Music class gets a visit from gospel music 'national treasure'
C’mon … c’mon … c’mon … you, c’mon
C’mon … c’mon … c’mon, let’s have family prayer
The four women swayed in their seats in the front of the Ewell Hall classroom as their voices grew increasingly bold together, clapping and gesturing with their hands to punctuate notes. It wasn’t long until the sound of their unified voice filled the space, inspiring most of those in it to clap or tap their toes -- and some to even shed tears.
“The music is inspirational. It encourages,” said Almeta “Meta” Ingram-Miller. “It says, yeah, life isn’t always a crystal stair. … [but the music] always has wonderful redemptive and encouraging value in the end.”
Encouragement and education were the goals of Richmond-based gospel group The Ingramettes when they visited William & Mary on Friday to speak to a “Worlds of Music” class and perform as part of the Ewell Concert Series.
“In my class ‘Worlds of Music,’ we talk about how ethnomusicology not only looks at music but also at musicians,” said Branislava Mijatovic, adjunct professor. “We’ve been talking about this throughout the class, and so this is really valuable to [the students], to see in front of them those people, not just hear me talk about them but actually have someone who is pretty much a living tradition … I think this is just priceless.”
The group was founded 56 years ago by Maggie Ingram, who taught her children the gospel music tradition and wrote original songs for the family to sing. The group has since received numerous awards, and Ingram has been called a “true national treasure” by Jon Lohman, director of the Virginia Folklife Program. The group, now a female gospel quartet, currently includes: Ingram, her daughter Meta Ingram-Miller, granddaughter Cheryl Beaver and Valerie Stewart (not related).
Throughout the years, The Ingramettes have performed at venues around the world, including the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. That first Kennedy Center performance was particularly touching, Ingram-Miller told the William & Mary class.
“We’re standing in the corner, getting ready to come out and sing at the Kennedy Center, and I’m sitting over there, just bawling my eyes out,” she said. “I was just thinking, how does someone go from picking cotton in a cotton field to standing on stage at the John F. Kennedy center?
“You’ve got to understand where we’re from,” she said.
Maggie Ingram grew up on Mulholland’s Plantation in Coffee County, Ga. The child of sharecroppers, she left school in the third grade and worked alongside her parents picking cotton. She married at 16 and continued to pick cotton even after she had children. Eventually, Ingram and her husband moved to Miami where he worked as a minister and she began teaching her five children how to sing together. Soon, the group became a sought-after act at churches, festivals, conferences and other events. When Ingram’s husband moved to Georgia, she moved her children to Richmond where she worked cleaning the house of civil rights attorney Oliver W. Hill, Sr., before getting a job with the city. As a single, working mother, Ingram also started a prison ministry and eventually became a minister herself.
“She’s never been satisfied to have for herself what other people didn’t have,” said Ingram-Miller of her mother.
Through it all, Ingram has managed to keep The Ingramettes going, writing new songs and continually passing the gospel tradition on. Students in the William & Mary class asked The Ingramettes about that tradition, including whether they use sheet music and what practices are like.
“Rehearsals are intense,” said Ingram-Miller, the current musical director for the group.
“I’m a beast,” she added, laughing.
One of the things that they work hard to do is maintain their traditional sound, even as some members of the younger generation try to change it.
“The challenge is to get them to play the music the way that it sounds. They want to put the little contemporary things in there, and I’m like, no. Every time you hear The Temptations do, “Dum, dum dum dum dum dum,’ you want to hear ‘I’ve got sunshine … .’ You don’t want to hear nobody change that to something else. … We’ve got the same requirements with this gospel singing, that the music has to fit the singing.”
As she and her mother get older, Ingram-Miller says that she is “very realistic about the fact that we have more years behind us than we have ahead.
“So, [Ingram] and I just want to do all that we can to pass our story, to pass the tradition on,” she said. “We want our kids and our grandkids to know how we’ve come up.”
For Erin Owens ’17, a student who attended the class just to hear something new, the experience unexpectedly touched her on a personal level. She shared a teary embrace with members of the group after the class came to an end.
“I got so much out of the experience,” she said. “I haven't been back home to Baton Rouge, La., in so long, it just brought me back. In fact, it woke me up. Starting a new chapter in my life as a college student has been a fast-paced and exhilarating experience. From day one, I have not gotten a chance to feel homesick or to miss my family or to appreciate my heritage. Coming to this workshop changed my life. It has woken me up from a long time of numbness that I didn't realize I was in.
“Hearing a piece of history in the form of a language so universal across cultures really shows the power of music, family and faith,” she said.