Thinking Out Loud

May 8, 2018

The Hymns We Sing Meant Something Different to American Slaves

Filed under: Christianity, music — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:23 am

Saturday night we attended the first in what is hoped to become an annual concert series, The Hymns to Freedom Project. The venue was the beautiful Toronto Centre for the Arts; although it was built in the late 1990s, we were seeing it for the first time. The tickets were purchased by our son who wanted to see the concert and invited us to join him.

He became aware of the event after attending a previous concert by the Toronto Mass Choir (TMC). The connecting link is Corey Butler who is Musical Director and who conceived this program, composing and arranging the selections, and conducting a 38-piece orchestra.

The music was often bright and lively, and this stood in contrast to the subject matter: Slavery in the United States. The words of Martin Luther King, Jr. were played, including the famous “I have a dream” speech, with the film footage synchronized with the live orchestra.

Four of the selections involved Canadian soloist Jackie Richardson who combined readings with singing. The song “Elijah Rock” had the audience clapping and singing.

But the more sobering theme of the night was never far removed. There was a reference to the gospel song, “How I Got Over” and an explanation of its reference to fugitive slaves escaping to northern states by crossing the Ohio River; but also a reminder that it’s a metaphor for the wider emancipation of black Americans as whole, with the added caveat that this process is incomplete. The accompanying slide show included an images of Trayvon Martin and the more recent image of the black men removed from a Starbucks location just last month.

We were reminded that the “band of angels coming after me” in “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” was actually a reference to friends on the northern banks of the Ohio (identified as the Jordan River) often signalling when would not be safe to cross and then helping them when it was.

The concert was also the launch project for Zamar Music Productions, a new “not-for-profit organization committed to excellence in music art and performance” in three specific areas: Education, Entertainment and Production utilizing a variety of music styles. (Learn more at

My only regret is that the entire program was quite short. We were told ahead of time that the running time would be 72 minutes.  It should also be noted that from where we were sitting, it looked like almost a quarter of the audience arrived late; strange considering the ticket prices. Also, there were two competing elements here; the songs featuring Ms. Richardson belonging to an entirely different genre than the more classical-styled, instrumental-only songs featuring the full orchestra. That may have been an attempt to appease a more diverse audience.

The next Hymns to Freedom Project concert is scheduled for February in Brampton, Ontario.


  • My wife and I got to sing with the Toronto Mass Choir in a yearly event they do called Power Up and we continue to attend their concerts yearly. I’ve had several conversations with Corey Butler, including a front row seat in Newcastle where I could almost reach out and touch the piano. (You can read my story here.)
  • In another lifetime (for both of us) Jackie Richardson sang with a dance band that did Jewish weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs, for which I was a roadie. Thanks to that experience, I’ve been inside almost every Synagogue in Toronto.
  • The Toronto Centre for the Arts is located in Toronto just steps away from where the April 23rd van attack took place. At the end of the event, Corey Butler dedicated the concert to the memory of those who lost their lives and to their families, and those who were injured. We went for a walk to the memorial after the concert and you can read that reflection here.

March 8, 2011

Swimming with the Dolphins

This past weekend I fulfilled a lifelong dream and participated in the extreme sport of church music, the gospel choir experience. The event was the 7th annual Power Up Conference presented by The Toronto Mass Choir (TMC). There were workshops and rehearsals culminating with an opportunity to perform in concert with TMC doing songs we had only begun to learn 48 hours earlier.

Basically, we’re talking about an opportunity for lily white folks like me to learn to how to sing and move their hips back and forth at the same time, which, if you know me, is a much greater task than say, sending a man to the moon and back.  In a era where saying “church music” implies the modern worship of Paul Baloche, Matt Redman, Tim Hughes, Graham Kendrick, Jeremy Camp, David Crowder, etc., with which 90% or more of us are familiar; this represents and entirely different genre.

The choir was started by Karen Burke, a woman who was trained in classical music but had a dream 23 years ago to bring the gospel choir sound to Toronto. The choir has been on a number of overseas tours and won a Juno Award in 2003 — the Canadian equivalent of the Grammy Awards — for best Gospel album.  You can read more of the choir’s history here.

Today, among her many activities, she is an associate professor of gospel music at Toronto’s York University, where, not so coincidentally, she also directs the York University Gospel Choir.  She recently presented, for the third year,  another weekend of the stage show, The Evolution of Gospel Music.  You can read more about Karen Burke here.

That said, I don’t think any biography would do her justice.  This is a unique individual who is a gift from God to the music community in Toronto.

So how can I describe this weekend?

First of all, Gospel music isn’t so much about musical style as it is about attitude.  The director’s passion and infectious joy quickly spreads.  My wife did this conference with some friends a year earlier, and the first thing she said when she returned was to comment about how positive the director and everyone else was.  Not about the songs.  Not about the band (which really cooks). Not about the rehearsal technique.

In Gospel choirs there are only three parts: Soprano, Alto, and Tenor.  Being more of a baritone combined with age and eventually exhaustion to produce some unintended results, but more on that later.

All of the parts are learned by rote, not note.  There is no printed music handed out.  Not even to the band members.  We were given lyrics sheets, but were not to use these at the final concert.  There was a fair amount to memorize in a short time.

Time was the one thing that we didn’t have, but instead of launching into each of three rehearsal sessions with wild abandon, Karen chose instead to take some time to explain the spiritual foundation for each song.  She told us to sing “with our faces and with our eyes.”  It’s all about communicating a message to the audience.

But you can’t do that and not be affected by it yourself.  My wife and I attended a concert years ago by a large American gospel choir, and so I’ve known the energy that this music conveys.  In the course of producing a radio show, I amassed a collection of Christian vinyl albums of all kinds, including a fairly large — by Canadian standards — selection of mass choir music.  Still, nothing prepared me for the transformation of actually singing the material; having the lyrics embedded in your mind and soul.

Twenty four hours later the songs — especially the lyrics — are still looping in my head.

There were some major challenges for me with this event.  The first was the range of the music.  The first day of the conference started with seminars and then after supper we practiced until 10:30 PM.  I felt I had damaged my vocal cords singing in a range to which I’m not accustomed.

We got checked into our hotel around 11:30 and had to be on the road by 8:00 the next morning.  I’ve said this before, but music ministry in the modern church is increasingly a young man’s game.  This was a workout that left me exhausted, which I would pay for later.

Then there’s the challenge of lyrical associations.   When we sang,

The name of the Lord is a strong tower;

Everything within me wanted to sing,

The righteous run into it and they are safe;

Instead of the correct line which was,

Just call on His name you’ll have the victory.

Then there was the problem of wanting to position myself next to someone who I could ‘lean on’ musically.  While there were a few TMC people scattered around the group, a lot of the people where I was seated were neophytes like me, some of whom with decidedly less musical training, and some actually hampered by extensive classical choral training.

And then there was the challenge of distractions.  There’s an obvious spiritual analogy here:  Keep your eyes on the conductor and you won’t get lost.  But what do you do when, as in the dress rehearsal, a baby carriage starts rolling backwards down the center aisle toward the communion table?  The amount of concentration and focus needed to sing this style is truly more than you might imagine.

…My greatest fear was screwing up in the concert, and I was not to be disappointed; although the way it happened was unforeseen.  I figured I might blurt out a line in an inappropriate place or sing a note completely off pitch.  Instead, it happened on the final note of the third of four songs, an arrangement of the hymn Jesus Saves.

We were supposed to hold the note for about four beats and somewhere between beat two and beat three, my voice just gave out.  Between the lateness of the hour (it was closing in on 10:00 PM when the Power Up group combined with TMC), lack of food (we hadn’t eaten since noon and were subsisting on the sugar in fruit candies), or just the formula of age-plus-exhaustion; I ran out of air on that last high note and instead of just fading out, my pitch dropped not unlike the Doppler affect one hears when a truck passes on a busy road.

Actually forget trucks.  It was more like a train wreck.

I considered the possibility of who might have heard this:

(a) Just me — most unlikely
(b) Just me and the two guys next to me — that would be nice
(c) Just me, the two guys on either side, and the director — sadly, she doesn’t miss a trick
(d) The entire audience — entirely possible, it was a sustained chord for both choir and band
(e) Me, the people around me, the director, the entire audience and every music teacher I have ever had — that’s how I visualize it.

For the final song, I combined the despair of the previous song into the mix of challenges and didn’t do the greatest job I could have.  My only consolation is that having heard some things and talked to some people in the rehearsal, I am sure mine was not the only mistake that night.  But it’s a small consolation when all your musical training is about excellence.  When you’ve spent your life as a “music guy” who plays almost every instrument and has an encyclopedic knowledge of music, it’s humbling to find out there’s something you really can’t do.

Gospel choirs are an entirely different paradigm from the church music I grew up with.  The music is up-beat and joy-filled.  I have a new respect for the people who compose the arrangements, teach the songs and perform the pieces; and I’ll never listen to it the same way again.

But it’s also, to some degree, an endangered species.  With church choirs replaced by worship teams, and Christian radio playing a steady diet of Chris Tomlin, Mercy Me, Casting Crowns, Third Day, and anyone else who fits that formula; it’s easy to see a new generation emerging who will simply never be exposed to the mass gospel choir sound, either live or recorded.

I am so thankful for an opportunity to not only enjoy it this weekend, but learn how the pieces fit together.  I’m glad I got to swim with the dolphins, though I need to warn you; they are excellent swimmers, they were born to swim, and they swim all the time.  Still, it’s fun to splash around in the same water, even if you make a bit of a mess of it!

…To watch videos of the four songs we learned, performed mostly by the original artists, click on the comments section of this article.

Footnote: If you ever see an advertisement in your local newspaper with the words “mass choir” or “gospel choir,” just quickly order tickets.  You’ll be glad you did.

Footnote: The concert we performed in also featured Greg Sczebel, an artist from western Canada who the MC described as a “nerdy white guy” who reminded me of a performer from an earlier generation, Bryan Duncan.  Check out his music.

January 25, 2010

Connecting With Our Worship Roots

By and by when the morning comes
When the saints of God are gathered home
We will tell the story of how we’ve overcome
And we’ll understand it better by and by

Last night we caught a concert by the Toronto Mass Choir that was also a fundraiser for Haiti.   It’s the second time we’ve seen them, but only the third time in our lives we’ve been exposed to the volume, the energy and the passion that goes into any kind of mass choir (read: black gospel choir) concert.    This is the music of the redeemed.

Director Karen Burke — who is, no kidding, a Professor of Music at Toronto’s York University with a job description that includes gospel — mentioned an event she’s putting together in Toronto in February titled “The Evolution of Gospel Music.”  This was featured nationally on CBC-Radio many months back, and presented as a one night stage show.   This time they’re doing it for two nights; introducing the birth of the spirituals and artists such as Tommy Dorsey and Mahalia Jackson.

Then she said something profound, to the effect that many people involved in the creation of Christian music today, “don’t know about anything that happened before 1990.”

That’s too bad.   I think it’s incumbent upon anyone who is leading worship today to know something about their roots.     (Here’s my mini-history if you want to catch up in a hurry.)    Frankly, I don’t see how anyone can pretend to do this without knowing where it’s all coming from, anymore than a pastor can lead a church without some minimal knowledge of church history.

I don’t know how much money was raised last night — they never said — but I know that this music is the tonic for tough times.    Haiti was mentioned several times, but the message was clear that God saw the earthquake and its aftermath and He is still sovereign.

This is the kind of music that will lift your spirits on days that minimalistic two-minor-chord worship songs aren’t cutting it.

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