Collections: Mellonee Burnim - The EVIA Digital Archive Project

Gospel Music Performance in Indiana and Texas, USA (1979-1982)

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The Bishop's Choir of Grace Apostolic Church, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1979. Director, Donald Golder. Image from video © Mellonee Burnim.

This tape series from 1979 features performances of African American gospel music in two very distinct settings—Grace Apostolic Church in Indianapolis, Indiana and St. James United Methodist Church in Teague, Texas, the hometown of the collector, Mellonee Burnim. These video materials formed the basis of Burnim's 1980 dissertation entitled "The Black Gospel Music Tradition: Symbol of Ethnicity" (Indiana University). This study reveals areas of consonance and dissonance in gospel music as it is performed in churches of different sizes, geographical contexts, and denominations.

Grace Apostolic Church is a five-hundred member Pentecostal community situated in a large urban center. This collection features its seventy-five member Bishop's Choir, comprised of young adults who range in age from 18 to 30, during their Seventh Anniversary Concert presented at the church. A second focal point in this collection is footage from the Bishop's Choir Second Pre-Anniversary Gospel Music Festival held at Grace approximately one month prior to the anniversary concert, which featured selections from eleven different local and out of town soloists, ensembles and choirs.

The footage from Teague, Texas, a rural town with a population of less than 3000, includes choirs from United Methodist, Primitive Baptist and Missionary Baptist denominations, who gather routinely on the third Sunday of each month for the Federation of Choirs—a worship service comprised exclusively of music. In the special June 22, 1979 event documented here, each choir, most of which include fewer than eight singers, presents two selections of their own choosing.

Comparison of the data in these two settings illustrates patterns and practices which distinguish gospel music from one choir to the next, from one denomination to the next and from one geographical setting to another. A review of the Bishop's Choir Anniversary Concert and its prequel highlights popular gospel music repertoire of the period, as well as performance practices which characterize worship in this large Pentecostal urban congregation. The pre-anniversary concert series documents the diversity of ensemble types as well as performance practices among Pentecostal musicians in a tri-state (Indiana, Ohio and Illinois) Midwestern region.

The video data from Texas, which includes performances from seven choirs, one quartet, and one soloist, illustrates the marked distinction between urban and rural practice, on the one hand, and between Pentecostal and non-Pentecostal musical expression on the other. The footage also reveals the fact that religious denomination is of little consequence in defining performance style among rural Baptists (Primitive and Missionary) who belong to independent Black denominational bodies, and United Methodists who are affiliated with a denomination in which African Americans are the minority. At the same, the collection viewed as a whole documents the prevalence of call-response as an overarching song form in both settings, as well as the existence of altered states of consciousness in both contexts.

References to this video data are included in Burnim's dissertation cited above, as well as in 1985 articles in Ethnomusicology, entitled "Culture Bearer and Tradition Bearer: An Ethnomusicologist's Research on Black Gospel Music," and in More Than Dancing: Essays on Afro-American Music and Musicians, edited by Irene V. Jackson, entitled "The Black Gospel Music Tradition: A Complex of Ideology, Aesthetic and Behavior."

This collection is currently in production and is not yet available to the public.

Image © The EVIA Digital Archive Project

Mellonee Burnim is a professor in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology, Director of the Ethnomusicology Institute, and adjunct professor in the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies at Indiana University. Her area of specialization is African American music with a particular emphasis on gospel music. She is a Distinguished Alumnus of the University of North Texas and was selected as the first Distinguished Faculty Fellow in Ethnomusicology and Ritual Studies at the Yale Institute for Sacred Music in 2004. As a performer-scholar Burnim has done fieldwork and led workshops on African American religious music across the United States, as well as in Cuba, Liberia, and Malawi. She has also served as director of church choirs of various denominations in both rural and urban settings in the United States. Her writings on African American religious music and theoretical issues in ethnomusicology appear in a number of edited volumes and journals, including Ethnomusicology, The Western Journal of Black Studies, and the Music Educator's Journal, among others. Burnim is co-editor with Portia Maultsby of African American Music: An Introduction (Routledge Press, 2006).

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