By Katie Moritz
John Harrison, the Artistic Director of the Montpelier Community Gospel Choir (MCGC) believes that “gospel music is a national treasure. It is America’s choral music. It brings a message of love and joy triumphant, born out of the unspeakable hardship and abomination of slavery and its progeny of injustice.” Harrison continues, “We honor all those voices over the centuries, and those voices today that still cry out for justice. Everyone who wants to share in this rich tradition is welcome to join.”
On May 5th and May 6th, folks will get the chance to do just that: on May 5th, MCGC will sing at Barre’s First Presbyterian Church as a benefit for the Good Samaritan Haven
and on May 6th, at the Bethany United Church of Christ in Montpelier. Both concerts begin at 7 p.m., with admission by suggested donation of $10 per person or $25 for families.
John Harrison grew up in a very musical family. “We all sang together,” he explains. His father also played the piano, mainly old jazz standards, and his mother was a classical pianist who also taught piano. At the age of eight, Harrison began singing in a professional church choir.
“So, singing in general, and choral music in particular, was a big part of my early life.”
Over the years, Harrison became interested in other kinds of music: rock and roll, jazz, soul and funk, country and rockabilly. He moved to New York City after graduating high school and spent the following fifteen years playing in rock n’ roll bands and performing in a comedy musical revue.
In 1992, Harrison moved to Vermont. He had become interested in gospel in NYC and once in the Green Mountain State, he found a small community of people, mostly family and friends, who were also interested in singing gospel together.
“We met at each other’s houses on an occasional basis for pot luck and singing,” Harrison explains.
At around the same time, Andy and Fred Shapiro were forming a gospel choir at the First Baptist Church in Montpelier. Fred was the pastor, and Andy was the head of the jazz studies program at Johnson State College and a well-known local musician. “We joined our groups and that was more or less the beginning of the Montpelier Community Gospel Choir.” And then, in the fall 1994, Harrison, became involved, assisting with directing for the first few seasons, and taking over when Andy moved on.
The choir contributes weekly to the local food pantry in the church where they rehearse. However, they want to do more. With help from generous sponsors and grantors, they are able to put on this May 5th benefit concert where all proceeds from will go to the Good Samaritan Haven, a nonprofit that serves the homeless with emergency shelter and other services. “The choir board has wanted for some time to develop more of a social mission for the group.”
One exciting component of the two concerts is that Lloyd Dugger, a well-known local musician and educator, will be participating. “We’re very excited that Lloyd Dugger will be
joining us in these concerts as a guest soloist.” Dugger, who now teaches in Massachusetts, has taught in the Montpelier Public Schools and at U-32. He has also sung with the Montpelier Community Gospel Choir in the past.
According to Harrison, Gospel music is very much alive in Vermont. There is the Burlington Ecumenical Gospel Choir, which comes together periodically to perform at GospelFest in Burlington. Across the lake, there is the Plattsburgh State Gospel Choir, which is directed by Dr. Dexter Criss and The Dartmouth College Gospel Choir, which is directed by Walt Cunningham. At Middlebury College, there is also the Martin Luther King Choir Spiritual Ensemble, directed by Dr. François Clemmons.
“Gospel music attracts folks from across social, political, and religious lines because it’s message of love is universal,” Harrison says. “The music itself has profoundly influenced our popular music to such an extent that it is almost impossible to turn on your radio without hearing its impact.”