Preserving the Negro spiritual: a case study of Wings Over Jordan Celebration Chorus
Harrell, Babette Reid
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This case study provides a holistic, qualitative, and ethnographic examination of the Wings Over Jordan Celebration Chorus in its dedication and commitment to preserving the Negro spiritual and the history embedded in these songs. The elements of critical race theory provide an interpretative framework to examine the role of race in the identity of the chorus. This dissertation documents the activities and experiences of members of this historical African American chorus, founded by Maestro Glenn A. Brackens in 1988, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the legacy and history of the original Wings Over Jordan Choir, founded in 1938 by the late Rev. Glenn T. Settle of Gethsemane Baptist Church of Cleveland, Ohio. The purposes of this study are to: 1) examine the reasons why members of the Wings Over Jordan Celebration Chorus have chosen to preserve the Negro spiritual, 2) to investigate the musical activities and experiences in which members of the Wings Over Jordan Celebration Chorus and Wings Over Jordan Alumni and Friends, Inc. have engaged to preserve the Negro spiritual and 3) to examine the critical role racial identity has played in the motivation and valuation for preservation of Negro spirituals by Wings Over Jordan Celebration Chorus. Interviews and focus group meetings conducted with members of the Wings Over Jordan Celebration Chorus and its administrative body, Wings Over Jordan Alumni and Friends, Inc., provided evidence that the preservation of Negro spirituals through this organization takes place through performance, education, and documentation. Interviews conducted with Maestro Glenn A. Brackens revealed his philosophy related to performance practices and vision for the future of this chorus. The debate on how to best perform Negro spirituals was also considered. Findings from the research indicate the critical role racial identity has on the motivation and valuation for preservation of Negro spirituals by members of this chorus. Cultural identity and community identity share both a link and a direct connection to the choir’s collective identity as an African American chorus. The identification of the chorus encompasses its mission to celebrate its musical heritage and inspire future generations to do the same. This dissertation shares the steps the chorus has taken to fulfill this mission. Implications for music education and suggestions for future research include investigation of the activities and experiences of other choral groups that have yet to be documented, to find innovative ways to bridge the gap between generations to preserve the history and meaning of the Negro spirituals and their relevance for today’s world, and to collaborate with scholars in various fields to create culturally relevant music curricula inclusive of Negro spirituals.