“Went down to the river Jordan,
Where John baptized three.
Well I woke the devil in hell
Sayin John ain’t baptise me”
The spiritual “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” a gospel music classic, was well known by enslaved African Americans of the South, the river Jordan a powerful metaphor for freedom. “Alright, Alright,” by Chicago-based Joshua’s Troop, a young contemporary gospel choir, brings together hip-hop, R&B and more in its urban gospel sound.
Next weekend, the Montpelier Community Gospel Choir performs “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” “Alright, Alright” and more than a dozen other gospel songs — old and new — in two concerts. The group’s two choirs are performing at 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14, in Barre at the First Presbyterian Church, and at 4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 15, in Montpelier at the Bethany Church.
The group’s Large Choir includes over 50 singers who perform with a band of local professional instrumentalists. The Small Choir of two-dozen singers performs a cappella.
“Gospel music came out of the struggles of African American people, people who maintained community under the worst circumstances imaginable,” explained John Harrison, longtime director of the Montpelier Community Gospel Choir.
“We sing music that is powerful and lively and fun to sing, and we strive to educate audiences of where this music came from,” Harrison said. “We feel strongly that as people singing this music, who are not the originators, we have the responsibility to honor the tradition to the best of our ability and educate the community to the best of our ability.”
The Montpelier Community Gospel Choir was founded 25 years ago by jazz pianist Andy Shapiro and Rev. Fred Shapiro, who had the coincidence of the same last name but were not related.
“The choir started as a small group of people who found not just a musical but spiritual community — not of a particular denomination, not necessarily Christian although gospel music is Christian. Everybody is welcome,” said Harrison, who has been a member since the beginning and who has served as director since the late 1990s.
“It has drawn people who want a spiritual component, a place they can express their own spiritual feelings and longing, not just through music but through choral music,” Harrison said, noting that the group nature of choral singing knits individuals together into a connected community.
Drawing singers from around central Vermont and beyond, the choir is open to all who want to sing. No auditions are required for the Big Choir. The group rehearses weekly in a semester structure, presenting concerts after both the fall and spring sessions.
The choir rehearses and performs a wide range of styles of gospel music. Next weekend’s concerts show both the history and immediacy of gospel music, with “Roll, Jordan, Roll” dating from over 150 years ago, to new work emerging today.
“God is Standing By” from Walter Hawkins and the Love Center Choir was among the hits in their “Love Alive” series in the 1970s.
“Pride (In the Name of Love),” about Martin Luther King Jr., was written by U2 in 1984. The Montpelier choir sings Soweto Gospel Choir’s arrangement. Formed in 2002, the Soweto Gospel Choir celebrates African gospel music.
Also from Africa, “Jama (Mo mmo n’osee ye),” a lively processional written by Ghanaian Newlove Annan, will be performed by the Small Choir. Annan has composed or adapted nearly 1,000 songs.
“Gospel singing is America’s homegrown choral music. Come and celebrate this incredible cultural gift with us,” Harrison said.
The choir will be collecting hats, mittens and gloves at both concerts for local shelters for homeless and transitioning Vermonters.