By SHAUN SAVARESE
Of The Record Staff
“This little light of mine. I’m gunna’ let it shine,” sung firstthrough fifth-grade students of Midway Elementary on Friday afternoon, “Let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine.”
Gospel singer, performer, historian and educator Mary D. Williams visited two Sampson County schools last week to shine light on the music and the culture of the Black South.
A Simple Gifts grant was written by Hobbton High School social studies teachers Chris Carroll and Ragan Pearson that brought Mrs. Williams from Raleigh.
The mother of three holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in American Studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is constantly sharing what she has learned with the public.
She has traveled to more than 40 colleges, universities and public schools, hundreds of churches, libraries and several civic education consortium trainings performing spiritual songs.
On March 31, at Midway Elementary School in Dunn, Mrs. Williams performed songs of the slave narrative including “Steal Away,” “Go Down Moses,” “Oh Freedom,” “If You Don’t Go,” “Meeting At The Building” and “This Little Light Of Mine.”
She started singing at age 14 with her father, a quartet singer and her grandmother Beatrice Dobbins. She thinks age 14 is unusually late to learn to sing but it afforded her the time she needed to learn several songs from her family matriarch.
See Spirituals, Page 3
Mary D. Williams has traveled to more than 40 colleges, universities and public schools, hundreds of churches, libraries and several civic education consortium trainings, performing songs and narrative of the Black South. On Friday she sung to the students at Midway Elementary School.
Daily Record Photo/Shaun Savarese Spiritual
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“A lot of the songs she passed down to me through oral tradition,” Mrs. Williams said of her grandmother.
Later on she began to work closely with a middle school music teacher who entered her in competitive singing contests.
“I started really falling in love with the fact that I had the ability to sing,” she said. “I started really enjoying it, and I found out that it was a way that I inspired myself, and encouraged myself, as well as inspiring and encouraging others … .”
Before long her talent gained notoriety and Mrs. Williams began receiving invitations to perform. After time, she learned that the spiritual music she heard her grandmother hum growing up wasn’t merely a passion but, for her, a point of principle.
“What I did not do,” she said, “I did not allow other people to dissuade me about the music I was passionate about and that I loved so much. So even though people would interview me or talk to me about singing other kinds of music or other genres of music; like contemporary gospel or just singing blues … I wasn’t passionate about it, and I didn’t have an ‘experience’ when I would attempt to try to perform or sing that music. I made a decision a long time ago that if the music doesn’t affect me while I’m singing it or performing it, then it cannot be affecting the people that I am singing or performing to.” The professional record
ing artist and grandmother of two strived to put these pieces of culturally historical music into context and perspective for the young children at Midway Elementary Friday afternoon.
“I’ll give background on biblical context (and) how these stories that meant so much to the enslaved– how they became a song,” she said, “Then I’ll talk to them about how the songs transitioned to the civil-rights era and (how) they became a big part of (that) movement and how the songs became a reinforcement to many of those who were fighting for injustices (and) fighting against oppression.”
Before the assembly she expounded upon the scholarly significance of the spirituals, as she would during one of her performances at Duke Divinity School, Harvard, Yale or UNC.
“When we talk about the music of the slave narrative, we have got to think about the fact the spirituals are actually the foundation of all genres of music. A lot of times, students, undergraduates, aren’t aware that the foundations of the spirituals, which came out the slave narrative, are actually the premise or the bouncing board for all gospel, for country, for all genres,” she said.
She spoke on plantation owners’ restrictions on slave communication, noting that all instruments were deemed illegal because slave owners felt they could be used to communicate an escape plan.
“They made it illegal for (slaves) to come together in groups,” Mrs. Williams said. “They could not gather in groups for any reason whatsoever because information was being disseminated.”
The professional scholar created a niche for herself not only for her singing voice but also for her educated and scholarly voice. The songs she powerfully performs tell stories on their own, and Mrs. Williams, through her studies, is able to elaborate on their message and explain their deeper meanings and complex significance.
“They used what was called veiled messaging,” she said of slave narrative songs, explaining how one song could spread.
“(A) song would spread hundreds and hundreds of miles from plantation to plantation, from the kitchen slave from the house slave to the slave in the fields, letting them know that there was a meeting down at the bush harbor. Everybody knew that when that song was being passed on to meet down at the bush harbor,” she said, “So, it was veiled messaging.”