In honor of Black History Month, the Plattsburgh State Gospel Choir, along with several guest performers, will pay tribute to America’s musical history with their presentation of Common Roots: An Evening of Spirituals and Ballads.
Common Roots will take place Feb. 25 at the Blessed John XXIII Newman Center at 5 p.m. and will be free to the public.
PSUC’s Gospel Choir has held a spring concert for the last 10 years. This year will be the first performance under the name Common Roots, which symbolizes the roots and heritage from which so many different styles of music were created.
“Spiritual really was America’s first genre,” Director of PSUC Gospel Choir Dr. Dexter Criss said. “Rock and roll, pop and all the other stuff came after.”
Criss has directed the choir and taught organic chemistry at PSUC since 1999. He has background in both gospel singing and playing musical instruments. His parents both sang in barbershop quartets and frequently practiced at his house.
“I grew up with that music all around me,” Criss said.
The Voices of Faith, a spiritual quartet of which Criss’s mother, Bobbie, is a member, will be performing three traditional spirituals at Common Roots.
“She can afford that soulful voicing that younger voices, including myself, can’t emulate,” said Criss. “You have to have that experience.”
“My mom as a young girl chopped cotton. [She] had to harvest her own food,” Criss said. “Our voicing, when we echo our life, won’t sound like hers, because my mom could not vote until she was grown… She’s singing from her spirit.”
Common Roots will present the opportunity to learn about America’s musical heritage and from where other genres of music were born.
“Some people think of spirituals and gospel and think African aesthetics,” Criss said. “Really they were forced through African and European aesthetics.”
“The gospels were given birth here,” Criss said. “It was birthed out of the cotton fields and the cane fields. The struggle gave birth to the music, which, of course, gives us hope.”
Criss described how influential early spirituals and gospel music were to the development of American music.
“Jazz transformed out of gospel, and the blues is a direct descendent of gospel,” he said.
Criss also described how mid-century musicians, such as Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, were influenced by early spirituals and gospel music.
“They understood that they were able to borrow so much of what gospel had,” Criss said.
Common Roots will also include dance performances and presentations by the Faith Steppers, the Step Team, and the African Unity Dancers.
Shakara Townsend, a computer security major from Brooklyn, is this year’s leader of the Faith Steppers and has choreographed a routine for the three groups of dancers in the Common Roots performance.
“Each group is dancing to different types of music.” Townsend said. “There will be dancers in the aisles doing different things.”
The dancers will be performing a symbolic presentation to urban gospel group Alvin Ailey’s contemporary take of “Wade in the Water”. Townsend described this presentation as dancing and choreography with some acting.
According to Criss, the original meaning of this spiritual comes from the Israelites in the Old Testament. “Wade in the Water” gained its symbolic meaning during the 1800’s, when slaves would sing this song while they worked, to let others know to swim in a body of water before they escaped so dogs would not pick up their scent.
In fact, many spirituals were sung by slaves to communicate among each other. According to Criss, songs such as “There’s a Meeting Here Tonight” were sung as code, telling of imminent escape.
Professor of sociology at PSUC and professional banjo player Stephen Light will be performing at Common Roots with a rendition of “May the Circle Be Unbroken” along with folk musician and PSUC librarian Tim Hartnett. This number will be performed in conjunction with The Voices of Faith and will represent the roots from which these different styles of music grew from.
“What we’re gonna be doing is to try to recreate, in some type of way, in spite of all the struggle, in spite of all the suffering these people went through, these songs just gave them a sense of hope,” Criss said.
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