GALLIPOLIS — “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound …”
The sound was never so sweet as on Friday evening at the Ariel-Ann Carson Dater Performing Arts Centre in downtown Gallipolis where the faithful gathered for a homecoming reception and concert in honor of the 150th Annual Emancipation Celebration in Gallia County, a celebration that has been ongoing in the county since 1863.
Friday night’s program filled the halls of the historic and beautiful Ariel Theatre in downtown Gallipolis with music and history as the local gospel group Ordinary People took the stage, followed by Gallia County natives and soloists Crystal Wagner and Philip Armstrong.
Just prior to the the concert, Emancipation Celebration Committee member Elaine Armstrong spoke of the special celebration organizers have planned this year in recognition of Gallia County and its ongoing celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation.
“This is certainly a special time for Gallia County and with the Emancipation. It is reported to be the longest continuing celebrating of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in the United States — 150 years. That’s a long time,” Armstrong commented. “We have come 150 years all the way from cotton fields to the White House, and, so, we are honored to still remember those who have gone before us. We stand on their shoulders — those that could not be here, both black and white, that did so much for freedom, right here on the Ohio River where there were so many slaves that crossed from, at that time, the State of Virginia, into Ohio and into the land of freedom.”
Ordinary People under the direction of Christian Scott, a group that was first formed 20 years ago at the Gallia County Emancipation Celebration, were the first to take the stage and performed several musical selections, including the spiritual “Done Made My Vow” and a rousing rendition of “I Don’t Feel No Ways Tired.”
Wagner was the next to perform, singing two a cappella songs, “Brown Baby” and “Soon I Will Be Done.”
Philip Armstrong was the last to perform, singing “Amazing Grace,” while also providing the history behind the lyrics of the most famous hymn, which, along with its “unknown” melody, has become arguably the most recognizable song in the world.
“Everyone knows [this song] all over the world, whether you are a person of faith and believe in God, or whether you are a person who just believes in serendipity, anybody can know this song, and it is believed by theologians and musicologists that the melody of this song can be traced back to a west African sorrow chant,” he said.
Armstrong spoke of the poem “Amazing Grace” written by John Newton, who before becoming a Christian, was a captain of a slave ship. According to Armstrong, many people believe that the melody that became associated with Newton’s poem is what the slave trader had heard the slaves humming and singing in the belly of his slave ship.
“When you sing this, or when you are in church and you hear this, or you hear someone play it, I don’t want you to ever sing it the same way again. I don’t want you to sing lackadaisically, or sing it just because they just called it out as the hymn on Sunday morning, or that’s what they are playing a funeral,” Armstrong said. “Every time you hear this song, and every time you sing it, from this night forward, you have a responsibility to remember what was the sound that [Newton] heard that would cause him to write these words, ‘amazing grace.’”
At the closing of the concert, Elaine Armstrong invited those in attendance, as well as the wider community, both black and white, to attend the weekend’s festivities at Bob Evans Farm in Rio Grande.
“This is only the tip of the iceberg of what we have planned for you, Gallia County, and we want you to come, black and white. This isn’t a black thing. We are all in this thing together and we want you to come on Saturday and Sunday and enjoy more of what you’ve heard this evening. It only gets better,” she said while also, on behalf of the Emancipation Celebration Committee, thanking those who attended Friday’s program.
At conclusion of the concert, those gathered at the theatre made their way to the banks of the Ohio River where a candlelight vigil was held in honor of slaves who had crossed from slavery and into freedom and into the State of Ohio.
Emancipation Committee Vice-president Glenn Miller offered remarks at the Ohio River and spoke of the underground railroad and the historical significance of the river that became the symbol of freedom for so many.
“This very place where we stand tonight and trample the grass under our feet of good ole Gallia County and the State of Ohio, and look back across from which we have come, and for those old soldiers and saints who stopped, and for those who stayed, and for those who chose to put down roots, raise families, lived and died, let it be known that this river on whose banks we now stand, that this was their Statue of Liberty, this was their New York,” Miller said. “And for those who thought it an honor and privilege to carry on the tradition that we now hold so dear, and that tradition to celebrate the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, we have not only tried, but we hope we have successfully carried on the tradition. And this year, September the twentieth, through the twenty-second, in the year of our Lord 2013, marks the one hundred and fiftieth year, and let it be known, and still is, the longest running, continuously held, documented celebration in the nation.”
For a full list of the weekend’s activities, or for more information on the Gallia County Emancipation Celebration, visit www.emancipation-day.com.