Living the Dream … Singing the Dream: Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Song

Photo courtesy of
‘Martin Luther King Memorial – The Eyes – 12-04-10′
courtesy of ‘mosley.brian’

It took 22 years of celebratory performances in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. before the grandest of vocal collaborations took place, but it was well worth the wait. This year’s Living the Dream … Singing the Dream took place on February 20 at the Kennedy Center and was the first-ever on-stage collaboration between the Washington Performing Arts Men, Women and Children of the Gospel Choir and The Choral Arts Society of Washington Choir.

Choral Arts has produced this annual musical tribute to Dr. King for over two decades with The Choral Arts Society Choir as the main attraction.

“It is a joyful and inspiring experience each year to celebrate [King’s] legacy with the great songs that were so central to his timeless message of peace and love among all peoples,” Choral Arts Founder and Artistic Director Norman Scribner said.

“We are especially happy this year to be joining with the Washington Performing Arts Society and their outstanding chorus of Men, Women and Children of the Gospel for an unforgettable remembrance of all that has been accomplished so far, and a re-dedication to an even brighter future for us all.”

Photo courtesy of
‘Busboys & Poets – 14th St, NW’
courtesy of ‘B Jones Jr’

300 voices boomed while caressing the hearts, minds, and souls of a sold-out Kennedy Center Concert Hall crowd. These two vocal entities featured voices of all ages, races, shapes, and sizes covering a repertoire of Western European, American, and African compositions.

The message of the evening was simple – honor the memory of a civil rights warrior who believed in freedom for all. He believed the Civil Rights movement would be the third American Revolution, a fact which isn’t far from accurate.

Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon is a woman whose heart, soul and intentions match the ambition and passion powering Dr. King. She, too, is a firm believer in the power of spoken word and fighting for one’s rights in a civil manner. Her approach to how she speaks her mind differs in the sense that she chooses music and song to convey her message.

The word “freedom” rang throughout the concert hall when she chose to sing a phrase from one of her favorite hymns as an initial acceptance speech. She was honored that evening by fellow Civil Rights activist Julian Bond when he presented his friend of over 50 years with the 2011 Humanitarian Award.

The Annual Humanitarian Award was established in 2004 to honor individuals who embody the spirit of Dr. King’s message of nonviolent struggle for Civil Rights.

Reagon and Bond first met in the 1960′s. Reagon saw Bond at church shortly after he had been arrested in Georgia as a freedom fighter. Both went on to help found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Each audience member and the choir members on stage harmonized with the melody Reagon sung as a “thank you”, creating a room full of warmth, all thanks to the power of a musical phrase sung by all. It was – in a word – unifying.

Unity is all advocates like Reagon, Bond and King wanted for society. Unity isn’t just an individual desire, it is a civil liberty, and the grouping of the Washington Performing Arts Men, Women and Children of the Gospel Choir and The Choral Arts Society of Washington Choir for the first time is a nice example of modern society and a move toward that ideal.

The performance itself was inspirational on a spiritual level. There is something inspirational about knowing that these two choirs would have never been able to share the stage just over 40 years ago; that’s what made an entire room full of patrons and musicians  singing every word to “If I Can Help Somebody” an out of body experience.

It was more than a room of people singing. The words being sung were meant by the voices harmonizing the song’s sentiments:

If I can help somebody as I pass along,

If I can cheer somebody with a word or song,

If I can show somebody he is traveling wrong,

Then my living shall not be in vain.

Then my living shall not be in vain,

Then my living shall not be in vain;

If I can help somebody as I pass along,

Then my living shall not be in vain.

If I can do my duty as a good man ought,

If I can bring back beauty to a world upwrought,

If I can spread love’s message that the Master taught,

Then my living shall not be in vain.

The range of ages represented on stage was the most mesmerizing sight. There were boys near the age of four-years-old and women near their sixties singing in unison smiling at each other from across the risers on opposite sides of the room. The smiles were unmatched by any audience member. The performers, by far, had the best time of anyone that night.

That’s what Reagon is an advocate for – the power of music and what it does for the soul.

Novelist and writer Kurt Vonnegut once said that virtually every writer he knew would rather be a musician. Why? “…Because music gives pleasure as [authors] never can,” he said.

“Music is the most pleasurable and magical thing we can experience. I’m Honorary President of the American Humanist Association but I simultaneously say that music is the proof of the existence of God.”

If Vonnegut had heard WPAS Children of the Gospel Choir soloist Noelle Price, who is just a junior in high school, belt out an honest rendition of “Determined (To Go On)” by Patrick Lundy at the Kennedy Center then Vonnegut would have likely chosen to step-down from his AHA presidency.

Rachel moved to DC in the fall of 2005 to study Journalism and Music at American University. When she’s not keeping up with the latest Major League Baseball news, she works on making music as an accomplished singer-songwriter and was even a featured performer/speaker at TEDxDupont Circle in 2012. Rachel has also contributed to The Washington Examiner and MASN Sports’ Nationals Buzz as a guest blogger. See why she loves DC. E-Mail: rachel@welovedc.com.

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