Celebrating Black Composers in february

The Glory to God hymnal we use every Sunday includes many hymn arrangements of spirituals that are favorites of the WPC congregation. These songs, including “Let Us Break Bread Together,” “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” and “I’ve Got Peace Like a River,” developed “as Africanized Christianity took hold of the slave population. Spirituals served as a way to express the community's new faith, as well as its sorrows and hopes,” according to an essay written for the Library of Congress “Songs of America” project.

Though spirituals were handed down through oral tradition, Black composers like Harry Burleigh, William Dawson and Hall Johnson wrote them down and arranged them for voice and piano. Their efforts made possible the publication of the first collection of spirituals in the 1860s. Performances and recordings by Black artists like Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson and the Fisk University Jubilee Singers exposed the spiritual tradition to a broad audience in the U.S. and Europe. Contemporary arrangements of spirituals by Black composers like Moses Hogan and Rollo Dilworth are popular among church choirs, including WPC’s own Chancel Choir.

Less well-known is the evolving body of sacred work by Black composers who write for organ, voice and various instruments. Preludes, postludes and several Worship Through Music selections during February will introduce some of those compositions. Among the writers whose pieces we will hear are William Grant Still, a Mississippi native who is known as the “Dean of Afro-American composers;” John W. Work, an ethnomusicologist who chaired the music department and conducted the Jubilee Singers at Fisk University; and Fela Sowande, whose organ music shows the influence of his native Nigeria.

We hope you enjoy singing and listening as we celebrate both the rich history and significant accomplishments of Black musicians.

February 28th

  • Prelude - The Lord Will Make A Way

    Thomas Dorsey (1899-1993, top photo) wrote the hymn on which today's prelude is based. He is regarded as the father of gospel music. Henry Sexton, Jr. (born 1940, not pictured) improvised the arrangement of the hymn while serving as director of music at Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn, New York. Raymond Henry (born 1951, lower photo) transcribed and published several of Sexton's improvisations including "The Lord Will Make a Way," He has been affiliated with the Boy's Choir of Harlem and Harlem Community Chorale as accompanist.

  • Hymn - #48 Rain Down

    Jaime Cortez is a talented and popular composer, arranger and performer. Born in New York and raised in El Salvador, Jaime has dedicated a portion of his ministry to promoting better Hispanic liturgies and bringing cultures together for worship. His main instrument is guitar, though he is proficient in piano and other string instruments, such as charango, vihuela and bass guitar. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music composition from Arizona State University. He was named Pastoral Musician of the Year in 2016 by the National Association of Pastoral Musicians (NPM). 

    Jaime is currently Director of Liturgy & Music at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Scottsdale, AZ. He lives in Mesa with his wife and their three musically talented sons.

  • Lift Every Voice and Sing – often called “The Black National Anthem” – was written as a poem by NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) and then set to music by his brother John Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954) in 1899. It was first performed in public in the Johnsons’ hometown of Jacksonville, Florida as part of a celebration of Lincoln’s Birthday on February 12, 1900 by a choir of 500 schoolchildren at the segregated Stanton School, where James Weldon Johnson was principal. 


Our Worship Through Music and Postlude selections this week come from composers featured earlier in the series. You may read more about each of these composers below.

The Worship Through Music piece is titled "Yaravi" and was composed by William Grant Still, who was featured during our February 7th service. Fela Sowande, who was featured on February 21st, also composed this week's postlude, titled "Joshua Fit De Battle Ob Jericho".

February 21st

  • Prelude - Talk About A Child That Do Love Jesus

    Calvin Taylor (born 1948) is a composer, arranger, pianist and organist who studied at Oberlin Conservatory and earned a doctoral degree from the University of Kentucky.  Many of his compositions, including this morning's prelude, are based on spirituals.  He has presented thousands of concerts in churches throughout the U.S., Europe, the Far East, and Russia.    

  • Hymns

    #740 Lead Me, Guide Me by Doris Akers

    This gospel song was first published in 1953 When Doris Akers was a choir director in Oakland, California.  Ms. Akers wrote over 300 gospel songs and hymns.  In 1992, Akers was honored by the Smithsonian Institution as "the foremost black gospel songwriter in the United States".

    #700 I'm Gonna Live So God Can Use Me
    This African American spiritual has more depth than may at first appear: for people who are bound in slavery to sing about dedicating themselves to God’s use shows a profound awareness of God-given self-worth despite circumstances that would deny their human or spiritual value.

  • Postlude - Jubilate

    Fela Sowande (1905-1987) is a native of Nigeria who studied and lived in London and eventually moved to the United States, becoming a citizen in 1977.  His compositions combine western techniques with musical influences from Nigeria.  His rich career includes stints as a theater organist for the BBC; a dance pianist and bandleader; college professor; author, and composer of organ, choral and orchestral music.  

February 14th

  • Prelude - A Little More Faith in Jesus

    John Wesley Work III (1901-1967) was born into a family of musicians in Tullahoma, Tennessee.  He taught at Fisk University for nearly 30 years, and directed the Fisk Jubilee Singers for almost a decade.  He wrote more than 100 compositions, mostly for solo voice and choral groups.  Work also was an ethnomusicologist.  His master’s thesis at Columbia University documented several hundred African-American folk, religious and secular songs.  In the 1940s, in collaboration with the Library of Congress, Work researched the folk culture and songs of African-Americans in the Mississippi Delta.

    The Fisk Jubilee Singers were largely responsible for introducing spirituals to the American public through a series of concerts performed throughout the U.S. in the 1870s.  An episode of the "American Experience" series provides a great history of the Singers.  The episode is available on the PBS video app or you may view it online.

  • Both of our songs this week are African American Spirituals.  Spirituals were created by African American slaves and passed along to impart biblical messages and to celebrate the belief that “a better day is coming” and our current situation is something that we will rise above.  

  • Postlude - Triumphal March of Heritage

    Uzee Brown, Jr. (born 1950) is an opera singer (baritone), composer and arranger, and professor of music at Morehouse College in Atlanta.  He also is the choral director and director of music at Ebenezer Baptist Church.  Brown earned a doctorate degree from the University of Michigan. He is cofounder of Onyx Opera Atlanta, which promotes music by African-American composers and provides a platform for performance by African-American classical artists.  His compositions include five operas.  “Triumphal March of Heritage,” played as the postlude on Feb. 14, 2021, was commissioned to celebrate the inauguration of the eighth president of Morehouse College. 

February 7th

  • Prelude - Melody

    Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875 – 1912) was an English composer who became known as the “African Mahler.” His greatest success, a cantata titled Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, was as popular as Handel’s Messiah in England in the early 20th century. 

  • Worship Through Music - Jesus Is a Rock in the Weary Land

    William Grant Still (1895-1978) has an extensive compositional output – nearly 200 pieces – earning him the title of “Dean of Afro-American Composers.” Born in Mississippi and educated in composition at Oberlin Conservatory of Music, he played multiple string and woodwind instruments.  Still wrote five symphonies, four ballets, eight operas, more than choral works, art songs, chamber music and works for solo instruments. He was the first African-American composer to conduct a major U.S. symphony (the Los Angeles Philharmonic) in a program of his own work.  Still was awarded honorary doctorates by nine U.S. colleges and universities. 

  • Hymn #834 - Precious Lord, Take My Hand

    This was Rev Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s favorite song and at his request, it was sung by Mahalia Jackson at his funeral.


    It was written in 1932 by Thomas A. Dorsey, whose father was a Baptist Preacher and mother was a church organist who had started teaching Thomas piano at age 7.  He told this story about the creation of this song:


    “My wife, Nettie, was about to bear our first child. I was called to St. Louis to sing in a revival. I wondered if I should go because of my wife’s condition. She persuaded me that I should go ahead, so I, alone in my Model A, drove to St. Louis.”


    “During the first night of the meetings, a lad brought a telegram to me while I was still on the platform. It was horrible news. It was a message that my wife had died giving birth to our son.”


    “I rushed to a phone while the people were still singing and found that the message was true. Mr. Gus Evans drove me back to Chicago that night.”


    “When I arrived I found that the wonderful baby boy was seemingly fine, and yet, that night he also died. I buried my wife and little son in the same casket.”


    “I became very despondent and filled with grief. A few days later I visited with my good friend, Professor Frye. We walked around the campus of Annie Malone’s Poro College for awhile and then went into one of the music rooms.”


    “I sat down at a piano and began to improvise on the keyboard. Suddenly, I found myself playing a particular melody that I hadn’t played before that time. (It was an adaptation of George N. Allen’s melody used with the old hymn, Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone?) As I played I began to say, ‘Blessed Lord, blessed Lord, blessed Lord.’ My friend walked over to me and said, ‘Why don’t you make that precious Lord?’ I then began to sing, ‘Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, help me stand.’”


    “When I finished the song, we began to use it and it has been going ever since. I have gotten letters from people all over the world. It was a great tragedy, but we got the message to the world.”

  • Postlude - King of Kings

    Ralph Simpson (born 1933) was the first African-American to receive a Ph.D. in music at Michigan State University.  He is an organist, composer/arranger, and retired chair of the music department at Tennessee State University, a historically Black university.