The offices of the William & Mary Washington Center came alive with the sounds of an alumni vocal community on April 9 as the W&M D.C. Semester Program and Department of Music co-hosted a visit by Ysaÿe Barnwell, W&M 1939 Maurine Stuart Dulin Artist in Residence.
Titled “Music and Social Action: A Conversation with Dr. Ysaÿe Barnwell,” the event was moderated by Professor of Music and Ethnomusicology Anne Rasmussen, who is leading the spring 2019 W&M DC Semester Program. More than 50 alumni from the Washington, D.C., area and D.C. semester students were in attendance.
Barnwell, a Washington, D.C., resident and former member of the all-woman African-American a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, is serving as the Dulin Artist in Residence for the 2018-2019 academic year. The Dulin Artist in Residence fund comes to the music department only once every four years because it rotates between four departments: music, art and art history, English and theatre, speech and dance. The fund enables faculty to enhance the university’s curriculum and culture, curating sustained visits by scholars and creative artists who enrich academic and performance courses and events open to the W&M community.
Rasmussen helped 10 W&M students in D.C. for the spring semester study the theme “Washington and the Arts: Marketing the Global and the Local.” Since Barnwell is a longtime resident of the area, her visit fit perfectly into one of this semester’s courses, Music and Community in the Capital.
After highlighting Barnwell’s recording and performing career, Rasmussen showed a performance of Sweet Honey in the Rock singing “Wade in the Water,” noting how when she was in graduate school, the song was part of a ground-breaking, four-volume set of recordings, curated by Bernice Johnson Reagon and produced by Smithsonian Folkways Recording, that put African-American sacred music on the map.
Barnwell described her 34 years with the group as “transformative.” She said while she had grown up with classical music all of her life — her father was a violinist who got her started on the instrument before she was three years old — her mother sang in in a Baptist church choir performing “not quite the classical canon,” giving her an introduction to African-American styles of singing.
With degrees in speech pathology and public health, Barnwell happened to be serving as an American Sign Language interpreter for Sweet Honey in the Rock. When one of the members left the group, Reagon asked her to join as a regular member and was known from then on as the group’s distinctive bass voice.
Barnwell also discussed her current vocal community project, including an event held on campus in January as a part of her W&M residency that invited “anybody who ever thought they wanted to sing and didn’t think they could” to learn by ear and then to sing in four- or five-part harmony. To demonstrate, she led the audience in a multi-part version of Sweet Honey in the Rock’s “We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For.”
She also discussed her anthem project, an initiative to professionally record a number of versions of the “Star Spangled Banner” by musicians of various immigrant heritage in their own musical styles and instrumentation.
After an extensive question and answer session from the audience, Barnwell closed the session by leading the group in a version of the traditional Jubilee song “Old Time Religion.”
Barnwell will visit the W&M campus one last time to hear the premiere of her new piece, “Journey (of the Migrant),” commissioned by the W&M Women’s Chorus, on the subject of immigration and motherhood. The combined Spring Choral Concert by the W&M Women's Chorus, Botetourt Chamber Singers and Choir will be held on April 27 at 7:30 p.m. at the Williamsburg Presbyterian Church at 215 Richmond Rd.