What’s the difference between gospel and spiritual music? According to Dr. Alexander T. Simpson Jr., a Charleston native and head of the Black Classical Artists of Louisville (BCAL) — returning to Piccolo for the Festival of Churches & Synagogues — spiritual can become gospel, but gospel can’t become spiritual.
“Traditional negro spirituals are the byproduct of slave culture passed along until it was written down in the late 19th century. There are a few big ones you know — “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and “Wade in the Water.” These were created for three reasons: to pass along Christian religious lessons and knowledge as reading was illegal for slaves, to sing about the duress and hardships suffered, and finally, as possible code for escaping along the Underground Railroad.” He continues, “Gospel is contemporary. An old tune, a spiritual can be made into a gospel, but not the other way around.”
That old tune sound is what BCAL performs. “We focus on classical music. Most black churches have turned their back on classical gospel. Contemporary gospel music made in last three to five years is all you’ll hear now. Live performances of negro spirituals are just rare,” he explains. BCAL holds the fundamentals dear. “First, we are very much interested in the music of African-American composers. You can hear Mozart over again and again, but African-American composers have been overlooked too many times,” Simpson says.
Because of that BCAL always makes a special effort to feature the works of not only African-American composers, but also African-American women composers whose works, Simpson says, “have often been doubly overlooked.”
As for what attendees can expect for the 55-minute show, Simpson says, “There are three singers, an organist, and two keyboardist for six total. BCAL is always a mix of revolving rosters of over 60 people — some have been around from beginning, others have moved, some come back, plus there’s the influx of talent from the next generation, which means that no two concerts have the same people.”
For the group’s May 24 concert at Mt. Zion AME Church on Glebe Street, BCAL will perform nine to 10 sung pieces. “We will do some in original unaccompanied version, and then we’ll take the original melody as it came from history and arrange it into a more elaborate piece for the organist,” Simpson says.