The November morning scene at Shiloh Baptist Church in Hudson is pretty much a picture-book example of the term “Sunday best.” The ladies sport fancy hats and bright outfits, the men and boys have on ties and their sharpest suits, and the little girls, their hair done up in braids with candy-colored beads, wear satiny skirts and dangle their shiny shoes beneath the pews. As the organ begins to fill the air with the stately hymn “Standing on the Promises,” a drummer adds some rhythm. And then a small group to the side of the pulpit, its female members draped in shimmering red robes to match the room’s regal decor, rises and begins to sing. The congregation joins in, and over the next two hours, amid the day’s prayers, announcements, and heartfelt sermonizing, there’s clapping and much more singing all around—along with many an “Amen!” The services here are always uplifting and jubilant, but on this occasion there’s added reason to celebrate. While there are some time-tested musical groups in the Hudson Valley, not many have been performing for as long as the Shiloh Baptist Choir: Today, the choir and the church for which it’s named are celebrating their 96th anniversary.
“We don’t have a lot of written records from the early years of the church, but we do know that music has always been part of it,” says the Reverend Ronald Grant, the institution’s pastor, who shares the choir’s directorial and accompanist duties with his son Dwayne “D. J.” Grant. “At that time the congregation itself would have been the choir; back then everyone would just sing together with the minister. For generations Shiloh Baptist Church has been the hub of African American religious activity in Columbia County, and at one point or another every local family has been through here. We have about 150 active members in the congregation now, which is down from what it once was. But we do get visitors or new or returning members who say, ‘My grandparents, or my great-grandparents, used to belong to this church.’ And many of those ancestors also sang in the choir.”
Thanks to its patronage of Italian Renaissance painters, the Catholic Church has been credited with keeping visual art alive from the 13th to the 15th century. And, similarly, thanks to their proliferation of gospel music, African American churches deserve the world’s undying gratitude for what they’ve done for modern Western music. For without gospel and the blues it sprang from, none of the popular music we’ve loved during the last 100-plus years—jazz, rock ’n’ roll, soul, funk, hip-hop—would exist. How so? Simple. All of these genres are rooted in the blues, and while the blues themselves have fallen in and out of favor with a public focused on their ever-morphing derivations, their steadfast, sanctified cousin has never lost its audience. Thus, it’s been America’s black churches—most of them small community organizations like Shiloh—that have preserved the blues form over the decades and provided the touchstone for the above descendant styles. It doesn’t take the most learned of ears to spot the similarities between the blues and gospel: the African-rooted call and response between the lead voice and accompanying instruments or singers; the use of moody “blue” notes and chords; the emotional delivery and intensely honest feeling. With its beginnings in the burden-lifting spirituals passed down from slavery days, gospel got a modern makeover in the pre-World War II years by the Reverend Thomas A. Dorsey, a former blues pianist who’d toured with the racy Ma Rainey and composed such double-entendre hits as “It’s Tight Like That.” Dorsey injected gospel music with rhythmic energy and penned the beloved standards “Peace in the Valley” and “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Little Richard, and countless other influential artists who followed have backgrounds in gospel and the church, many of them enjoying successful careers in both sacred and secular music. Today, gospel continues to inspire generations of worshippers and through its transcendental appeal is constantly being discovered by new listeners in search of something higher and deeper. (Witness the recent popularity of boxed sets like the Dust-to-Digital label’s Goodbye Babylon and Tompkins Square’s Fire in My Bones among the indie crowd.)
Grant grew up in Brooklyn, the son of North Carolina expatriates. His father became a minister when Grant was in his preteen years, by which time the younger Grant had begun learning piano. Not long after, he was playing organ for his father’s services and occasionally at a nearby storefront Pentecostal church. “It wasn’t our church, but they needed an organist,” he says. “It’s difficult to sit by when you know someone needs help.” Outside of his church duties Grant played blues and jazz, in thrall to his hero, Hammond organ great Jimmy Smith. After ending up in the Army and shipping out to Vietnam, he found himself stationed just outside Saigon during the Tet Offensive of early 1968. “That was a turning point for me,” Grant recalls. “It was the morning after payday and I was sleeping, when a mortar shell landed nearby and knocked me right out of my bunk. While all of these explosions were going off I just laid there and prayed. I said, ‘Lord, if you get me out of this I promise I will serve you.’ I got out of the Army a couple months later, but for a while there I really didn’t think I was gonna make it out [of Vietnam]. And now every time I watch a war movie it brings me right back there. It reminds me of how good God has been to me.”
Nevertheless, it would be a few more years of inner wrestling before Grant followed through on his pact with the Lord. He studied business and resumed performing, working with soul singer Stephanie Mills and gospel icon the Reverend James Cleveland as he “tried to ignore” the calling. “I guess it was about 1976 that I finally decided to enter the ministry,” says Grant. “I enrolled at Corpus Christi University and became a minister formally in 1987.” His family, which includes his wife, Deaconess Yona Grant (a choir member), and their three sons, have been Hudson natives since the mid ’90s. A perhaps surprising sideline to the Reverend’s ministerial life is his parallel work in the field of law enforcement. Besides currently serving as Hudson’s police commissioner, Grant is on the board of the Columbia County Sheriff’s Department’s chaplaincy program, which he co-founded in 2006. And the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree: D. J. is himself a state police investigator. “When we’re not fighting sin, we’re fighting crime,” the elder Grant says with a laugh. “But in both situations you’re what I like to call a ‘lead servant,’ a facilitator of authority. You need to be conscious of how you serve and interact with people. You can ask them to build you a soapbox to stand on, but if you make them happy maybe they’ll put out a few extra nails in it for you.” As if his efforts with Shiloh and local police weren’t enough, in October Grant became president at large of the Empire Baptist Missionary Convention, an organization that oversees more than 400 of the state’s African American Baptist churches.
To many, black gospel music may be most synonymous with the region where it began, the American South. But the waves of migration that took place after the Civil War and during the 1930s and ’40s brought it to the Northern urban-industrial centers where large numbers of Southern-born blacks settled. In the Hudson Valley, besides Columbia County’s Hudson and Chatham, there are African American churches, with their own choirs, in cities like Newburgh, Poughkeepsie, Albany, Catskill, Middletown, Peekskill, and Kingston. Previously located on Columbia Street, Shiloh Baptist Church moved into its present home, a former synagogue at 214 Warren Street, in the 1970s. Its smaller, mostly older congregation perhaps makes its services a little less unbridled than the sweaty, shout-filled summits of the Deep South. But the music is no less deeply moving, and the atmosphere is warm and humbling. Today’s anniversary program includes an interpretive dance segment by the colorfully costumed Shiloh Praise Dancers, and at one point during the service the choir members descend from their perch to shuffle-dance through the aisles.
This past May the choir made itself some new fans just a few blocks away, when the group, with Grant on lead vocals and keyboards, opened for the legendary Blind Boys of Alabama at Club Helsinki. “Whenever possible we try to connect the music we feature directly to the community,” says Helsinki co-owner Marc Shafler. “So, in the spirit of that, the Shiloh Baptist Choir was a natural opener. And the audience really loved them. The whole show was just such a heartening experience.”
“I always learn a lot from the Reverend’s sermons,” says choir member Celestine Chance, who shares her voice with the Hudson Valley Choral Society. “But actually I think the fellowship is what I like the most [about being in the choir].” And at Shiloh that fellowship, along with the gospel tradition, is being passed down to the next generation. In addition to its adult wing, the church has a youth choir, which performs on the third Sunday of each month and includes brothers Immanuel and Daniel Folds. “I’ve been with the choir for about five years, and I love the energy of the music,” says Immanuel, 16, who frequently accompanies the elder singers on drums. “Sometimes the tempo changes, but the meaning always stays the same.”
“Music has always been an integral part of our worship—which is open to all—because it makes a person feel good,” says Grant. “Music is rhythm, basically. And rhythm makes you move, which makes you feel good. So we try to have a lot of up-tempo songs. The service is predicated on setting a tone, and on delivering God’s Word. The songs are the ‘singing Word,’ so we want people to receive that, and to feel good in the world.”
One might’ve expected that your music editor, a lover of gospel music but one from a different cultural background and, admittedly, by no means a regular churchgoer, might feel somewhat out of his element the first time he attended a service at Shiloh Baptist Church. Far from it. Instead, all he felt was loving, unquestioning friendliness from people who seemed honestly happy to meet him. And as a bonus he got to hear some truly wonderful music.
On the way out, another of the church’s officers, the Reverend Mable Grant, is all smiles and hugs. “You coming back next week?” she asks. “When are we gonna get you in the choir?”
The Shiloh Baptist Choir performs for church services on Sundays at 11am and Wednesdays at 7pm. (518) 828-6861.
- Fionn Reilly