Lifting Spirits at the Newport Folk Festival

By 
Mary Hurley

Just like a raise-it-to-the-rafters gospel song, the audience’s refrain of “Wow! These kids can sing” was repeated often during the August 1 appearance of the Berklee Gospel and Roots Choir at the Newport Folk Festival.

The choir and its powerful exuberance captivated festivalgoers from the moment it took to the legendary main stage to open the final day of the Newport Festival on Sunday, July 28. The group began under a sunny sky singing Billie Holiday’s haunting song “Strange Fruit,” and ended with a rousing spiritual, “Thank You, Lord.” It wasn’t even noon when the music lovers on the expanse of lawn overlooking the sea rushed the stage to clap hands and dance.

The stellar performance is even more remarkable because the group had been in existence only a month. The 13-member choir was created specifically to perform at Newport and at the Outside the Box Festival in Boston just two weeks earlier. The performers were coaxed by their professors to participate in what became a summer immersion program in gospel and roots music.

Although the band members knew one another, most of the vocalists did not, and had never performed together. They rehearsed four hours weekly for three weeks, and then two hours a week before the Newport show.

That they pulled it off is a credit, the students say, to their teacher, Nedelka Prescod, an assistant professor in the Ensemble Department. An educator for more than two decades who has served as the choral director for church- and community-based youth choirs, Prescod recently completed studies in the contemporary improvisation graduate program at New England Conservatory.

“Amazing,” is how Jenna Glatt, a vocal performance major, described Prescod. “She brings a positive energy to the group. She can have fun with us, but at the same time, she knows how to take control, be professional, and be a leader.”

Berklee has gospel choirs, but not a group quite like this that melds gospel, roots, and blues music with jazz improvisation. “It was like a jam session with friends,” said Jasmine Jefferson, of Warren, NJ, a Berklee student who has been singing in her church choir since age three. Mark Minoogian, the outfit’s bass player said, “This group never performed a song the same way twice.”

The song selection also connected the choir to the audience. “Strange Fruit” was followed by “Work Song,” with talk of a chain gang, and then a seamless merge into “It Is Well with My Soul.”

The choir’s rendition of “Yes,” with its message to follow your heart and find your calling, spoke to festivalgoer Erica Meyer of Boston, who had recently become a teacher in a Montessori public charter school in Boston. She attended the festival with her mother, Jamie Meyer, of Chicago, who recalled past festivals featuring Bob Dylan, veteran gospel singer Mavis Staples, and the tradition of Sunday morning gospel choirs. Jamie Meyer saw the Berklee choir as a reflection of what the festival has been, and what it will be. “They are the Mavises of the future,” she said.

 

Mary Hurley is an assistant director in MIT’s Office of Foundation Relations.