“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free… I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
Those inspiring words engraved on the Statue of Liberty welcomed millions of immigrants sailing into New York Harbor during the early 20th century. They had left their European homelands in search of a better life in America, and they brought with them their spiritual heritage, their art and their music.
But some foreign groups had come ashore earlier and farther south – in Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans, where there was no beacon of hope reaching out to them. They had left their homelands unwillingly, in bondage and on slave ships. Yet they, too, brought with them their spiritual heritage, art and music. Because their “better life” would be a long time coming, those traditions became even more important, helping them preserve their ethnic identity amid decades of adversity.
Rhythms heard in Caribbean Islands where slave ships stopped, echoes of their African tribal rituals, laments expressing their sadness, plus paeans of joy and faith all melded to make the unique musical sounds to which we have given labels.
We know them as spirituals, blues, Dixieland, ragtime and jazz. In all those guises, black music has made its indelible mark on America’s musical heritage, and it continues to enrich us and delight us.
That musical delight was experienced by Freedom Plaza residents as they thrilled to mezzo-soprano Kimberly Milton’s special concert Black History in Music, which recognized February as Black History Month. A former vocal student at Florida Southern University and performer with both Orlando Opera and Opera Tampa, she now resides and sings in the Lakeland area. Milton was ably assisted by pianist Robert Winslow, familiar to Sun City Center residents as the former organist at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church and well-known to Tampa Bay area audiences as accompanist for Tampa’s Master Choral. He also serves on the music staff of Hillsborough Community College, Ybor City.
These two artists led the audience through nearly every aspect of black music, highlighted by a seldom-heard African art song with lyrics by renowned poet Langston Hughes. The section of exciting, exhilarating spirituals had hands clapping, and music by Gershwin instigated some toe-tapping, as well. Improvised jazz tunes rounded out this educational a most enjoyable evening.
Kudos to our outstanding artist/entertainers Kimberly Milton and Robert Winslow. Our thanks for bringing to life the excitement and inspiration found in our Black American musical heritage.
Peggy Burgess is an associate of Freedom Plaza and a columnist for The Sun.