Ten years ago, the Rev. Nolan Williams Jr. picked up a hymnal at the Michigan Park Christian Church in Northeast D.C. and noticed something strange. Although he was descended from three generations of ministers and knew a hymn or two, Williams didn’t recognize most of the songs. Instead of the African-American staples (such as “Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross”) on which Williams had been raised, the hymnal was full of moribund Anglican hymns that Williams associated with white church music.
“People familiar with church, especially black church…would probably be pretty shocked that there would be a hymnal that didn’t have those pieces in them,” Williams says.
As the newly appointed 25-year-old assistant minister of Michigan Park, Williams decided that he wanted to introduce his new congregation to his version of the core African-American hymn tradition. So he started handing out photocopied, spiral-bound copies of what he called The Worship God Supplement. The supplement introduced the church’s predominantly black congregation to the hymns and litanies
that he thought would “enhance the worship experience.”
Starting with The Worship God Supplement, Williams began spreading his own vision of what church music was, is, and can be. In 2001, his efforts led to the publication of The African-American Heritage Hymnal, a collection of interdenominational African-American church music. And since he became music minister at Logan Circle’s Metropolitan Baptist Church three years ago, Williams has instituted a demanding boot camp for wannabe choir members: Before they can join, they have to complete a two-month class that covers basic music theory and scriptural study for five hours each week. Now Williams is compiling the insights he gathered while developing the training into a new book called Is There a Psalmist in the House? Williams’ manifesto, which will be published early next year, outlines his approach to turning ordinary choir members into “new psalmists”—singers with authoritative knowledge of what they are singing and how it can affect a congregation.
On a recent Sunday morning, after the early-morning service at Metropolitan Baptist, Williams slips behind a piano and leads a crowd of about 25 mostly middle-aged choir members through a brief, intense rehearsal in preparation for the second service of the day.
Over and over, Williams takes his choir, which practices twice a week in addition to this pre-performance quickie, through just one song. It’s called “Another Breakthrough,” and the singers can’t seem to satisfy Williams. “You gotta put more thought into what you’re singing,” he says. His voice is compelling but so soft that the choir members have to strain to hear him. As the practice progresses, they rise from their fold-up metal chairs and keep shifting closer to Williams’ piano.
After several wavering renditions, Williams shakes his well-mannered dreads and says, “Y’all, you sound like you’re feeling insecure about this….”
Williams believes that music should not be a merely ornamental aspect of the service; rather, he says, it should be used as a profound way to reach out to people in need. He has encouraged his choir members to think of themselves as lay ministers who have a direct and critical impact upon the congregation through music.
About two minutes before the service begins, Williams ends the rehearsal by thanking his singers in a falsetto that echoes the melody of the much-belabored hymn. Laughing, the members line up and start walking toward their pews behind the pulpit.
During her time in other church choirs, Germantown resident Nicole Dumandgane says, she noticed that many members tended to jockey for position or sing only their favorite songs. Since undergoing Williams’ boot camp in 2002, she has started to think of herself as someone who is leading the congregation. She describes Williams as a perfectionist who demands that choir members show up on time, with a pencil and a personal tape-recorder at hand. She adds, “I wouldn’t say his expectations are too high, but sometimes we feel like, We’re not musicians by trade! We’re not working with [Williams’] level
Metropolitan Baptist, which has long been frequented by the District’s African-American elite, takes its music ministry seriously. The choir is accompanied by a piano, congas, drums, an electric guitar, and a massive organ; Williams navigates its myriad knobs and pedals like an expert race-car driver. A large-screen television continuously broadcasts close-ups of the performers. And the members of the congregation keep up with the choir by thumbing through Williams’ hymnal.
The African-American Heritage Hymnal grew directly out of The Worship God Supplement. The mix of music included litanies, benedictions, and more simple ‘praise and worship’ songs, which have become popular in many black churches over the past decade; the supplement was an instant hit with the congregation. The supplement started to see much more use than their old hymnal, and people started calling the church and asking to purchase copies. Soon, Delores Carpenter, Michigan Park’s minister, asked Williams if he would help her compile the nondenominational African-American Heritage Hymnal.
Over the course of nine years, the hymnal project crescendoed. Williams and Carpenter put together an interdenominational committee of ministers and musicians. In order to determine what the most popular songs were, they surveyed African-American congregations from all over the country. Eventually, Williams emerged with 584 songs, including field spirituals, jubilee spirituals, sorrow-song spirituals, and lined hymns, or songs that are based upon musical call and response. Williams created his own arrangements for 92 of them.
The resulting book, which was formally received into the Library of Congress in 2003, contains quite a few hymns authored by European composers. But Williams’ version provides musical notation that indicates the way that these standards are sung in African-American churches. “We don’t sing it with the rigid rhythm. We kinda give it a backbeat, give it a swing,” he says.
As an example of notation that remains unwritten in most typical hymnals, Williams points to cued notes, which are chords that are not sung, but are laced into the accompanying instrumentals. In this age of loud, electronic gospel music (such as the rap-laced Kirk Franklin hit “Stomp”), Williams has documented and perhaps revitalized some dying arrangements.
Dumandgane, who heard some of these more traditional arrangements at her grandmother’s church, characterizes them as “the simple songs with maybe just one melody that you will hear people moaning to down in the country.”
Williams’ determination to shape
contemporary understanding of gospel music is not without precedent in his family. His first music teacher and great-aunt, Daisy Young, was one of five women who were ministers of music at prominent black churches in the District during the ’50s. “They helped define what music was in the city,” Williams says.
Ever since he picked out the Bill Withers hit “Lean on Me” by ear on the piano when he was 4, Williams’ family has been hailing him as a musical prodigy. But as the only male descendant in a long line of ministers, he knew his family expected him to be a minister, too. After studying music composition at Oberlin College, Williams got his divinity degree from Howard University, where, he says, many people suggested that he would eventually have to choose between his two callings.
But Williams has never been one to thumb his nose at the secular. He has directed a gospel choir that accompanied Puff Daddy’s tribute to Biggie Smalls; his act was immediately followed by an almost nude Lil’ Kim. In addition, Williams has done slick, if fairly generic, instrumental arrangements for three 2002 Grammy-nominated songs (“Persuaded” by local musician Richard Smallwood, “When I Think About You” by Lamar Campbell, and “What If” by Regina Belle). He has also arranged an Erykah Badu song for the Washington Symphony Orchestra and debuted a collection of Duke Ellington’s sacred music at the Kennedy Center.
Well aware of the recent boom in religious-themed books, Williams freely admits that his new hymnal is intended to take advantage of the trend. Indeed, he does not shy away from promoting himself. But he does draw the line at some things.
Last year, for instance, Metropolitan Baptist’s choir was invited to compete in The Gospel Challenge, an American Idol–type television show. The prize included a recording contract, new choir robes, and a hefty cash purse. Williams and many members of the choir were tempted. But the minister was concerned about his inability to control the way the choir would be portrayed. He also didn’t want the choir’s singing to be seen as “mere performance,” as opposed to the spiritual experience he wants it to be. He turned the offer down. The effort to explain his position to the show’s organizer left him in tears,
He concludes, “You don’t want anyone in the doctor’s office or behind the fireman’s hose or policeman’s gun who hasn’t studied. In a similar way, we affirm that there needs to be an understanding of what people in the choir are singing and why.”CP