My fascination with Rev. Dr. Charles Albert Tindley started with an article that my wife read in the local paper in 2011 or 2012 about an annual Gospel music concert put on by the local church community. I was completely flabbergasted, both as a longtime journalist and singer/songwriter that I didn't know that one of the founding fathers of Gospel music was born in the very town that we were raising our family in. Ironically, it ended up being the last year the festival took place.
That article eventually led to numerous sit-downs interviews with local African-American historians, elder statesmen, church and community leaders in both Berlin and Philadelphia that sparked a public radio segment I produced in 2014 on my show "Coastal Connection", which aired on WAMU 88.5 in Washington DC and on WRAU 88.3 in Ocean City, and nationally as a shorter piece on NPR's Weekend Edition. Here's a link to that original piece.
When I lost my career due to sweeping budget cuts in 2015, I pivoted my passion for this particular story into an audacious effort to create a full length documentary and preservation album that, in the end, never got the funding or support it needed to get over the proverbial finish line.
The idea was unfortunately shelved, but the desire to help shine a light on Tindley's legacy never went away, even though my confidence in being worthy of helping to tell it was definitely fading as time went on.
One morning in 2018, as I do on many mornings, I wrote a song.
The song didn't need funding or permission to exist and to honor a historical figure that inspired me and so many people across the world. Since music is such a universal language, it was my hope that the song could reach and touch people on a deeper level that would encourage them to go and find more of Tindley's songs and learn about his story. The choice to call the song "Mr. Tindley" instead of "Rev. Dr. Tindley" was as much about trying to point attention his upbringing on the Eastern Shore before he was a preacher and quite honestly, it worked much better melodically in the song itself.
For me, it's a travesty that a man who is literally inspired the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement "We Shall Overcome" with his hymn "I'll Overcome Someday" is hardly a blip on the radar of history in the town where he was born, and in a region of the country that was the birthplace of the two of the most vitally important African American people in American history in Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.
This entire effort is about trying to start a conversation and bring together a community of people that can work to change that unfortunate fact.
On March 14, 2020, we recorded "Mr. Tindley" in a little recording studio just outside of Wilmington, Delaware. It seemed apropos to be creating a song that honors the legacy of one of the founding fathers of Gospel music somewhere between where he was born in 1851 as a freeborn son of a slave on Maryland's Eastern Shore and the City of Brotherly Love (Philadelphia) where he became one of the nation's most revered preachers and hymn writers in the early part of the 20th century. My friend Darnell Miller, who is an incredible guitarist and songwriter, assembled a group of players that ranged from show-stopping singers from local churches to accomplished, seasoned, and in some cases, touring gospel musicians.
They all knew of Tindley, but they didn't necessarily know his full story. So, when I shared my motivation behind the inspiration that had been driving me for the better part of six years, the mood in the room changed from a music making session to a sort of musical mission that aimed to make a difference.
We were all so excited at the end of the day when the song was finished and we went our separate ways thinking that we'd release this positive song sometime after this little "virus" thing that had been taking up more time in the news cycle had come and gone.
The next day, the world literally shut down due to the global pandemic.
In the 18 months that have followed, we've encountered one of the strangest, scariest, tumultuous, unsettling and divisive times that we've endured as a society, and I'm not just talking solely about COVID-19. I believed that the song could make a difference but I was scared that the person who wrote the song would become more of a storyline and that controversy could take away from the song's intention to lift up the historical figure who inspired it, and therein, help inspire others who would learn about his legacy.
As we navigated through the pandemic and the riots and protests in the wake of the George Floyd murder, coupled with the run-up to the 2020 Presidential election in the US, I didn't want this good intentioned homage to a man who helped people fight to "overcome" be dragged down and fall prey to the politically fueled perceptions that so many people hold onto right now in our world where reality is gazed at through a selfish and distorted Snapchat filter of sorts.
Now, as other efforts in our little town of Berlin have started to snowball in the right direction, I feel like the time is right to release this song and the video to the world. My greatest hope is that this song and this video sparks conversation and an effort to find commonality in the things that we, a collective society of individuals from different backgrounds, have all been struggling to "overcome."
This song is my Pete Seeger-like attempt to do something bigger than just write songs about how I feel or what I've been through. I realize I'm a just a no-named middle aged white man who just happens to be living for the past almost-20 years in the very town that Tindley was born in. But, this song is essentially a news story told through music, and for whatever reason, no one else who could be deemed more suitable to sing or write this song have stepped forward to do so. I am so appreciative of the people who have continued to push me and this song forward, despite my deep fears, anxieties and insecurities about it.
The video takes frenetically paced imagery that we've been bombarded by in the past several years and juxtaposes it against similar scenes during the Civil Rights Movement and Jim Crow. The style of the video was chosen based on a long conversation that I had at the beginning of this journey with a retired African-American school teacher and local historian named Constance Sturgis, who has since passed.
She told me that while we have come a long way as a society, we still have a long way to go. She also tried to curb my fears about being the "white guy telling a black man's story", as she put it, with a thing that I've never forgotten in the 6-plus years since she said it to me in her little cottage in Berlin. "If you don't tell these stories, they will fade away", she said. "We need people like you to stand together with us and help get the attention of people who otherwise wouldn't pay our history any mind."
I am most excited for the things that are going to be happening related to these efforts in our community in the coming months. The song is just the beginning of what I hope will be a longstanding celebration of one of Berlin's native sons who's work is globally known but his story is practically forgotten. Music can be the universal language that can help change things, and that's my hope here.
I've always said that there are similarities in songwriting and journalism, but for the first time in my two decade long pursuit of both professions, this song feels more like journalism than anything I've ever written. That's why this song and the album that will follow, is being released under the "Journos" name.
This forthcoming album of story songs, scathing editorials, and sonic field reporting of these strange times we find ourselves in attempts to set a bit of satirical precedent in these unprecedented times.
Whether you like it or not is none of my business, and was never the point of this exercise.
But, if you dive down a rabbit hole of information and find Tindley's beautiful hymns and learn more about his amazing story after listening to this song; or if the images in the video made you feel something or question the way you view our history or your place in it, then art did what art is supposed to do.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, all the money made from this song will go directly to help fund the local effort to bring back the annual "Tindley Day" Gospel Festival in his hometown of Berlin, MD. My hope is that it can make a triumphant return in 2022. With your support, we can hit that goal and put a joyful noise out into a world that desperately needs it.
In a way, I guess being a small part of bringing back the very thing that helped me learn who Charles Albert Tindley was, is a way to bring this multiple year journey completely full circle.
Every song has a story, and there's a story in every song.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------BR--August 12, 2021