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Gospel Choir, Live in Concert, Welcomes New Director

Verdis L. Robinson, incoming director of Montpelier Community Gospel Choir. Photo by Wayne Fawbush.
Montpelier’s beloved Community Gospel Choir will return for its first live concert since 2019 on Friday and Saturday, May 14 and 15, at 7 p.m., at Christ Episcopal Church in Montpelier.

This final concert for the choir’s conductor, John Harrison, 64, retiring after leading the group for the last 26 years, will feature a solo by Harrison’s successor, Verdis L. Robinson, who will assume the choir’s leadership in June.

The Bridge interviewed Robinson, 44, whose impressive credentials include master’s degrees in history and African-American studies and a Bachelor of Music in Voice Performance from Boston University. His experience ranges from studying the history of spirituals, jazz, blues, and gospel music to Robinson’s current work as a ministerial candidate with the Unitarian Universalist Ministry, a ministerial intern for the Unitarian Church of Montpelier, and a lifelong history as a vocalist and teacher.

“In the African-American traditions,” Robinson says, “music is central to religious practice.” Most good ministers in the Pentecostal tradition, he notes, are also musicians, as was his own father, who played Hawaiian guitar and also introduced his son to classical music on the radio (Rochester, where he grew up, had no gospel stations at the time).

Initially surprised to find a gospel choir in one of the whitest counties and states in the United States (Washington County’s Black population is less than 1%; the state’s is 1.36%), Robinson has come to appreciate its impact. “It’s crucial for central Vermont, which is predominantly white, to understand the power of African-American music and what marginalized communities gain from it: relief from the oppression of racism and poverty in their lives.”

The music, he says, enables white singers and audiences to learn in a visceral, emotional way about African Americans’ “struggles and sadness [and gives them] an understanding of [African American] pain, and empathy for their continued oppression,” and helps them to “become better allies and accomplices to freedom, justice, and liberation — it breaks down barriers between people.” 

The near-irresistible urge of an audience to clap and sing along with a gospel choir, which he hopes will become the norm at the choir’s performances, is an outward expression of “the release, the catharsis,” that gospel music offers — something, he notes, that all of us can use after more than two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. “If that wasn’t there” in the Gospel Choir’s singing, “that yearning, that spirit, that desire to reach down deep to feel the lessons that the music offers, I’d have moved right on,” he says.

Most choirs, Robinson notes, don’t last as long as this one — almost 30 years to date — and it wouldn’t have happened without John Harrison’s commitment to and passion for the music. “You have to build up knowledge about this style,” he says, “John has become a gospel music expert. It’s a little intimidating to take over a choir like this — it’s humbling to me.”

Robinson envisions some new repertoire and new songs for the choir. Gospel, he says, is evolving rapidly as a musical genre, now incorporating elements of hip-hop, rhythm and blues, and even classical music. 

Gospel evolved from the Black musical traditions of the early 20th century, via ragtime, jazz, and especially blues, moving over time from roadhouses and juke joints into the churches established by southern Black migrants in northern cities, incorporating elements such as foot-stomping, hand-clapping, and vocal audience participation considered too secular by the more mainstream African-American denominations whose conservative, formal liturgies were modeled on those of the white churches that excluded them.

John Harrison, the outgoing director of the Gospel Choir, characterizes gospel as “the Sunday morning version of what happens on Saturday night.” Harrison was drawn to Black music in his youth and to the idea that music could be an expression of his own spiritual searching.

Harrison took over the choir in 1998 from his musical mentor Andy Shapiro when it had about 20 members. Pre-pandemic, it had grown to over 50. Over time the choir has evolved a more conscious focus on social and racial justice — “how can we honor the music, but not be something we’re not?” There’s been a sad history, he notes, of Black innovation and white appropriation in the musical realm, with gospel composers rarely being compensated for their work. The Gospel Choir strives to compensate Black composers fairly and to donate proceeds to social justice organizations such as The Root in Brattleboro.

Emily Seiffert of Montpelier, who since 2004 has sung soprano in both the main and the a capella small choir and served as the Gospel Choir’s board chair from 2012 to 2017, says of Robinson: “Verdis brings an amazing background as both a choral leader who has been singing gospel since childhood and leading it since his 20s, and as a spiritual leader with tremendous respect for and experience in faith and non-faith communities.  He has a gentle and inspiring way … that the choir is already responding to, an infectious giggle, and great passion for the African-American gospel tradition. We are over the moon about Verdis becoming our next director!”

Of outgoing director John Harrison, Seiffert says, “John’s legacy in MCGC is an enduring choir who come together in shared love of African-American gospel music … who are inspired to share gospel music’s messages of hope, joy, and love, and to do and support good work together in ourselves and in our community.”