They began to alternate tonal colors, by using falsetto, growls, vibrato, and by switching the lead between singers and to add text interpolations and improvised personal statements and testimonies. the Zion Travelers' recording of "Hold to God's Unchanging Hands" and "Milky White Way," both lead by Reverend James Offlee, are good examples of the gospel quartet style. The lead, Reverend Offlee, sings the full verse while the background singers hum in harmony throughout the duration of the song. "There's Something Within Me," lead by Ado Dyson and "Pass Me Not O' Gentle Savior," lead by Esau Wright, are also good examples of the gospel quartet style which makes use of the independent lead singer.

Most quartets, if they have been performing for several decades, have a theme song. This was how they identified themselves, particularly if they were involved in live radio broadcast. the Zion Travelers have been performing live broadcast for almost fifty years and they still "come on the air" singing the gospel song composed by W.H. Brewster, "Wait Until My Change Come." James Harvey sings the lead for the theme song on this recording. While singing the theme song at the end of the 1988 recording session, Reverend Willie Washington decided that he would do an impromptu closing prayer on top of the quartet's singing, which is very similar to what he would normally do for the benediction in his church. We decided to keep this spontaneous cut because it served as an appropriate benediction for such an invigorating and inspiring recording session.

The CD is available from Robert McKinnis, 4118 Monticello Blvd, Baton Rouge, LA 70814 for $10. Call first to confirm availability 225/272-3220.


1988 South Lake Studio, Metairie, LA

Vocalists: Reverend Burnell James Offlee, Joel Harvey, Reverend Willie Washington, James Harvey, Ado Dyson, Robert McKinnis

  1. Ezekial (Dem Dry Bones) (Rev. B. Offlee, lead) Traditional
  2. Just A Closer Walk With Thee (R. McKinnis, lead) Kenneth Morris
  3. It's Gonna Rain (Joel Harvey, lead) Traditional
  4. The Gospel Train (Rev. B. Offlee, lead) Traditional
  5. What A Time (Rev. W. Washington, lead) Traditional
  6. Milky White Way (Rev. B. Offlee, lead) Lander Coleman
  7. Wait Until My Change Come (James Harvey, lead) William Herbert Brewster


1994 Sea Saint Studio, New Orleans, LA

Vocalists: Reverend Burnell James Offlee, Reverend Willie Washington, James Harvey, Ado Dyson, Robert McKinnis, Esau Wright

  1. John the Revelator (Rev. B. Offlee, lead) Traditional
  2. Hold to God's Unchanging Hand (Rev. B. Offlee, lead) Jennie Wilson & F. L. Eilan
  3. Pass Me Not O' Gentile Savior (E. Wright, lead) Fanny Crosby & William Doane
  4. When Was Jesus Born? (J. Harvey, lead) Traditional
  5. There's Something Within Me (A. Dyson, lead) Lucy E. Campbell
  6. Get Right With God (J. Harvey, Lead) Public Domain
  7. Build Me A Cabin (J. Harvey, lead) Public Domain

Joyce Marie Jackson, Ph.D., an ethnomusicologist and folklorist received her doctorate from Indiana University, Bloomington. She teaches in the Department of Geography and Anthropology at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge. This essay was originally published in 1996 as the notes for the recording, "The Gospel Train: Zion Travelers Spiritual Singers." It is included as part of the Baton Rouge Folklife Survey.