Kathy Bullock
Courtesy photo
Kathy Bullock

Black choral music looks to the future to confront the past

Kathy Bullock brings vast knowledge, eagerness to share abundant resources, passion for African American music, and commitment to its understanding

GUILFORD — Kathy Bullock, Ph.D., professor emerita of music from Berea College, will lead a daylong workshop at Guilford Community Church Saturday, April 15 “to teach new choral music by Black composers, to honor their work, and to share the history of appropriation of Black music,” according to a media release.

The workshop is part of the international Black Lives Matter Commissioning Project (BLMCP) in affiliation with the Vermont Conference of the United Church of Christ's Racial Justice Task Force.

Catalyzed by the 2020 murder of George Floyd Jr, the project emerged after a workshop at the 2021 online gathering of the Natural Voice Network (NVN) which, according to its website, is a “network of people who work with voice and song, and who believe that singing is everyone's birthright, regardless of musical experience or ability.”

Facing the growing awareness that African American composers and performing artists have rarely received proper remuneration or credit for their work over the centuries, NVN participants Sian Croose and Fran André, both singers, teachers, and conductors in the United Kingdom, reached out to Bullock, an expert in African American music, to consult on and help organize the project.

The yield was the commissioning of eight new choral works by Black composers for the NVN, the fees for which would be paid by each choir based on its size.

Funds were raised from choirs and individuals throughout the United States, the U.K., and Canada, through Europe and even through New Zealand. With a key focus of the project being economic, BLMCP is “acknowledging and attempting to engage in a small but hopefully meaningful way with the economics of racism and inequality in music,” according to the website.

The new compositions by Melanie DeMore, Una May Olomolaiye, Ph.D.; Brenda Rattray, Arnaé Batson, Diane White-Clayton, Ph.D., Michael Henry, Lea Morris, and Jennifer John - four from the U.S. and four from the U.K. - offer a rich range of styles and evocations, all tapping roots of African American culture in music and beyond.

In Bullock's workshop, the first of its kind outside the U.K., she will introduce the eight songs and teach a selection of them over the course of the day with emphasis on the context of and inspiration behind each.

The day will culminate in a panel discussion with Bullock joined by BLMCP founders and one or two composers via Zoom. The discussion will focus on the historic underacknowledgement and undercompensation of African American musicians and how proper acknowledgement can help rectify the impacts of racism in the field of music.

An inspiring and powerful performer, as well as teacher, musicologist, and choral leader, Bullock, who has received a host of awards and honors, has worked around the world lecturing, performing, and working with groups to help build understanding, value, and appreciation of Black music.

Bullock, notes Rev. Lise Sparrow, Windham County NAACP's chair of religious affairs, knows “depth and breadth of all kinds of African American music, and that has a special impact in the area of race relations. She is encouraging of people to expand and grow their visions and capacities, regardless of who they are.”

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I first met Dr. Bullock in a workshop on the connections between African American and Appalachian music at John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina, last April. Her vast knowledge, eagerness to share abundant resources, passion for African American music, and commitment to its understanding left an indelible impact.

She happened in one of our sessions to mention Mary Alice and Peter Amidon. Thus unfolded her decades-long connection to southern Vermont through ongoing work with the Amidons, Mary Cay Brass, Village Harmony, and its co-founder, the late Larry Gordon.

Though retired after nearly 30 years at Berea, the first integrated coeducational college in the South, where she chaired the music department for several years, Bullock is still in perpetual motion.

Having been involved in Mat Callahan's collecting project Songs of Slavery and Emancipation, for which she provided many of the choral arrangements, she's back teaching with focus on “songs of protest and praise” this semester at Bennington College, where she was a visiting professor last year.

She'll be working again with Mary Cay Brass and other area musicians, then teaching the eight compositions at various camps this summer before leading yet another group of students to Ghana, which she's done many times, for Berea College. All the while she remains a key player in the pandemic-generated online Daily Antidote of Song

Of Bullock, Sparrow observes that “perhaps one of her greatest gifts is her capacity to sit at virtually any keyboard or piano and invite the participation of any congregation or group of people.”

Bullock, she says, “has a vibrant, larger-than-life personality but is also somehow able to encourage any class of singer [and] her intuitive sense of the moment is well matched by her depth of knowledge.”

“The heart of my work is about connecting, informing, uplifting and healing through music, using music as a bridge - it's impossible to argue if you are singing together and often the music bypasses some of the barriers that would otherwise be in place between folk,” Bullock says.

“With music I'm able to educate and inspire others about my cultures' experiences and history as African American people of faith. And I'm always learning about others' stories and finding so many more commonalities than one might expect.”

“It's about making this world a better place for me, my family, for all of us… one moment at a time,” Bullock says.

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Identical workshops will be held from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, April 15 at Guilford Community Church, United Church of Christ in Guilford and on Saturday, May 13 at Mallets Bay Congregational, United Church of Christ, in Colchester.

The workshops are open to anyone interested in supporting Black composers, but especially to singers and choral directors who can share this music in their communities.

The cost of the workshops is $30 per participant. To register, visit vtcucc.org/blmchoirworkshop.

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