Great Barrington — It is a book of devotional prose that recorded the rhythms and style of African-American preachers of yore, a book written right here in this town, when the rest of America was still segregated.
NAACP leader and author James Weldon Johnson wrote “God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse,” in a little cabin on the Alford Brook and at the Mason Library. The power in this book has inspired other artists to take it in new directions.
“It’s a fixture in the African-American culture,” said Craig Harris, a renowned jazz trombonist and composer who took Johnson’s salute to “the old-time Negro preacher” with his rip-roaring sermons and made a “trombone choir,” as he calls it, along with song and spoken word. The work is also returning to Harlem Stage after a sold-out run there in 2009.
Harris’ interpretation of “God’s Trombones” is coming to Monument Mountain Regional High School (MMRHS) this Wednesday, Dec. 21, at 6 p.m. He’ll be joined by his band, the Pittsfield High School jazz ensemble, and MMRHS students as part of the ongoing W.E.B. Du Bois Educational Series.
Early civil rights leader and author Du Bois was born and raised in Great Barrington and, as a child, likely attended churches where he could hear rousing sermons like those Johnson honors in the book.
In the preface, Johnson, who was an influential figure in the Harlem Renaissance, recalls his own childhood among African-American preachers and how much was written about the “folk creations” in the culture. “But that there are folk sermons, as well, is a fact that has passed unnoticed.”
“This is about faith and belief,” Harris said of the work. “Different ideologies can come together. It’s about love and faith through sound.”
It’s also about trombones. This was the instrument Johnson had in mind when he thought of that preacher who, once he stepped away from his formal preaching at the pulpit, electrified the church with “a voice…of a trombone, the instrument possessing above all others the power to express the wide and varied range of emotions encompassed by the human voice –– and with greater amplitude.”
Harris said he never forgot this. “There’s a heavy trombone tradition in some African-American churches,” he said, adding that he was inspired by that music at Daddy Grace’s United House of Prayer in Harlem.
The Du Bois series comes at a time of real action to preserve the town’s African-American heritage. Rufus Jones and Jill Rosenberg Jones own what was Johnson’s summer home, the setting for events to revive his legacy. This year the couple started the James Weldon Johnson Foundation and are working to eventually restore Johnson’s writing cabin on the property.
Rosenberg Jones, who is also the literary executor of Johnson’s estate, will introduce Harris.
Movement to honor Du Bois is always afoot. Randy Weinstein, a friend of Harris’ and founder of the Du Bois Center in Great Barrington said initially this was a slow process because Du Bois had joined the communist party at age 93.
“Johnson was well respected…under the radar,” he said. “He didn’t come with that cloud of controversy like Du Bois…James Weldon Johnson is a piece of cake.”
And recently the building that housed the first African-American church in Berkshire County was taken under the wings of a concerned group of citizens who are in the process of buying it so it can be restored. Du Bois had attended the Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church as a child and the building will likely serve to honor him in some way.
Among many other works, Harris composed “Souls Within the Veil” to honor the centennial anniversary of W.E.B. Du Bois’ “The Souls of Black Folk.”
The event will be dedicated to Don Quinn Kelley, the co-founder of Lift Ev’ry Voice. Pittsfield educator Shirley Edgerton will pay tribute to Kelley’s memory.
The event is open to the public. A donation of $10 is suggested.