“Hold On” Black Catholic Congregational Song

Pray Tell is happy to welcome Darnell St. Romain and Darrell St. Romain as guest posters on Black Catholics, music, and liturgy. This is the second of their posts. The first may be found here. Thanks to contributor Alan Hommerding for facilitating these posts.

Refrain
Hold on, Hold on!
Keep your hand on the plow, hold on.
(repeated)

When I get to heaven, gonna sing and shout,
Be nobody there to put me out.
Keep your hand on the plow, hold on.
(repeated)

We—Darnell and Darrell St. Romain—grew up in the Black Catholic parish of St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The priests of the Society of the Divine Word Missionaries (SVD) serve this parish community. It is here, St. Paul, where we were baptized into the Body of Christ and confirmed in the Catholic faith. Most importantly, it is where our love for God and our vocation to be pastoral musicians was encouraged, nurtured, and fostered. The community confirmed our calling. Considering that community, we invited three Black Catholic Pastoral Musicians, to respond to three questions concerning Black Catholic Congregational Song. We would like to share their responses.

Dr. Kim R. Harris is the Assistant Professor of African American Thought and Practice in the Department of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California.

Richard Cheri is the Director of Music and Liturgy at Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of New Orleans. He is also the Executive Director of the Lyke Foundation which puts on the Archbishop James Patterson Lyke Liturgical Conference.

M. Roger Holland II is a Teaching Assistant Professor in Music and Religion and Director of the Spirituals Project at the Lamont School of Music, University of Denver. He and Dr. Harris composed Welcome Table: A Mass of Spirituals.

Question 1: Who are your ancestors, that enlivened Black Catholic Congregational Song?

Dr. Harris:
I grew up Presbyterian in a family that contained musicians. Singing in church and at home was always particularly important. At this time of year our church choir would always present The Messiah. We also sang many spirituals and hymns that I also still love singing in church. My church did not sing much gospel music. It was spirituals, hymns, and anthems (for the choir).
When I converted to Roman Catholicism, I brought this musical sensibility with me and continued to sing, lead music, and join choirs in the parishes I attended. It continues to be important for dioceses to have choirs that sing the music of Black Catholic liturgical experiences.

Mr. Cheri:
Rev. Clarence Rivers, Archbishop James Patterson Lyke, Sr. Thea Bowman, Sr. Pat Haley, Leon Roberts.

Mr. Holland:
I count people such as Leon Roberts, Roderick Bell, Eddie Bonnemere and Fr. Joseph Clarence Rufus Rivers, and now Kenneth Louis among my ancestors that enlivened Black Catholic Congregational Song.

Question 2: What is the current state of Black Catholic Congregational Song?

Dr. Harris:
Black Catholic Congregational Song is moving forward. Many parishes have choirs that are presenting a variety of music, spirituals, hymns, and gospel. Black Catholic composers are also continuing to write for our community. In many ways we are still catching, up (musically) to churches in the wider Black Community. We also need a focus and funded way to train our young people. So many schools do not have music programs anymore. This was a problem even before the pandemic. How will we raise up the next generations of Black Catholic musicians?
We also need to support Black Catholics to become liturgical scholars.

Mr. Cheri:
Gospel music is ingrained in the Black religious experience. It is part of our culture. It helps define and give meaning to why and how we gather to worship. This music enlivens the gospel message. I may not be able to give you the chapter and verse of scripture, but I can easily recall the lyrics of a song and the meaning of its message.

Mr. Holland:
I believe that Black Catholic Congregational Song is alive and well. The Church, especially Black Catholics, needs to continue to invest in its trove of talent and commit resources to support music by Black Catholic composers, and the composers, themselves, to ensure its future.

Question 3: How do we continue to cultivate this genre among our Parishes (how do we keep our song singing or alive)?

Dr. Harris:
We must support our Black Catholic conferences as places to gather and encourage each other.
We must also attend and bring our leadership to conferences in the wider Catholic musicians’ community, such as NPM.
For our parishes, we need to choose music that is meant for congregational participation…. Written by our composers, suitable to our traditions, and filled with our cultural idioms.
Yes… we still have a way to go and are moving forward.

Mr. Cheri:
Hymnody has been an integral part of our religious experience. It is valuable how gospel artists and composers do contemporary arrangements of hymns, reminding us of these gems, keeping the message alive.
If our focus in music ministry is the full, active participation of the congregation, then our music can be one of the most effective tools. Its rhythm and repetitiveness are easily embraced, unifying the work of everyone (liturgy).

Mr. Holland:
As stated above, the Church, especially Black Catholics, needs to continue to invest in its trove of talent and commit resources to support music by Black Catholic composers, and the composers, themselves, to ensure its future. We must embrace our ancestral heritage of speaking the names of those who have gone before and joined the ranks of the ancestors. We must cherish and celebrate the work and contributions of our pioneers in Black Catholic music. One of the ways we do that is by singing the music, itself. We must honor our heritage and give our own music “pride of place” in our liturgies and celebrate our “native genius.”

We began this blog post with the words to the Negro Spiritual “Hold On.” To us “Hold On” is a song that acknowledges the past while looking forward to the future. From the responses above, we see a need to continue to sing the song of our ancestors, while supporting new musicians and musical compositions from within the Black Catholic community. Heaven is the source and goal of our song—Sing me to Heaven! In the Civil Rights era of the 1960s this Negro Spiritual was sung during protests and marches with different words:

Paul and Silas, bound in jail,
Had no money for to go their bail.
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.
Refrain

Got my hand on the freedom plow,
Wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now.
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.
Refrain

The prize then was freedom (often described as heaven in Negro Spirituals) and the prize today is freedom, freedom from oppression and degradation, which is ultimately in the Heavenly Kingdom of the Most High God. Black Catholics come from a lived theology where the music functions as a geographic teleportation. The song transports the singer to a new reality while singing the song. May our song continue to give us hope and help us to “Hold On until we can sing and shout/Be nobody there to put [US] out.”

The writers think it is helpful to include this YouTube video of the Negro Spiritual “Hold On.”
The UNT A Capella Choir performs “Hold On” arranged by Moses Hogan.

One comment

  1. So glad to see Ken Louis named here among the inspiring ancestors (are we all getting old? I remember him as a young man). I had the pleasure of working with him a few times and never forgot it. He was just excellent — creative, collaborative, and such a fine musician. Thank you for these posts.

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