Ithaca, N.Y. — Baruch Whitehead once dismissed the Negro spiritual.
As a boy in Louisiana, Whitehead grew tired of hearing the songs at home and at church, where his grandfather was a pastor.
Whitehead, now 55, was then focused on pursuing a classical orchestra training. He went to the University of Cincinnati’s Conservatory of Music. He was appointed a music professor at Ithaca College.
Then, about 10 years ago, Whitehead flew to Ghana.
“As soon as I stepped off the plane, this history washed over me,” Whitehead said. “It kind of validated me as a black man.”
The experience was transformational, Whitehead said. He knew that he wanted to grow closer to his ancestors.
“I guess I had an awakening,” he said.
Whitehead is now the director of the Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers. (Whitehead is also the director of the multicultural chorus Voices in the Greater Ithaca Community and founder of the GIAC African Dance and Drumming ensemble.)
The Dorothy Cotton choir group — named in honor of the civil rights leader and Ithacan — sings Negro spirituals throughout the area.
Negro spirituals are generally thought of as the music sung by the American slaves.
“The Negro Spiritual has an honored place in American history as the voice of a uniquely American experience — the perseverance and triumph of an oppressed people through its indomitable spirit and incomparable ability to sing through its anguish with steadfast faith to a God above,” Whitehead writes on the group’s website.
“It is our mission to raise our voices once again in these words and harmonies.”
The jubilee singers have an upcoming performance at Cornell’s Africana Center on Saturday, Oct. 4.
“The music of humans”
Begun by Whitehead in 2010, the jubilee singers organization has grown “exponentially” — from about 15 people at first to now including over 50 singers.
A majority of the singers are Caucasian, Whitehead said. The music “speaks to social justice” issues beyond those of the American slaves, and thus has broad appeal, according to Whitehead.
When singing, Whitehead said, “I think not only of my grandfather but other people’s grandfathers and the plight of the human soul. I think a lot of people think, ‘Oh that’s just African American music … but to me it’s the music of humans.’”
They’ll be performing Oct. 4 at the Africana Center. As a long-term goal, Whitehead said, the group is striving to reach a national platform for its work.
Whitehead said his great-grandfather was a slave, but that Whitehead never met him. Whitehead’s grandmother wasn’t a slave, but “she certainly relayed stories of picking cotton,” he said.
Those origins stuck with Whitehead, even if he wasn’t initially interested in Negro spirituals.
“”It was in the back of my mind as I got into academia wanting to make sure these songs were preserved and to hear them and sing them and perfect them … and, most importantly, to get the story behind a song,” Whitehead said.
But it took that trip to Africa to be the catalyst for the change of his priorities.
“I became very Afro-centric and returned to my roots,” Whitehead said. “And I’m so glad I did.”