The Pipe Organ in African-American Worship: Symposium at the University of Michigan

May 23, 2011

Sylvia Wall is a graduate student in church music at the University of Michigan, where she studies organ with James Kibbie. A native of Smithfield, North Carolina, Ms. Wall began her organ studies with Grant Moss at Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts. She continued organ instruction with Herndon Spillman at Louisiana State University and William Entriken of the First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York. Wall, an Episcopalian, served as organist and choirmaster at Trinity-St. John’s Episcopal Church in Hewlett, New York from 2007–2010. She holds a Bachelor of Liberal Arts degree with a concentration in writing from the New School University in New York. She has published in Red Lines Blues and given a public reading of her work, “Southern Fried Chicken,” a commentary on the 1971 fire in the Hamlet, NC Imperial Foods processing plant, which resulted in the injury of 54 and death of 24 minority workers.


Some of the nation’s best-known
organists and scholars braved yet another winter storm on February 21, 2011 to attend the symposium “The Pipe Organ in African-American Worship,” directed by Dr. James Kibbie at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance in Ann Arbor.
The dean of African-American organists, Herman D. Taylor, Professor Emeritus, Eastern Illinois University, began the morning by demonstrating on the Frieze Memorial Organ in Hill Auditorium how well gospel music can be articulated on a pipe organ. Dr. Taylor shared his wisdom and stories regarding church work and organ performance with a captivated audience. He was joined by singers Vivian Hicks Taylor and Willis Patterson.
Representing two Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) were Anthony Williams and Wayne Barr. Dr. Williams, a University of Michigan alumnus, is now associate professor of music and university organist at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. He was the youngest person in history to serve as director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Continuing the rich musical heritage of Fisk University, Dr. Williams gave an inspiring performance of Negro spirituals arranged for organ by composers Ralph Simpson, Calvin Taylor, and Florence Price. Williams’ artistic registration demonstrated that he was definitely back at home on the 121-rank E. M. Skinner/Aeolian-Skinner organ in Hill Auditorium. His pedal execution of Calvin Taylor’s Hold On was flawless.
Wayne Barr is director of choral activities at Tuskegee University. His doctoral dissertation at the University of Michigan focused on “The History of the Pipe Organ in Black Churches in the United States.” Dr. Barr said that immediately after Emancipation, many Black churches had pipe organs, a trend that declined during and after the Depression. African-American churches wanted pipe organs because the pipe organ represented the best in church music. Dr. Barr raised a concern that the pipe organ is an endangered species in African-American worship and voiced an urgent need to catalog all pipe organs in those churches. Barr said that many churches house instruments that are not used or maintained due to a lack of funds and a lack of trained musicians. He encouraged attendees to find these instruments and to play them. At the closing recital, Barr performed Fantasy by Eugene Hancock.
Mickey Thomas Terry is editor of the critically acclaimed African-American Organ Music Anthology, published by MorningStar Music Publishers. Dr. Terry performed pieces by Adolphus Hailstork, Ruth Norman, Mark Fax, George Walker, and Ulysses Kay.
The composer and Fellow of the Royal College of Organists considered to be the “Father of the Nigerian organ school,” Fela Sowande, was well represented on the program. Calvert Johnson, who serves as chair of the music department at Agnes Scott College, a women’s college in Decatur, Georgia, presented a lecture-recital in which he analyzed several Sowande themes based on traditional Yoruba melodies. Dr. Johnson employed the Bass Drum stop as he played the Konkonkolo rhythm, which is found all over West Africa.
In the evening, Johnson was joined by trumpeter David Kuehn of Atlanta, Georgia, in the performance of Vocalise for Trumpet and Organ by Sharon J. Willis. The first movement is entitled Bachanelle, a play on words of the name Bach. However, it is interesting to note that Bacchanalia were mystic Greek festivals held in secret and initially attended by women only. Kudos to Dr. Johnson for choosing a piece that celebrates women in leadership roles and in the pipe organ community.
Naki Sung Kripfgans is a University of Michigan alumna and organist at the First United Methodist Church of Ann Arbor. Dr. Kripfgans dazzled the audience with her performance of Suite for Organ, No. 1, by Florence Beatrice Price. The Toccata allowed Dr. Kripfgans to show off her virtuosity and musicality as well as Price’s command of organ composition.
Nathaniel Gumbs is a graduate student at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. In James Abbington’s absence, Mr. Gumbs played excerpts from King of Kings I & II: Organ Music of Black Composers, Past and Present, compiled and edited by James Abbington. Nathaniel Gumbs is a young organist whose career is destined to soar in the organ world. Displaying solid technical skill and grace, Gumbs performed Fela Sowande’s Go Down Moses at the closing recital.
Sylvia Wall, a University of Michigan graduate student, raised a number of provocative questions regarding the pipe organ in African-American worship. She pointed out the need to broaden the definition of African-American worship and the “Black Church” to include the many varieties of religious music traditions among African-Americans. Ms. Wall used the colonial African-American Moravians and their egalitarian participation in the music of the North Carolina Old Salem community as an example of groups generally omitted from the discussion. In 1762, a one-rank Tannenberg organ was set up in the Moravian community in which Afro-Moravians also worshiped. Wall also discussed the pipe organs at St. Joseph’s A.M.E. Church and White Rock Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina. She said that the financial success of African-Americans in Hayti, Durham, also known as the “Black Wall Street,” allowed the congregations to embrace the music of the pipe organ as a matter of pride, education, and uplift.
James Kibbie performed Prayer (Oba a ba ke), a work by Fela Sowande based on a traditional Yoruba melody. As always, Dr. Kibbie’s graceful performance was impeccable. A brilliant organist and teacher, Kibbie has done an exceptional job recognizing multicultural reciprocity and diversity in organ performance. Sowande believed in the philosophy of cultural reciprocity and argued against what he called “apartheid in art.” Sowande said, “We are not prepared to submit to the doctrine of apartheid in art by which a musician is expected to work only within the limits of his traditional forms of music . . . in which case nationals of any one country may forget that they are all members of one human family.” I commend Dr. Kibbie for his promotion of inclusion in the organ community.
It is unfortunate that two presenters were not able to attend because of inclement weather. James Abbington, associate professor of church music and worship at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, was scheduled to present two new volumes of organ works that he has edited: King of Kings: Organ Music by Black Composers, Past and Present. Brandon Spence, director of music at the Cathedral Basilica in Denver, Colorado, was to present “The Unique Gift of Blackness: A Reflection on the Organ Music by Black Composers and the Rites of the Roman Catholic Church.” Norah Duncan IV, associate chair and associate professor of music at Wayne State University, served on the symposium program committee but was also unable to perform due to a last-minute accident.
The symposium on the “Pipe Organ in African-American Worship” was presented with generous support from Dr. Barbara Furin Sloat and from the Robert Glasgow Keyboard Faculty Support Fund, endowed by Susan and Eugene Goodson, with additional support from the Office of Vice-President for Research, the University of Michigan.

Photos by John Beresford

Related Content

November 25, 2019
More than a century and a half after his birth, Ernest Martin Skinner (born January 15, 1866; died November 27, 1960) is still acknowledged to be one…
November 25, 2019
Embracing new, creative approaches, a groundbreaking initiative, “Playing and Preserving: Saving and Activating Philadelphia’s Historic Pipe Organs…
September 29, 2019
Control freaks A little over a year ago, I bought a slightly used 2017 Chevrolet Suburban. It replaced a 2008 Suburban that I drove 250,000 miles. I…