Songs of hope

(Also available as a podcast here)

At this time of year when the air is still and cold, mist gathers over the River Tay and hangs above the salmon pools, making ghosts of the venerable beech trees that line the bank.

A couple of days before Storm Ciara arrived, I walked the river path at dusk. A huge moon hung low in the sky. Its light, refracted by the mist into a milky corona, seemed particularly brilliant. A ‘snow moon’ the February full moon is sometimes called. The upper branches of the trees stood out against it like filigree.

For forty-five minutes I had the path to myself. I thought about the value of this solitary, reflective activity as measured against the other activity that has become a habit in recent years, swimming.

Swimming for me is physical exercise, pure and simple. It’s dull and repetitive, but it’s also highly aerobic and it moves most parts of your anatomy without the risk of injury. Walking in nature, on the other hand, is a meditation, a kind of massage for mind and soul.

Most times when I walk I seem to pass through three different states. At first, thoughts and feelings whirl as they try to let go of whatever was occupying them at the time of departure. Then there’s a period of disengagement or freewheeling, in which they come and go randomly. Finally, though not always, they lock on to some notion or emotion that wants to be explored. That’s when problems get solved, or new ideas launched.

Both swimming and walking, I know are important to my wellbeing, but until lately I had overlooked another, somewhat different activity, singing. The physiological and psychological benefits of singing are well known. When I was in a band I used to sing much more than I do now. But the day after the moonlit walk I spent six hours with sixty other people in the company of Dr Kathy Bullock, professor of music at Berea College, Kentucky, and leader of an extraordinary gospel singing workshop.

She began by telling us about where this music had come from. In Africa, she explained, it was and still is simple: if you walk, you dance and if you talk, you sing. Melody and rhythm are the most natural things in the world. Once uprooted and enslaved, Africans sought to console themselves by doing what came most naturally.

The songs Kathy’s forebears sang, which we called spirituals—though they made no distinction between the sacred and the secular—they called sorrow songs. They also sang songs of hope to lighten their darkness. Gospel as we know it today derives from both.

An imposing and stately figure in black-and-gold Ghanaian robes, Kathy taught us our parts at high speed while also playing funky gospel piano, singing, issuing instructions, dancing, shimmying, laughing and beaming with the sheer fun of it all. Her warmth and energy were irresistible, as was her assumption that we were all going to be able to do whatever she asked of us with the greatest of ease.

And so it proved. By the end of the day we were singing four-part harmonies, clapping out the rhythms and moving our bodies at the same time, as if we’d been doing it for weeks. And the sound we made, sixty mostly female voices raised together, seemed miraculous, not just the music but the waves of energy and emotion released by this joining of voices in harmony. There were some tears, but mostly I recall a room full of enormous smiles.

Every year Kathy takes a group of her students from Kentucky to Ghana to work with local musicians. They visit the slave castles on the coast, where some of the students’ ancestors might have been held prior to the terrible crossing of the Atlantic. It can be a profoundly disturbing experience for the young African-Americans in her charge, she told us. Yet the music that came out of those unimaginably dreadful circumstances—its ability to speak to people across countries and cultures—says something extraordinary about the human spirit.

Perhaps it was that momentary sense of connection, between a small town in wintry Scotland and the steamy cotton fields of a bygone Deep South, that made it seem such an uplifting, such a wholesome, way to have spent a day, using nothing more than our God-given voices, together in community, singing these transcendent songs. For those six exhilarating hours it felt twice as good as walking or swimming or anything else I can think of.

I can’t find a full UK itinerary for Kathy Bullock, but she’s in Gateshead Feb 19, Lincoln Feb 25, Glasgow Feb 29. Catch her if you can.

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