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Remembering the Lost Tradition of Quartet Contests

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Remembering the Lost Tradition of Quartet Contests

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Remembering the Lost Tradition of Quartet Contests

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Now another uniquely American tradition. Commentator Bruce Nemerov was editing the papers of musicologist John Work and he came across recordings of African-American high school quartet contests in the 1930s.

BRUCE NEMEROV:

There was a buzz on the campus of Tennessee A&I that last weekend in March of 1938. The black college in Nashville was hosting the 9th annual State Convention of the New Farmers of America. On that Friday evening, an event unique to the NFA was about to begin: the quartet contest.

(Soundbite of "Little David, Play on Your Harp")

HOLLOWAY HIGH NFA QUARTET: (Singing) Hallelujah. Little David, play on your harp. Hallelu.

NEMEROV: One finalist in the state championship was from nearby Murfreesboro. Holloway High was Murfreesboro's black high school, and their quartet was made up of two freshmen, Richard Gregory(ph) and Zina Richardson(ph), and two sophomores, Anthony Winrow(ph) and Warren Johnson(ph). They were nervous when they began "Little David, Play on Your Harp."

(Soundbite of "Little David, Play on Your Harp")

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) My poor God, help me.

HOLLOWAY HIGH NFA QUARTET: (Singing) Oh, Lord.

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible).

HOLLOWAY HIGH NFA QUARTET: (Singing) Oh, Lord.

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Little David, play on your harp.

HOLLOWAY HIGH NFA QUARTET: (Singing) Hallelujah. Little David, play on your harp. Hallelu.

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Little David, play on your harp.

NEMEROV: One of the judges that day was Fisk University music professor John Work. He brought along his school's recording machine, a Presto portable that recorded sound on plastic-coated discs.

(Soundbite of "Little David, Play on Your Harp")

HOLLOWAY HIGH NFA QUARTET: (Singing) Hallelujah. Little David, play on your harp. Hallelu.

NEMEROV: In the Jim Crow South black students weren't permitted to join the Future Farmers of America, so a Tennessee chapter of the New Farmers of America was formed in 1930. Like their white counterparts in the FFA, New Farmers were taught leadership and farming skills. But, unlike Future Farmers, New Farmers met in a classroom under a picture of Booker T. Washington and they competed in quartet contests.

In the fall of 1937 Holloway High music teacher Inez Henderson(ph) selected and trained four young men for the annual contest. These singers rehearsed hour after hour that winter, and the hard work paid off when they won the Tennessee championship in the spring and headed for Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and the national competition in August. The Holloway ag teacher, G.K. Kersey(ph), drove the group. They stopped in Memphis for dinner at Bessie's Chicken Shack(ph), and they crossed the Mississippi River on the ferry. Eight groups were set to compete and the Holloway quartet had to wait their turn in an empty room, listening to the other groups over loudspeakers. Finally, it was their turn. They took the stage in white shirts, black ties and black coats with white trousers. They all had on black and white wing tip shoes. Part of the final score would be based on stage appearance. They sang "Daniel Saw the Stone" just as they had on this recording made by Professor Work in Nashville.

(Soundbite of "Daniel Saw the Stone")

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Oh, Daniel saw the stone.

HOLLOWAY HIGH NFA QUARTET: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible). Daniel saw the stone that came rolling through Babylon, and Daniel saw the stone. (Unintelligible) came down to redeem ...(unintelligible).

NEMEROV: The young Tennesseans won the national championship and back home they received so many invitations to sing at churches they couldn't make them all. For a while they were famous.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Yonder stands...

HOLLOWAY HIGH NFA QUARTET: (Singing) Standing, standing, standing...

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) ...mine to follow.

HOLLOWAY HIGH NFA QUARTET: (Singing) Waiting, waiting.

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Yonder stands...

HOLLOWAY HIGH NFA QUARTET: (Singing) Standing, standing, standing...

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) ...mine to follow.

HOLLOWAY HIGH NFA QUARTET: (Singing) Waiting, waiting.

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Yonder stands...

HOLLOWAY HIGH NFA QUARTET: (Singing) Standing, standing, standing.

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) ...mine to follow.

HOLLOWAY HIGH NFA QUARTET: (Singing) Waiting, waiting. Get on board, get on board.

NEMEROV: From 1935 to 1965 the New Farmers of America, through the quartet competitions, gave thousands of young black Southerners the opportunity to develop musical and leadership skills. By learning the songs of their parents and grandparents, they celebrated their race. But in 1965, during a time of enormous social change, the New Farmers were absorbed by the Future Farmers of America. Racial pride soon would be expressed by James Brown's "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud." And the mass choir sound of Edwin Hawkins' "Oh, Happy Day" would represent black religious songs to America. And the picture of Booker T. Washington would no longer hang on the schoolroom wall over the New Farmers of America.

SIEGEL: Bruce Nemerov is a musician, a writer and the editor of the book "Lost Delta Found."

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