The discovery of an early “viva-tonal recording” 78 rpm by Columbia Records, dated to at least 1926 and containing a song on each side: “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks We Stand” and “Take Thy Burden to the Lord,” was featured at a recent academic conference about “Worship and Music” at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University. The recording features a Black “Seventh Day Adventist Choir” from Atlanta, Georgia, along with a prayer by a certain Brother Hubbard. During the last two decades, this record sat in a climate-controlled space until recently conserved by the audio conservation lab at Baylor University. This recording—according to specialists—is believed to be the earliest Adventist recording of any kind extant, providing a historical window into Adventism’s musical past. The panel featured a wide range of experts who each with their expertise weighed in on the recording’s significance. “Each of us connects to music in different ways,” observed Dr. Jason Max Ferdinand, chair of the music department and director of the Aeolians at Oakwood University. He added, “I think it will be a beautiful thing as we collaborate to look at how it made people feel in that time and how it was put together.”
Benjamin Baker, Ph.D., a senior lecturer in English at the University of Maryland, placed the recordings within the context of Adventist history and the “Great Migration” of Blacks in the early twentieth century. This was a period when population movement shifted toward urban centers in the South like Atlanta. At the same time, Black Adventists lived in a segregated society as “second class citizens” of Adventism. In the 1920s, he recounted, G. E. Peters held an evangelistic meeting in Atlanta that resulted in the Berean Church, the first Black Adventist Church in Atlanta, and presumably the congregation from which the participants of this recording most likely came from. Dr. Baker shared photographs of Black Adventists, including one particular photograph of the 1926 General Conference session that showcased the father of another panelist, Dr. Eurydice Osterman.
David A. Williams, an assistant professor at the SDA Theological Seminary and director of the worship and music conference, shared from his expertise in liturgical history and practice. He noted that while much has been said about uniformity in the Adventist worship experience, the recording gives another perspective. “I want to suggest that what I am seeing here are some regional, cultural differences that impact [Adventist] liturgical practice,” he said. Williams went on to note that even within Black Adventism there is diversity, and the song “Take Thy Burden to the Lord” does not exist in any of the extant Adventist hymnodic corpus. In contrast, “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks” is a spiritual, but does not appear with the familiar “Promised Land” tune until the current 1985 hymnal. It was originally a folk melody, but played in a minor key, not in a major key (as again it appears, in the current hymnal). The renditions of the songs on this record do not sound like anything in either of the aforementioned tunes.
Dr. Nicholas Zork, minister for worship and the arts at the Church of the Advent Hope in Manhattan and an adjunct professor for Andrews University’s department of music, questioned whether there is really one “traditional” kind of Adventist music. He noted how the western white traditions of music have often been elevated as prescriptive, wrongly privileging white voices and marginalizing people of color. It is telling, he points out, that he has “literally never heard an argument that only one style is holy and that this ‘holy’ style is anything other than western European music.” He continues, “With the discovery of this recording, I just think it is wonderful to have further positive, direct inspiring evidence of a very varied history. Hopefully this discovery will help us focus and refract the way we see the Adventist worship practices of our foremothers and forefathers, and encourage us to tell a more complete story of who we are, and amplify the worthy and central voices of our Black brothers and sisters in Christ who have long been marginalized in our tradition. This recording represents an inspiring, essential part of who we were, who we are, and I pray, who we can hope to become.”
Dr. Eurydice Osterman, retired professor of music at Oakwood University, noted that not only was this the first and oldest recording by a Seventh-day Adventist choir, but it is furthermore amazing that the technology and ability to record were available to them as African Americans. Such recordings had a dual function of affirming their faith and emotionally expressing their human experiences in the struggle for freedom and liberation. “Singing is the breath of the soul,” which she noted echoes the African proverb which says that the spirit will not descend without song. She noted that the traditional way of having a call and response—typical of an African American religious service—is not really exemplified in this particular recording because neither “a question is raised” nor even “a statement made requiring a response.” It does, however, showcase the prominence of prayer in Black worship. “Prayer, like singing, tended to be coupled with other elements such as the hum, moan, and other expressions.” What does make these recordings particularly notable, she added, is that they are acapella renditions—something characteristic of Negro spirituals.
Dr. Jeryl Cunningham-Fleming, a prominent soloist and assistant director of the American Spiritual Ensemble, said that listening to these songs in many ways brought her back to her childhood when she would travel with her family to rural Georgia: “I remember sitting in the church in the country listening to the congregation sing. The sound I heard on that recording was what and how they sing—even to this day.” As a performing artist, she noted that the harmony wasn’t based on any kind of Eurocentric model that we know of like the triad. “It was strange but soothing at the same time to hear how the people sang in the church.” She added that these recordings provide “proof” that this “style of singing” was indeed “performed in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.” She made the point that the “fact that the group maintained their cultural identity and sang what was familiar to them” demonstrates how they “were extremely sincere in their worship.” The six to eight members who were estimated to have participated in this recording were taking a chance to “go and record something evangelistic in nature.” The recording furthermore displays to us how God “accepts wholehearted, sincere worship from His children, and that He loves diversity.”
All the participants affirmed that these recordings are rich, and more effort needs to be made so that these songs and this incredible diversity from our Adventist musical heritage past is not lost. “From my perspective,” noted Williams, “this is quite an Adventist recording. ‘Jordan’s Stormy Banks’ is a second coming song. ‘Take Thy Burdens to the Lord’ is about the Gospel. Both are importance pieces of our shared Adventist identity.”
Follow the links below to hear the recordings:
Editor's Note: This story is published in conjunction with the Best Practices for Adventist Worship newsletter.
Michael W. Campbell, PhD, is professor of religion at Southwestern Adventist University.
Images courtesy of the author
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