Hansonia Caldwell has more than the usual reasons to look forward to her retirement this spring. The professor of music at California State University, Dominguez Hills will present her final “Living Legends Festival Concert” at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels on Saturday, May 14 at 8 p.m. The concert, which is the signature event of the African Diaspora of Sacred Music and Musicians, was first presented in 2003 as part of Caldwell’s work with the Georgia and Nolan Payton Archive of Sacred Music, an extensive collection of music, books, periodicals, documents, audio & visual materials, and oral histories housed at CSU Dominguez Hills.
“We are a preservation program and we preserve through collecting music, papers, letters, articles, and journals, all of that within the field,” says Caldwell. “But we also preserve by facilitating the performance of the genre of sacred music. So it seemed that this would be a particularly good opportunity to facilitate dialogue between [musicians and scholars of] the West Coast and in the rest of the country who are involved with the spiritual.”
Each year at the festival, renowned composers and conductors from across the United States collaborate with luminaries of sacred music in Los Angeles. Dr. André J. Thomas of the University of Florida and Dr. David Hurd of the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church in New York City will preside over this year’s Living Legends Festival Choir. A tribute to composer Jester Hairston will be conducted by Dr. Albert McNeil (Living Legend, 2003), Dr. Gwendolyn Wyatt, Byron Smith, and Danellen Joseph.
“[Hairston] is the composer of ‘Amen’ and lots and lots of spirituals that have been performed all over the world,” says Caldwell, who is proud to preserve Hairston’s papers in the Archive of Scared Music. “In the 1960s and 1970s, the State Department would send him to Europe and Africa and Russia and all sorts of places to perform and teach the spiritual.”
In addition to the concert, two Legacy Musicians Lectures will be presented at CSU Dominguez Hills as part of the festival. Dr. Caldwell will speak on “The Spiritual on the International Stage and Screen” on Wednesday, May 11 at 11:30 a.m., and Dr. Thomas will present “The Spiritual and its Evolution: From the 18th Century to the 21st Century” on Thursday, May 12, at 1 p.m. Both talks will take place in La Corte Hall, Rm. A-103.
Caldwell underscores the importance of the spiritual to the history of American music, and says that Los Angeles possesses an important place in the rich history of the genre, beginning with Hairston’s appearance in the 1936 film, “The Green Pastures,” as he sang with the Hall Johnson Choir.
“These are the songs that sustained Africans when they were enslaved,” says Caldwell.
“They were `code’ songs, that would announce meetings, as in ‘Steal Away,’ and describe the path for running away, as in ‘Follow the Drinking Gourd.’ ‘Go Down, Moses’ referred to Harriet Tubman – that was her nickname – so that when they heard that song, they knew she was coming to the area.
“I often call the spiritual an omnibus term, because there are lots of different [subcategories] under it,” Caldwell continues. “They used to sing songs as they worked in the fields. In the church, it evolved into the gospel song. In the fields, it became the blues.”
Caldwell, who has been at CSU Dominguez Hills since 1972, says that looking back upon her career, the only thing more exciting than taking the Jubilee Choir to Carnegie Hall – twice – was establishing the choir in 1976.
“Dr. (Marvin) Laser, who was dean of the [arts] school at the time, asked for a dedication series,” she says. “I was either going to play some Chopin – my instrument is piano – or, I would do something that was more connected to the community. So I established the Jubilee Choir. Our first concert was at the University Theatre as part of the dedication of that building. This is a campus that has maintained a commitment to music and a commitment to the music of the community.”
For more information on the Living Legends Festival Concert or the African Diaspora of Sacred Music and Musicians, click here.