The Common Good
October 2004

Bringing Down the Holy Spirit

by Kimberly Burge | October 2004

Sacred Singing, rooted in comunity and place

On a Sunday morning in late June,

On a Sunday morning in late June, five singers stand at the altar of Shiloh Community Methodist Church in southern Maryland, "warming up" the church. They sing a cappella, circling the pews as congregants trickle in and join the singing. When the church is sufficiently warmed—in fact, dozens of paper fans, compliments of Thornton Funeral Home, are waving vigorously—the singers retreat to don their purple and white robes and take their place with Shiloh’s Sanctuary Unity Choir for the procession that will officially open the service.

Soon powerful voices are filling the worship space, accented by the hit of a tambourine. Hands are raised, some toward heaven, some toward the stained-glass portrait behind the altar that shows Jesus standing next to the River Jordan, his own arms stretched out to Shiloh’s congregation.

A couple in the second row, Michael and Carrie Kline, add their own voices to the singing. Later they’ll come forward for the healing service and prayers of the people. This Sunday, they’ve left their recording equipment at home.

The Klines, folklorists, discovered Shiloh two years ago as they traveled the back roads of southern Maryland, searching for people, places, and the stories they contain. They found the African-American sacred music at Shiloh, and elsewhere in southern Maryland, profoundly beautiful and decided to make it the focus of their work as directors of the Southern Maryland Folklife Project.

THE REGION’S MUSIC can be traced to the beginning of the state’s history, when Africans were brought to southern Maryland in the 1600s as indentured servants, even before the country instituted the practice of slavery. African and West Indian influences shaped the rhythm, harmony, and singing styles of churches in the region down through generations. Recording the area’s music would help preserve this unique singing style, though Michael initially was skeptical about the project.

"I had some misgivings about doing state-funded documentary work in African-American churches," he says. "This is the same state that kept people enslaved past the Emancipation Proclamation. The Jim Crow era here was harsh and horrible. The segregated institutions in this part of Maryland kept people apart and divided with state sanctions for years. The decision for Brown vs. Board of Education came down in ’54. We didn’t get desegregation in southern Maryland until ’66. That’s a lot of foot-dragging. So why would any black church in its right mind want to have the state documenting its most sacred institutions?"

Michael put that question to the "First Lady" of Shiloh, Frances Diggs, a few days after their first visit. "She said, ‘Just because they would.’" Michael’s face breaks out into a wide smile. "I think she felt that the acknowledgment and affirmation of the state program would be healing for people. So we took that as a green light and began to actively record."

The Klines taped performances by the Sanctuary Unity Choir, the youth group’s Voices of Praise, and the Traveleers, Shiloh’s a cappella choir that has been performing for 35 years. Then Michael had another idea. Why not talk to people about how this music connects them to the history of their church—a church that was founded in 1863, when slavery was still legal in Maryland.

"Music will jog a memory of some kind," Michael says. "By finding the oldest singers and the oldest songs, you can say to people, ‘What was your grandmother’s favorite song?’ When you recall her favorite song, the next question is ‘Who was this woman? What was she all about? What did this church mean to her and what was her life like?’"

After some prodding, Shiloh’s pastor, Rev. James Diggs, sat down with the Klines for the first interview. Rev. Diggs then sent a copy of the two-hour conversation to his son serving in the military in Iraq, Michael said.

"His son went to his bunk where there was a CD player and sat down to play this interview. He was completely absorbed in his father’s story. When he finally turned around, there were a half-dozen other guys sitting there listening, spellbound, to this man’s story about growing up in tobacco country."

This is the power and reach of story, and the Klines hope to use the music and other stories they’re gathering to traverse the racial lines that still divide southern Maryland. Hard work lies ahead.

When the recordings from Shiloh were released on CD, Twelve Gates to the City: An Anthology of African American Sacred Singing in Southern Maryland, the Klines helped arrange for a concert in nearby historic St. Mary’s, Maryland. A white Episcopal church co-hosted the evening, which drew both white and black audience members.

The Klines’ next hope was that they could get black and white preachers in each other’s pulpits. They arranged for the rector of the Episcopal church to visit Shiloh in February, bringing along some members of his congregation. The rector gave a "full-scale sermon about interracial harmony. People at Shiloh loved it," said Michael.

There hasn’t been a reciprocal invitation offered to Rev. Diggs to preach at the Episcopal church, however, though Michael has written the rector inquiring when that might happen. Michael is mortified by this oversight; Rev. Diggs is less surprised.

"The point, Rev. Diggs will tell you," Michael says, "is, ‘Oh yeah, they like our music, but to share their pulpit?’ To allow a person of color into your pulpit is a bigger step than anybody’s taking down here."

IF WE STUMBLE when approaching that racial divide, it is music that often pulls us across. In July, the Klines traveled to Washington, D.C., with Elmer Mackall, an 80-year-old native of Calvert County, for the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Mackall was a featured musician during its celebration of the culture of Mid-Atlantic maritime communities. Crowds gathered in the gospel tent where he played keyboards and performed with his three daughters, Thelma Claggett, Margaret Copeland, and Ollie Williams.

Mackall can’t read music and has had no training, but he’s been playing piano and singing since age 5. Rev. Diggs remembers Mackall, his mother, and siblings singing in churches and at camp meetings across Calvert County. A Bright Side Somewhere: Old Time Songs of Praise, which the Klines recorded and released, features Brother Mackall’s music.

Now that voice has lured a large crowd, black and white, that spills out of a sweltering tent on a Thursday afternoon. One of Mackall’s daughters wipes the sweat from his forehead as he keeps playing. There’s a playfulness to his singing; he smiles frequently, sometimes at the crowd, sometimes over at his daughters, sometimes just in praise. The crowd’s applause extends after each song. His singing style is telling of the rural communities of Maryland and his people’s experiences there, and people keep pressing into the tent to hear that voice drawn from deep in the tobacco farms.

Michael is recording the session, grinning and bobbing his head to the music. Having introduced Brother Mackall and his daughters to the crowd, Carrie lingers near the side of the stage. Clearly the Klines are still stirred by this music.

"Anthropologist Dennis Tedlock says that people have a masterpiece within them waiting to be unfurled," Carrie says. "Our job is to facilitate the unfurling of the masterpieces." n

Kimberly Burge is senior writer and editor with Bread for the World in Washington, D.C. Twelve Gates to the City and A Bright Side Somewhere can be ordered through the Southern Maryland Folklife Project’s Web site, www.smcm.edu/folklife.

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