Soul-stirring gospel sounds
As always, the Praise Team starts early, warming people up, so some congregants are already on their feet, swaying and offering up their hands, when a white-robed deacon takes the microphone this Sunday morning. "God is not dead!" he shouts to the packed church, "God is not dead. He is alive, Amen? Amen. He is alive."
A drummer in the corner starts a low beat, the electric organ joins in, and Concord Baptist Church's 60-member Joy Choir rises to its feet before an illuminated cross and a wall of mirrors. People in the pews join the chorus, clapping in time: "I can feel him in my hands, I can feel him in my feet! Oh, He is alive!" A man in the back raises his baby son up and down with the music. Little girls in chiffon skirts skip up the aisles.
But behind the jubilation, the music is professionally made. The choir is singing tightly arranged parts.
The drummer keeps up a practiced backbeat. Music director Dennis Montgomery, at the organ, teaches at Boston's acclaimed Berklee College of Music.
Though Boston is known for its performing arts - visitors often patronize the symphony, the Boston Pops, and the theater district - few realize that the city is also a prime place to hear soul-stirring gospel music. "Gospel has just sort of exploded in Boston now," says Herbert Jones, music director at Messiah Baptist church in Brockton, Mass.
As in most major cities, the gospel community in Boston is large and diverse. Born in African-American churches, gospel is still largely composed, sung, and recorded there. But unlike in the past, when the city's gospel scene consisted of three major choirs that performed outside worship services and recorded their music, today there are scores.
Today, a generation of young directors write, record, and distribute the music their choirs sing. With all this young talent coming into its own in the city, Mr. Jones says, "If you're out of touch for six months, the scene can change totally."
As a result, Boston is beginning to make its mark on the national gospel scene. As it does, collaborations between local gospel artists and Berklee College, the New England Conservatory, and the Boston Pops are bringing gospel music to new audiences.
Many Boston churches now boast multiple gospel choirs and welcome visitors at any time of year. Many of these are located in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood, an area easily reached by car. Others in the city's South End are a short walk from downtown hotels, and those in Cambridge are located just blocks from Central Square, which is accessible by subway or bus.
Meanwhile, school, community, and traveling church gospel choirs have their hands full with singing engagements throughout the city and surrounding suburbs.
This joyous music started in sadness and desperate hope. The great gospel composer Thomas A. Dorsey, director of Chicago's Pilgrim Baptist Church choir, wrote his most famous song, "Precious Lord," while mourning the deaths of his young wife and baby.
Gospel music gained ground in African-American churches during the intense social unrest of the 1950s and '60s, says BCC director Dennis Slaughter, because - as with the spirituals composed before the Civil War - "people who didn't have a dime, who weren't making it day to day and didn't see a way out, were kind of led into a cathartic state on a weekly basis with someone singing to them everything's going to be all right somehow."
The music communicates that belief in the transforming power of faith regardless of creed or denomination. Not everyone who's moved by gospel music has ever been broke, abandoned, or lost, Mr. Slaughter says, but its message of fervent hope in the midst of despair is one to which many relate.
"That's the beauty of it, to me," he says. "That in the hardest of times people create things that are so beautiful. To know that the spirit and soul of people is so luminescent that regardless of the tortures they've been through, that comes through."
A sampling of Boston area churches with active gospel choirs. All welcome visitors to services.
Charles Street A.M.E. Church, Boston
Services Sunday at 8 and 11:15 a.m.
Concord Baptist Church of Boston
Services Sunday at 7:45 and 10:45 a.m.
Holy Tabernacle Church of God in Christ Apostolic, Dorchester
Service Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.
Kingdom Builders' Worship Center, Dorchester
Service Sunday at 9:30 a.m.
Morningstar Baptist Church, Mattapan
Services Sunday at 7, 9, and 11 a.m.
New Covenant Christian Church, Boston
Services Sunday at 8 and 10 a.m., and noon.
Saint Paul A.M.E. Church, Cambridge
Services Sunday at 7, 9, and 11 a.m.
Union Baptist Church, Cambridge
Services Sunday at7:45 and 10:45 a.m.
• Numerous events surrounding Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. For a complete list see Boston's urban church calendar at www.churchline.org.
• Thomas A. Dorsey Gospel Jubilee at New England Conservatory in Boston (www.newenglandconservatory.edu).
• Many other events in celebration of Black History Month. For more information, see www.churchline.org.
• Many churches sponsor evening revivals during Easter week. See www.churchline.org for details.
• The Comin' Atcha Foundation, a Boston-based nonprofit, has assembled a multicultural citywide choir to perform at its annual Breaking the Curse conference (www.cominatcha.org).
• The Cambridge River Festival, sponsored by the Cambridge Arts Council, features a gospel stage (www.ci.cambridge.ma.us).
• Gospel Night at the Boston Pops (www.bso.org).
• The National Center of Afro-American Artists produces Black Nativity, a celebration of the Christmas story in Scripture, music, dance, and poetry (www.blacknativity.org).
• The Boston Community Choir performs at the city's annual First Night New Year's celebration on Dec. 31 (www.firstnight.org).