A Spiritual Celebration

Dorothy Cotton leads her Jubilee Singers in a past performance.

Music unites this time of year, whether you were fortunate to catch the Vespers Sunday or Monday, hear traditional or holiday secular songs in the supermarket, or just soak in singing at your local place of worship. The Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers are one group that sounds good for your soul.

“Nelson Mandela said that he felt most human when he heard music and dance,” said Dr. Baruch Whitehead, professor of music education at Ithaca College, Whalen School and the founder and artistic director of the Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers. The choir, which primarily performs African-American Sacred Music in four- to eight-part harmonies, will be performing on Sunday, Dec. 15 at 3 p.m. at First Baptist Church of Ithaca, located at 309 N. Cayuga St. The concert is free admission with suggested donation of $10.

Whitehead’s slight remix of Mandela’s words—Reuters reported that Mandela commented that “It is music and dancing that makes me at peace with the world, and at peace with myself,” from France in 1999—supplies a perfect reason to check out the 3-year-old chorus group, which is named after Dorothy Cotton, the locally-based civil rights leader.

The Jubilee Singers, which perform in the tradition of the 19th century Fisk Jubilee Singers, a group that popularized “the Negro spiritual” on the national and international stage, perform spirituals and gospel music by and for people of all stripes, ages, and affiliations. “We do an array of African-American sacred music,” Whitehead explained. “Spirituals are normally four-part a cappella songs, as opposed to gospel which has piano, drum set and bass guitar.”

“We are not associated with any church, though we do rehearse at the First Baptist Church,” Whitehead said. “It is an audition-group. We have about 55 members, and though about half of the people have been since the inception of the group, for about five percent this will be their first concert.”

The arrangements are principally done by Dr. Whitehead himself, though he notes that occasionally the group uses already existing arrangements. “We have a wonderful arrangement of ‘We Shall Overcome,’ and a song that [audience members] may not know is a song called “Hold On”—which is basically telling people not to give up, and that there’s a better day coming.”

Whitehead explained that the mission of the Jubilee Singers is to the preserve the uniquely American art form of the formal concert style “Negro spiritual.” Both he and Marla Coppolino, a Cornell employee and a soprano with the group emphasized that all are welcome—regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, sexual preference, political views or socio-economic status. The singers share a common love of this amazing body of music and our fervent belief that this music still carries the power to bring social justice to our world.

Though often times referred to as “black spirituals” or “African-American sacred music,” Whitehead said that he deliberately chooses “the Negro spiritual” to honor the history of the people who have performed for many years, even though many may be uncomfortable with the word.

Based in Nashville at Fisk University, the original Jubilee Singers introduced “slave songs” to the world in 1871 and were instrumental in preserving this unique American musical. Breaking racial barriers in America and abroad, they also raised money for the historically black university founded in 1866.

In 2007 the art of the Negro spiritual was acknowledged as a National Treasure of the United States. Whitehead founded the group soon after, and named it in honor of civil rights pioneer Dorothy Cotton, a resident of Ithaca who served as education director for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and continues to spread her message of freedom and hope to people around the world through music.

As for the concert, by all accounts it promises to be a rousing affair. “I call it a spiritual celebration, and I think people think this is African-American music, but it really speaks to the human soul, no matter where you are in your journey in life,” Whitehead said. “Like all great music, it unites.” •

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