Thursday, July 03, 2008

The great Jester Hairston

Gossip, gossip, evil t'ing
Much unhappiness it bring
If you can't say somet'ing nice
Don't talk at all, is my advice
-- Jester Hairston

Every so often, I think back on the once in a lifetime opportunity we had at the Christian College Choral Festival. It's a great tradition, and one that I fear may have died out in recent years. From my first year in college, I looked forward to it every winter, and grieved the year that the weather was too bad for us to go. The festival provided a chance to learn from terrific clinicians and to be exposed to the musical stylings of other schools, including Southwestern Christian College of Terrell, Texas, which I'd never even heard of before that first year, but never again forgot. While the integration of colleges and other schools represents undeniable progress that was denied for far too long, the Historically Black Colleges and Universities developed their own great legacy, and SWCC is just one proof.

Imagine the honor for a pitiful little white girl like me to sing for magnificent musician Jester Hairston and to be selected for a solo under his direction. That year's group choral performance consisted of several of what he still called "Negro spirituals," each of which he'd either written or arranged, titles represented here as they were on the title pages: "Amen," "Lay Yo' Head in De Winduh, Jesus," "Home in Dat Rock," "Elijah Rock," among others. One of the strongest memories is of his teaching us the proper way to perform his classic "Amen," from The Lilies of the Field. (Incidentally, the version on the soundtrack is Mr. Hairston; the inimitable Sidney Poitier freely admits that he lip-synched to Hairston's recording.)

He complained that too often, people begin that rhythmic clapping even during the early verses, when Jesus is just a seemingly unimportant baby or a small child. They clap, too, when tragic events are being told. Jester Hairston firmly maintained that the better way was to let the tension build up during all those early verses, waiting to clap until the line "but he rose on Easter" is reached, and continuing through the final verse about "and he lives forever."

The pièce de résistance was his teaching us a calypso song while explaining about the ancient traditions of "call and response" and "lining out" a hymn: teaching a song line by line and having the learners repeat the line verbatim. My recollection is that this song is of his own authorship, but I'm hoping to be corrected if there is another author; I only ask that you not try to make a case that it is a folk song without authorship, as that is often believed about calypso songs even in cases where it's not true. :)

Note: Wish I could thank the two unknown Danish bloggers whose missives contained the verse I'd forgotten over the years -- I've placed it first because it works there, though I can't guarantee that's the correct order. This song is so catchy that when the rehearsals took a lunch break and went to a Lubbock cafeteria to eat, we all caught ourselves unwittingly singing the song while standing in the cashier's line, provoking a grand applause by the diners at song's end.

Gossip, gossip, evil thing
Much unhappiness it bring
If you can't say something nice
Don't talk at all is my advice

If you talk about somebody
even what you say is true
when it comes back it is double talk, to what it was when it left you


Once I told me friend me secret
And he promise not to tell
Now community and strangers all know me secret very well


Take me wife, now, there's a gossip
What an ear for news has she
Knows a thing or two about everyone in our whole community


If there's one thing 'bout a gossip
Let me tell you this is true
If you tell she 'bout somebody, she tell somebody else about you

Words to live by.


Nicole said...

What incredible memories. I love the vision of everyone in the diner listening to you all sing while in line. Awesome!

I will be praying for Coach Stallings. Thanks for visiting my blog and "chatting" with me.
HUGS, Nicole

Gadfly said...

Dear ProudTexasWoman,

I am searching for a recording of "Gossip, Gossip" by Dr. Jester Hairston. The only recording I can even find reference to is by The Voices of Walter Schumann, and I cannot find that recording, I know about it because someone has the sheet music and it says "As sung by The Voices of Walter Schumann". First of all, I would like a recording as arranged by Dr. Hairston (not Walter Schumann), secondly I would like to obtain a audio recording. Would you have, or know where I can get this? My e-mail address is I really look forward to hearing from you!

Thank you,
Mark S. Mangus

ProudTexasWoman said...

(ACK! Blogger supposedly notifies me when there are comments awaiting moderation, but in the long interval since your message, I had no idea. Sorry for the delay, and I'll try sending this reply over e-mail as well.)

I do not know of any recording of Dr. Hairston's version of the song unless it appears on the recordings made from the CCCF performances I described in my entry. While I know for a fact there were recordings of the performance, over the years as I've tried to replace my own copy (two cassettes), I have had no success. As for any printed materials, since we learned the song by the "lining out" method, I've never seen his arrangement in sheet music.

Schools that I remember definitely performed that year:
* Abilene Christian University
* Harding University
* Lipscomb University
* Lubbock Christian University (they were that year's host school)
* Southwestern Christian College

Schools that I think performed that year:
* Faulkner University
* York College (?)

You could, if so inclined, contact their choral directors and ask if they have the recordings or know anyone who does. ACU's present director, Paul Piersall, joined the faculty the year after Hairston directed; the previous director, Dr. Charles Nelson (trivia: brother of golfer Byron!), retired at a ripe old age that year of 1986.

All I ask is that if you obtain an audio recording, WRITE BACK AND TELL ME WHERE YOU GOT IT!

BrianMcM said...

Jester Hairston traveled America in the late 1960s and early 1970s conducting music festivals at colleges and high schools. I was in all-white Oregon and he came by our school several times over those years including when I was in the choir. He would spend a day with each school preparing them for a mass singing at the festival. On our day to spend with Dr. Hairston, my choir director invited me to lunch with Dr. Hairston. I was so honored. He was such a stellar man and cast such a big aura of happiness and warmth. I will never forget my day with Jester Hairston and then the festival a week or two later. (Brian McMorris - Albany, OR). One of my classmates may have a recording of the festival. If so, I will find a way to share it. I know we sang Gossip, Gossip along with Poor Man Lazarus and Amen