Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo
John Harrison, Twinfield music teacher and director of the Montpelier Community Gospel Choir, sits in his music studio at his home in Plainfield.
PLAINFIELD — John Harrison’s studio is sparsely furnished but the sounds he’s making fill up the space.
He pivots back and forth between two keyboards, first playing a brief part with his right hand, then watching the notes dance across the computer screen.
His Roland electric piano is overlooked by portraits of some of the great composers of the gospel tradition, hunched over their own keyboards. He has just one more little bit to add to the recording.
“It’s something that I’m working on for the school,” he says.
The school is Twinfield Union School, where Harrison is an encouraging musical presence. A multi-talented musician, when he’s not teaching students at the K-12 school in Marshfield, he’s helping organize community shape note sings, or traveling to the south of France to teach gospel singing.
He’s always composing; and when he’s done composing, the songs may find their way into the repertoire of the Montpelier Community Gospel Choir, which Harrison helped found and now directs.
“I see gospel music as being at the root of the American choral music. It is incredible that out of such a terrible thing as slavery came this transformative musical tradition that is the basis for a particularly American music.”
It’s been 19 years since the choir grew from seeds planted in the pews of the Montpelier Baptist Church, where the church’s music committee voted to open up their fledgling gospel choir to the community at large.
“We had Andy Shapiro and Rev. Fred Shapiro, who were both blues and jazz lovers,” recalls Montpelier resident Beverly Keck, who has been with the choir from the beginning. “John was singing with a group of people around a piano out in Plainfield, and both John and Andy knew each other and we joined together. That’s when we became the Montpelier Community Gospel Choir.”
By all accounts the early days were an adventurous time of challenging transformation.
“I think there were maybe 30, 35 people to begin with, and we were learning to sing in this style of African-American music,” Keck says. “And they were just telling us to ‘close your eyes and sing. Feel the spirit of the music moving through you.’ That’s what we we’re hoping to share. That gospel spirit moving through the music.”
Martha Winthrop, another longtime choir member, recalls: “I remember John’s sister Jane (Bradley) said to me, ‘There’s someplace I want to take you and we’re going to do something and you are going to really, really, like it. I’ve been coming ever since.”
Harrison was first tapped as a singer in the choir. This was a bit of a departure from his years of singing rockabilly and new wave music with the New York City band Hoy Boy and the Doys, and performing sketch comedy with the likes of Broadway legend Bebe Neurwirth and comedian Denis Leary.
Instead, singing gospel allowed him to use his childhood training in a traditional English-style choir school in Princeton, N.J.
“We wore surplices, but underneath we wore gray pants and blazers with the choir insignia,” Harrison says. “You received medals at each stage of your progress. It was very competitive and a great musical education. We actually got paid. And the better we were the more we got paid.”
While Harrison had achieved some success in the New York City worlds of music and improv, he found himself drifting, and at the end of his first marriage he moved to Vermont to be close to family here. It was part of his own personal search that brought him to gospel music.
“My brother had given me a record of traditional gospel music,” Harrison says. “He got the music right from the beginning.”
These days the Montpelier Community Gospel Choir has grown so large that the choir has split into two sections. There’s a big choir, which performs with a full band at four public concerts a year and smaller a cappella choir that also performs at such diverse locations as Burlington Jazzfest and the Chittenden Correctional Facility.
Increasingly, Harrison is teaching the choir his own compositions, and several of them are included in the repertoire of the choir.
“I feel like John is writing from a part of truth in his own life,” says Keck. “This is honest music coming from his heart. I have a feeling that people are going to be singing these songs for a long, long time.”
Harrison hesitates to call the choir a ministry. In fact, the rank-and-file members embrace all forms of religious belief, from born-and-raised Baptist to Buddhist.
“It is a reflection of my own faith which is flexible and very personal,” Harrison says. One need only listen to his composition, “Gospel Train,” to get a glimpse into 21st century gospel music in the making:
The train I ride made of air.
The train I ride, ain’t even there.
Ain’t no coal. It’s all soul.
The train I ride.
The Montpelier Community Gospel choir rehearses every Monday night at the Trinity United Methodist Church in Montpelier at 7 p.m. All are welcome, and there are no auditions.
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