It's a Gospel Story.
Everyone who loves Gospel music has one, whether it be that earliest experience, that remembered encounter or that marvelous way that God chose to use Gospel music to impact heavily on your life. Whatever the experience, a Gospel Story is something that everyone loves to tell, share and hear about.
This continuing series is a way to share that special Gospel Story. From the familiar name to the regional artist to the unknown, they all are fascinating, and equally as important. Stay tuned!
Singing For the Lord
A murmur ran through the choir when the bus pulled into Brattleboro, Vermont. "Everybody's white here. What are we going to do?" Then someone said, "We're going to sing to the Lord," and that's exactly what they did.
This is the story of a remarkable cross-cultural exchange that took place in the 1990s between Vermont, one of the whitest states in the Union, and the incredibly powerful, all-black, 100-member 11 A.M. Mass Choir from the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, N.J.
The woman behind that exchange, the beautiful, musically gifted and devoutly spiritual Anne L. Drinkard-Moss, died on New Year's Day at the age of 75.
Moss was one of eight children of a remarkable family. One of her sisters was Emily, or Cissy, later Houston, who sang lead with the Sweet Inspirations; they backed everyone from Elvis Presley to Aretha Franklin and had a hit of their own in 1968. Houston's daughter, Whitney, also took the family's gospel roots commercial, with enormous success.
When Anne was only 11, she, Cissy, and two brothers, Nick and Larry, sang gospel professionally as the Drinkard Four. Sister Marie was their instructor, and sister Lee, later Warrick and the mother of Dee Dee and Dionne (later Warwick), was their manager.
The group expanded to become The Drinkard Singers; they were the first gospel group to sing with Mahalia Jackson at the National Baptist Convention, the first to sing at the Newport Jazz Festival, and the first to be recorded by RCA.
Moss then formed the Drinkard Ensemble, which toured the country with Warwick and served as the inspiration for Alex Bradford's famous play, "Your Arm's Too Short to Box With God."
While she was still in high school, Moss met Felix Moss; they married in 1944 and had three children, Kenneth, Gregory and Felicia, a powerful singer in her own right. Felix Moss died in 1997.
Rather than continuing to sing commercially, Moss created a ministry out of her music. At New Hope she lovingly and demandingly directed a children's choir as well as the 11 a.m. Choir, which sang with such power, passion, joy and spirit that they lifted the hearts of everyone who heard them.
The choir came to Brattleboro in 1993 through the efforts of Bruce Talbot and Paul Erlbaum, two very white, passionate gospel fans who have become honorary members of New Hope.
"A friend suggested I invite the choir to Brattleboro, where I had just moved," Talbot said in a three-way phone conversation with Erlbaum and myself just after Moss's funeral. "I wondered, 'Why would they ever want to do that?' But Anne was enthusiastic about the idea. She'd never been to Vermont. But she expected to be singing for a black audience."
"She was nervous when she recognized this was a white town," Erlbaum said. "But she was there to sing the praises of the Lord. Whatever she did, she was doing it for God."
I was at the church when the buses arrived, and I'll never forget my first sight of Moss.
She was a strikingly beautiful women, even in her 60s, and she was wearing an exceptionally lovely full-length, glossy fur coat that floated out behind her as she inspected the church.
When it was time for the concert, Moss, now changed into robes, marched down the aisle with the robed choir behind her, all of them singing at full throttle. "The look on her face was so childlike and radiant and happy," Talbot said.
Like Moss, the music that day was ecstatic, rapturous and deeply emotional. We testified and sobbed, danced, clapped and shouted. We joined arms and swayed. We were overwhelmed and transported.
"All our hearts came together, and we were one in the spirit," Moss told me afterward. "If Jesus had come walking in the door, I wouldn't have been surprised. It didn't have anything to do with black and white. The exuberance that the audience had was so great, we responded accordingly and sang our hearts out."
The town's selectboard proclaimed the weekend, "The Weekend of New Hope," and the choir, along with about 50 of their Newark "boosters," were welcomed with opened arms.
"A few years ago I was talking to Russia Thompson, since deceased," Erlbaum said. "She said that when she was shopping for souvenirs in downtown Brattleboro, people gave her special greetings in every shop. She walked into one store and a tape of the choir was playing. In another store she found a pair of shoes she really liked, and the owner, who had been at the concert, made sure there would be no charge."
Two more Brattleboro-area concerts followed; when Talbot moved north, he and Erlbaum produced two concerts in Barre. And they continued to attend Sunday services in Newark whenever they could.
"I remember one time, two members of the choir had had very dangerous strokes," Talbot said. "They were no longer able to sing. Anne worked with them, and during the choir's anniversary program, she brought them down to solo. Although they couldn't articulate the words, they could carry the melody beautifully. Very quietly, Anne articulated the lyrics for them. At one point she plunked her head down on the piano, she was so overwhelmed with emotion."
The choir was an open one; there were no auditions. "I once asked Anne, 'How do you get such an incredible sound out of them?'" Talbot said. "And she responded, 'I just lead them to the source of their experience.'"
Characteristically, Moss had prepared for her death; she had even designed a pink robe and pink hat for her laying-out. "She looked beautiful," Erlbaum said.
Both the church and the choir were packed for the funeral; people who had left long ago came back to sing for Moss.
"There were at least 1,000 people in the church and 200 people in the choir," Talbot said. "Cissy sang. Whitney Houston and Felicia sang; they were sensational. At the end, when the choir sang the 23rd Psalm, former members came up out of the pews to sing, and the song went on and on and on."
For the last leg of her journey home, Moss's coffin was transferred to a white wagon drawn by two white horses; she remained elegant to the end.
"One pastor said, 'She made it,'" Talbot said. "He meant she made it to heaven. She made it to the other side."
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