Lillian Tillman-DeWitt was my high school principal, and she was one of the guiding angels who helped me get from the level of troubled youth to determined survivor. We kept in touch when I was in college, when I came back from college, and off and on through the years.
When I told her in the mid-1990’s that I was working with a music magazine called Goldmine, she was very pleased and supportive. Then she told me a story.
“When I was a young girl, one of the groups I used to listen to all the time on the radio was Wings Over Jordan. Did you ever hear of them?”
I did not.
As time went on, I thought about what the name “Wings Over Jordan” meant. And through some research, I found out that the Wings Over Jordan Choir was one of the most influential and important vocal chorales in gospel and spiritual music.
In 1937, Rev. Glynn T. Settle approached Cleveland radio station WGAR and asked if there was some available air time for his choir from Gethsemane Baptist Church to perform. The station already had hour-long radio blocks for other minority broadcasts, but there were no such broadcasts on the station for people of color. The station manager agreed to work with Settle on the project, and “The Negro Hour” debuted later that summer.
“The Negro Hour,” with the Gethsemane Baptist Church choir performing and Settle offering homilies and benedictions, became a big hit. Within six months, the show went from tiny WGAR to the CBS radio network, and the “Wings Over Jordan Choir” were heard nationwide on 107 CBS-affiliated radio stations and through the British Broadcasting Corporation. In the Albany-Schenectady-Troy area, the program aired at 10:00 a.m. Sunday mornings on radio station WOKO (1460 AM). By 1940, the choir – originally 19 members, augmented by the WGAR program director with 16 additional performers – toured the country and performed in sold-out concerts.
Click here to listen to a snippet of the June 1944 radio broadcast of Wings Over Jordan Choir. Audio provided by Marr Sound Laboratories, University of Missouri-Kansas City.
The Wings Over Jordan Choir performed several times in the Capital Region. On November 24, 1941, the choir packed the Erie Theater in Schenectady. Even as late as February 20, 1957, the Choir was still touring, and performed a free show at the Broadalbin Methodist Church on that day.
Another important part of the Wings Over Jordan Choir’s radio show was that, for five minutes of every broadcast, the microphone was turned over to a predominant black spokesperson, author, professor or civic leader. Such speakers, which included Langston Hughes and Adam Clayton Powell, helped spread the word about race relations to audiences of all colors and nationalities.
The Wings Over Jordan Choir recorded several albums on the King and Dial labels, as well as some 78’s for the V-Disc program in World War II. Click on the YouTube links below to hear their stirring music.
|“Tryin’ To Get Ready”||“Take Me To The Water”||“Walk Together Children”|
The choir’s radio show lasted until 1947, but the Wings Over Jordan Choir continued performing for many years after that. The money raised by their concerts currently fund several college scholarship programs. And their musical legacy and identity can be heard in nearly every gospel group, black or white, performing today.
For more information on the influence the Wings Over Jordan Choir had in the 1930’s and 1940’s, visit this NPR.org link. You may also visit this 1940 article, originally published in Time magazine.
The album “Amen” is available on iTunes, and can be previewed and purchased by clicking on this link.
I purchased the “Amen” album on vinyl a few years ago, and there are days when I will listen to it and feel that part of my soul is being lifted up to the Lord by the voices of 35 angels. And comes the day when I cross over to the next world, I truly hope and pray that the first sounds I hear are the harmonies of the Wings Over Jordan Choir, as they greet all lost and troubled souls to peace.
Once again, my thanks to former Street Academy principal Lillian Tillman-DeWitt, for being an inspiration for both today’s blog post, and for my life.