Toronto Chamber Choir Blog
February 24, 2023
Author: Dr. Tom Mawhinney
Golden Voices to shine in concert
As we mark Black History Month, TCC tenor David Barber introduces Dr. Tom Mawhinney, a longtime friend from his choral days in Kingston.
Tom and I toured Europe together in 1978 with the 52-voice Queen’s University Choral Ensemble, giving concerts in the Netherlands and Germany and at the Franz Liszt Academy in Hungary (at that time still part of the Soviet Union behind the Iron Curtain). Tom is organizing the Canadian (Ontario) arm of a concert tour that brings the prestigious Tuskegee University Golden Voices Concert Choir to Toronto on March 9 at St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Bloor Street. TCC singers who remember our 2019 joint concert with the Nathaniel Dett Chorale will recognize some of the same Gospel and spiritual music in the Golden Voices repertoire. As a singer and conductor himself, Tom reflects on his association with this renowned choir.
Dr. Tom Mawhinney writes:
Singers of the Golden Voices Concert Choir of Tuskegee University in Alabama memorize their material. The choir rehearses 12 hours every week – two hours a day, six days a week. The choir I directed in the Kingston area from 2005 to 2010, the Voices of Joy, had the same discipline. It is amazing, as a director, to see the difference between singers looking up occasionally to keep in touch with you and singers focused on you completely through whole pieces of music. It’s also noticeable in the sound the choir produces. That level of dedication shines through.
Booker T. Washington, a liberated slave, founded Tuskegee University in 1881 in rural Alabama, about 40 kilometres east of Montgomery. He eventually became the primary spokesperson for the Black community in the United States for more than two decades. He founded the Golden Voices choir in 1886. Since then, the choir has won acclaim at national and international levels and has sung command performances for U.S. Presidents Wilson, Roosevelt, Kennedy and Carter. Speaking at the Tuskegee convocation ceremony in May 2015, Michelle Obama acknowledged Tuskegee’s role in furthering human rights while praising the quality of the choir’s singing.
Tuskegee University is one of the best-known of the HBCUs – Historically Black Colleges and Universities – most of them founded after the U.S. Civil War to create opportunity for Black students. There are now 101, down from 121 in the 1930s, well known in the United States, but likely less familiar to most Canadians. Many of these HBCUs remain predominantly Black but are becoming more and more racially integrated.
In the darkest moment of its history, Tuskegee University was subjected to a medical survey that came to be known as the Tuskegee Experiment. Between 1932 and 1972, U.S. health authorities monitored nearly 400 Black men who had contracted syphilis. They were left untreated to track the progress of the disease, despite the fact that as early as 1947 penicillin was available as an effective treatment. In 1972, a leak to the press finally ended the experiment. But by then more than 100 of the patients had died of syphilis or related complications and others remained infected. U.S. president Bill Clinton issued an official apology in 1997.
Booker T. Washington, a liberated slave, founded Tuskegee University in 1881.
Another important and more positive aspect of the university’s history involves the legendary Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, a group of courageous Black pilots about whom a 1995 Hollywood film was made. A museum near the field where the famous Red Tail fighter pilots trained commemorates their achievements in the face of racism, discrimination and prejudice.
The Tuskegee choir – which will perform in Toronto on March 9 in the Ontario leg of its current U.S.-Canada tour – has at the core of its repertoire the many dozens of Gospel and African-American songs arranged by William Levi Dawson, their widely revered conductor from 1931 to 1955. Dawson’s life journey to a position of respect was hard earned. Less than 100 years ago, as a graduate student, he had composed a piece of music that was performed at the convocation ceremony for his year. He, however, was not allowed to go on stage to accept his diploma because of his skin colour. But now, some of his inspired arrangements – such as Steal Away, Swing Low, Deep River, Every Time I Feel the Spirit and Wade in the Water – are widely known and performed by many choirs and feature in nearly all Golden Voices concerts.
Under the direction of Dr. Wayne Barr since 2001, the choir does not shrink from mastering the most challenging of contemporary songs as well, featuring difficult harmonic blends, rhythms and tempos, while keeping firm touch with their roots.
I have visited the choir three times to observe its rehearsals, and have seen the singers in six concerts. Their discipline in rehearsal is pronounced, and their respect for their director is palpable. A feature that seemed odd to me in seeing them in concert in Tampa in 2016 was the lack of white people in the audience, but I realized that it could be ascribed to their practice of organizing their concerts through branches of their African Methodist Episcopal church. All audiences in concerts I have attended have been strongly affected by the choir’s singing, to gauge by their response. In Springfield, Missouri, in March 2020, for example, there were three standing ovations during the program.
Dr. Wayne Barr has conducted the Tuskegee choir since 2001.
Because the choir has a five-year touring cycle that takes it through various parts of the U.S. and Canada, its most recent previous Ontario performances came in 2018. That tour had a rocky start. Singers missed the flight from Atlanta to Ottawa on the day scheduled for the Ottawa concert. I and my two volunteers were driving around the city doing last-minute preparations – such as buying a supply of tuques for the sensitive southern visitors – when Wayne called to say they would not be making it for that night. Dealing with that situation was as busy and complex as anything I can think of in my life, involving meal orders, bus and hotel arrangements and ticket refunds on the fly.
When they arrived at Ottawa late the next day, there was just time after they cleared customs to skid by bus into Kingston, where a full house gave the singers a standing ovation as they entered the hall – only 15 minutes late! They sang sublimely and the atmosphere stayed highly elevated and almost boisterous. But I was a wreck. I told the choir afterward, though, that I couldn’t remember another time in my life when I grinned for an hour solid.
But then, given the long and sometimes arduous history of Tuskegee University, these are people who know how to draw on courage in the face of adversity.
One other tiny detail: The singers requested that I sing the Canadian national anthem for them on the bus ride. I felt a bit daunted, but I had sung our anthem at some sports events years earlier, so I was able to comply. An interesting gesture, by which I was able to join them for a moment!
– with files from Chris White
The Golden Voices choir will perform in Ontario in March, with concerts in London (March 8), Toronto (March 9) , Kingston (March 11), and Ottawa (March 12).
To purchase tickets, click here.
Dr. Tom Mawhinney, busker, composer, psychologist, toured Europe in 1978 with the Queen’s University Choral Ensemble. He is organizing this Tuskegee tour as a volunteer. Tom currently raises untreated vegetables for a local food bank full time.
Chris White, founder of the Ottawa Folk Festival (now called CityFolk Festival), is a Black Canadian who helped with planning the 2018 Tuskegee tour. Chris rode the bus to Kingston with the choir to see them sing there. He is a singer-songwriter and performing artist, with a radio show of long standing in Ottawa.