More Than Choirs Come Together

by Frances Stebbins

Fifty years ago, maybe even twenty, such an event could hardly have happened in traditional Salem, but at the end of the month in which black history is recalled about 80 members of the adult choirs of the African-American Shiloh Baptist Church and the mostly-white St. Paul’s Episcopal Church came together for a concert representing their musical traditions.

The catalyst was Dr. James Abbington, a specialist in sacred music of the black tradition, who came to Salem from Atlanta where he is a faculty member of Candler School of Theology of Emory University. He also works with the GIA publisher of church music and has edited a recently published hymnal containing contemporary gospel, newly arranged spirituals as well as hymns familiar to most Protestant churchgoers.

The Feb. 26 concert at Shiloh Baptist marked the second time the two choirs had prepared such a concert; they sang to a full house in Brotherhood Month 2009. The more recent program had competition from other black history events and was held on an afternoon when many were enjoying the early spring sunshine. However, that didn’t damped the spirits of the singers or their audience of several hundred.

Abbington the director is familiar to many African-American church members, for he has visited the valley over the past 35 years since his mother, Daisy Abbington, moved to Roanoke to work as a paralegal. The professor hails from the Bluefield,W.Va. area when even as a teen his musical talent was evident. He has degrees from Morehouse College in Atlanta as well as from the University of Michigan. His achievements include authorship of several books on African-American musical heritage, being the national director of music for a major black Baptist group and leading workshops for choir directors under sponsorship of the music publisher.

Several years ago while attending the summer convention of the American Guild of Organists, Abbington met Rose Ann Burgess, director of music at the Salem Episcopal parish. With ties to Roanoke and with both having grown up in Southern West Virginia, the musicians conceived the idea of a joint concert of the choirs of the churches which are one block apart in downtown Salem. Both have long histories in the city  with the Episcopal church dating from 1852 and the Baptist from 1896.

Shiloh’s choir, one of several musical groups at the black Baptist church, is directed by Roscoe McFadden. He readily agreed to join the planning. The result was four anthems of contemporary gospel style sung by the Shiloh choir, four representing Anglican music of the Baroque period and an arrangement of the simple “Jesus Loves Me” sung by the St. Paul’s choir and three more works of a modified gospel style which were performed by the joint choir.

For the anthems of their own traditions, the choirs sang separately in the Shiloh loft,but for the three joint the groups intermingled creating an effect of harmony which many in the congregation experienced as highly moving.

Under director Abbington’s skillful touch those like myself in the Episcopal choir eventually caught the rhythm of our black neighbors many of whom perform from memory. We sang our way “to the rafters,” as the director put it, with the congregation joining in for some numbers like the simple “Koinonia” which asks how one can love the Lord and ignore people met every day.

The churches hope to continue some local mission project together.

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