In honor of Black History Month, the Google Cultural Institute unveiled an online, interactive collection of more than 80 curated exhibits featuring artwork, artifacts and archives of the nation’s African American history. One of those 80 exhibits came from the Virginia Folklife Program and features the unique sounds of eastern Virginia gospel. WMRA’s Sefe Emokpae gives us a listen.
When you think of Virginia, gospel music may not be the first thing that pops into your mind. But as the director of the Virginia Folklife Program, Jon Lohman, will tell you, the commonwealth’s history in gospel… is rich.
JON LOHMAN: Gospel music is extremely strong in Virginia and has been for a very long time, very wide range of gospel music from those in the Appalachian mountains and all types of sacred music and then particularly very, very strong in African American gospel.
For the past month that gospel has been featured on a massive platform, as the Google Cultural Institute rolled out its Black History Month exhibit. Over the past two decades the Virginia Folklife Program has worked with a range of gospel musicians and, in that time, amassed a compilation of material. Everything from video, to photos to, of course, audio.
(sound of music)
LOHMAN: When the opportunity came to work with the Google Cultural Institute it really was a perfect fit because it allowed for a very large audience to get to sample some of these materials.
The Eastern Virginia Gospel exhibit gives listeners an inside look into the histories of three major acts.
LOHMAN: We kind of did this looking through the lens of looking at particular individuals, particular groups and then used that to tell a larger story of different styles of music.
(sounds of Paschall Brothers music)
The Paschall Brothers, out of Chesapeake, are part of a long tradition known as Tidewater Quartets, representing a very distinct style native to the area.
LOHMAN: They called them quartets but often there were six seven eight guys in a group, usually men who sang a cappella spiritually but in a very sort of syncopated way.
(music of Paschall Brothers)
LOHMAN: There was a time when there were thousands of these groups in the Tidewater area particularly. Some of them went on to be world famous like the Golden Gate Quartet for example. They started to really wane, there’s very few of these groups now.
The exhibit next switches gears to the late Maggie Ingram, who passed away last summer at the age of 84. With a career spanning more than 50 years, Ingram was known as the Gospel Queen of Richmond.
(music of Maggie Ingram)
LOHMAN: An amazing singer and an amazing composer of gospel music. And just also a real humanitarian, philanthropist, just a major person in that community.
Lastly, listeners are introduced to Charlie McClendon of Norfolk.
(music of Charlie McClendon)
The exhibit tells the fascinating story of the man who actually began his career as a local R&B singer.
(music of Charlie McClendon)
LOHMAN: It’s quite a story of that whole scene at that time, the creation of what they called the Norfolk sound. The beginnings of what we think of now as rhythm and blues but at the time they called it rock and roll. And he actually had an experience that you’ll see if you look at the exhibit that turned him to gospel from R&B where he will only sing gospel music now.
Lohman says the online exhibit is an invaluable way to share Virginia’s immense history of gospel music.
LOHMAN: To see our exhibits, our material sitting next to the British Museum and the Smithsonian, you know we’re reaching an age, a very fascinating age right now where it’s kind of the wild west with this digital age and it’s in many ways leveling the playing field so that you can with a very small operation, if you make the right partnerships, reach a very large audience and that’s what we hope to do.
(Music of Maggie Ingram)