The strains of “Amazing Grace,” “We Shall Overcome” and other spirituals emanated from Birmingham’s historic Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on a sunny Saturday as vocal studies professor Rosephanye Dunn-Powell provided visiting educators with a spirited introduction to African-American church music.
Using her powerful soprano voice to lead, Dunn-Powell had those attending the 21st annual conference of the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts swaying, clapping and reaching for the high notes in her Oct. 22 plenary session on “Song Creating Community.”
Dunn-Powell, voice professor and director of vocal studies at Auburn University, led the music portion of a three-day Lilly program dedicated to “Reconciliation in History, Literature, and Music.” Samford University hosted the event attended by about 200 representatives from universities that are part of the national Lilly Program.
“African-American spirituals have to tell a story,” Dunn-Powell explained. “The song is the experience. It is our testimony.”
She explained some of the differences between black and white church music to the visitors.
“Whites tend to sing hymns at a faster tempo than blacks,” she said. “It goes back to slavery, when songs were the only way blacks could express their feelings. The songs were not only spirituals, they encompassed all of life.”
One reason blacks sometimes raise their hands during songs, she said, is to indicate the song “is their testimony.”
Dunn-Powell said songs might have multiple meanings. When the song “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” was used in worship, she said, it demonstrated “a pursuit of the Father.” But when sung in the Civil Right’s Movement, it reflected a pursuit “of Freedom’s Land.”
She quoted Reynolds Chapman, minister of adult discipleship and witness at Duke Memorial United Methodist Church in Durham, N.C., as saying, “Racial reconciliation happens when we not only sing each other’s songs but learn the stories embedded in those songs.”
The Lilly Fellows Program, based at Valparaiso University in Indiana, seeks to strengthen the quality and shape the character of church-related institutions of higher learning for the 21st century. Samford is one of 96 church-related schools across the nation affiliated with the program.