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Queens of Harmony

African-American gospel music
Milwaukee, WI


A cappella: Music made without instruments, only with voices.
Anniversary concerts: A special concert a gospel group gives to celebrate the day they formed their group.
Blues: Music that tells a sad story about the hard times a person is having, usually with love.
Congregations: Gathering of people, especially a religious group.
Falsetto: (sounds like, fall-SET-toe) A falsetto voice is a really high voice, higher than the person’s voice can normally go.
Field Holler: A type of work song sung by African slaves in the American south. One person would call out a line and another person or the group would call it back.
Foundation: The basis.
Gospel music: Music that tells about Christian beliefs.
Harmony: Singing or playing two or more notes at the same time.
Improvising: (sounds like, IM-pro-vize-ing) To improvise, is to make or invent.
Jubilee gospel quartet: The first type of gospel quartet. These quartets sang a special type of spiritual called “jubilee songs.”
Jubilee songs: The old spirituals sung formally by a group. The group sang as one voice. Later, jubilee singing changed into jubilee quartets, with a lead singer, harmonies from backup singers, and improvisation.
Lead: (sounds like, leed) The person singing the main melody.
Lining Out: A way of singing certain English hymns. A church leader would say or chant a line of the hymn and the people would sing it back.
Orally: By mouth, not written down.
Quartet: Group of four.
Spirituals: (sounds like, SPEAR-it-chew-uls) Songs of sorrow and hope sung by African slaves. Examples are “Roll, Jordan, Roll” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”
Tone: A nickname for “baritone.” Baritone is a medium low voice.

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Journal Questions

QuestionHave you ever heard music that made you want to move? Have you ever heard music that was made with voices and no musical instruments? Have you ever heard music that was filled with emotion? Have you ever heard music that made you feel like something inside you had changed? Tell a story about a time when you felt one of these emotions while listening to music. 

QuestionDo you have a song you like to sing when you feel bad and want to feel better?

QuestionPopular music borrows from gospel music. Can you think of a popular singer who uses some of the same ways of improvising that gospel singers use? 

QuestionCan you sing with emotion, telling how you feel through the music?

QuestionDid your family live somewhere else before Wisconsin? Does your family have musical traditions from that place?

QuestionDo you know any gospel songs? What are the lyrics? When and where do you sing them? How did you learn the songs?

QuestionSingers, dancers, actors, storytellers, sculptors all improvise in their art. So do you!  Think about the creative things you do. When and where do you improvise? On the ball field? While cooking? When you fix something? Write about something you do and how you use improvisation in that activity.

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Resources For Teachers

Web ResourceGreat Migration Wall Hanging is a lesson plan for grades 4-7 in which students create panels to illustrate themes important to 20th century African American migration to the north, based on the images in Jacob Lawrence's book Great Migration.

Web ResourceThe Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center has a number of archival recordings available on line. Now What a Time”: Blues, Gospel, and the Fort Valley Music Festivals, 1938-1943 has 44 gospel songs recorded in Fort Valley, Georgia. Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections, 1937-1942 has work songs and blues. Available formats include MP3, RealAudio and wav files.

Web ResourcePBS’ The American Experience television documentary “Jubilee Singers: Sacrifice and Glory” has an educational website, complete with teacher’s guide. Go there for audio clips of the current Fisk Jubilee Singers.

Web ResourceSmithsonian Folkways Recordings has a number of excellent gospel recordings for purchase.

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Resources For Students

Web ResourceNegrospirituals.com is an good place for learning about the history of African American gospel history, singers, composers and songs. You can listen to lots of different audio clips too.

Book ResourceBe a Friend: The Story of African American Music in Song, Words and Pictures
Composed and written by Leotha Stanley; illustrated by Henry Hawkins. Middleton, WI: Zino Press, 1994, 48 pp. Traces the development of and the links between African music and African American spirituals, blues, jazz, gospel, and rap. Includes eight original songs and arrangements. Accompanying cassette.

Book ResourceI see the rhythm
Paintings by Michele Wood; text by Toyomi Igus. San Francisco: Children’s Book Press, 1998, 32 pp. “A look at the history of African American music through the eyes of an artist” with accompanying poetic text that strives to capture the feel of the music. Time lines accompany each music type covered: African music, slave songs, blues, ragtime, jazz, swing, be bop, cool jazz, gospel, rhythm & blues/soul music, black rock ‘n’ roll, funk and rap/hip hop.

Book ResourceA Band of Angels: A Story Inspired by the Jubilee Singers
Anne Schwartz. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1998, 40 pp. Tells the story of the founding of the Fisk Jubilee Singers and how they popularized African American spirituals through focusing on Ella Shepard, the piano player for the group.

video2.gif (380 bytes)Tryin’ to Get Home: A History of African American Song
Written and perfomed by Kerrigan Black. Produced by Kerrigan Black & Larry Cross for Hebbie Jeebie Music in association with Ellison Horne Productions. This 55 minute video is a recorded live 1990 performance interspersed with historic photos. The music includes a spiritual, a play song, a work song, bludes, jazz, swing, Broadway show tunes, do wop, Motown songs, rap and gospel. At the end of the video is a brief biography of Black.

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Text written by Anne Pryor, edited by Jamie Yuenger and Rick March. 

Sources consulted include a tape recorded interview with the Queens of Harmony by Michael Kline (6/24/98), housed at the Wisconsin Arts Board, an article and a book: “Pioneering African American Gospel Music Composers: A Smithsonian Institution Research Project” by Bernice Johnson Reagon, pp. 3-18 in We’ll Understand It Better By and By, edited by Bernice Johnson Reagon, Washington, D.C: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992; and How Sweet the Sound: The Golden Age of Gospel, text by Horace Clarence Boyer, photography by Lloyd Yearwood, Washington, D.C.: Elliott & Clark Publishing, 1995.

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