Baruch Whitehead

THE DOROTHY COTTON JUBILEE SINGERS have been a group for two years and are dedicated to the preservation and celebration of the Negro spiritual. 

Their director, Baruch Whitehead, a professor of music education at Ithaca College, is a scholar of the spiritual.  According to Whitehead, the spiritual is a product of after-church meetings among slaves. They were forced to attend European style services, but afterward they would reconvene beyond the hearing of their owners to sing hymns in their own fashion. 

The spirituals introduced syncopation to European church music, which they brought with them from their own West African traditions.  Many of the tunes also use a five-note “pentatonic” scale (instead of the usual seven-note scale), which lacks half-steps, but includes a flatted “blues” note. The blues itself developed much later than the spirituals, which date at least back to the 18th century, if not earlier.

The Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers are named in honor of the civil rights activist (and long-time Ithaca resident). “I used to get together with her,” recalled Whitehead recently, “and we would always sing.” The spirituals are also older than the gospel tradition. Unlike gospel songs spirituals are sung without instrumental accompaniment.

For an appearance on Shin Hollow Radio on WVBR-FM last Sunday, Whitehead  brought along a recording of the Jubilee Singers performing “I Got A Home in-a Dat Rock.” The chorus is 40 members strong and combined sound of their voices is enough to make your hair stand on end as they rise from a quiet beginning to a towering climax of many-parted harmonies.

The Jubilee Singers will be giving a performance this Saturday, December 1 at 7 p.m. in the Southside Community Center on South Plain Street. The program is called “Great Day,” and includes familiar songs like “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” and “Amazing Grace,” along with many others that may be new to a non-African American Ithaca audience.  The event is a benefit for the after-school programs at the Southside Center (where Whitehead also teaches) and a donation of $10 is suggested.

The group will also perform the next day in Elmira at 9:30 a.m. in the First Baptist Church there.

They are accepting addition members. Contact bwhitehead@ithaca.edu for an audition. 

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