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1996 Alumni Gospel Choir Issues First CD

The Swarthmore College Alumni Gospel Choir is "nothing short of a miracle," according to member Hayley Thomas '93.

The miracle, she says, is not its imaginative musical arrangements, its talented musicians and singers, or the fervent style in which it performs its renditions of spirituals and contemporary gospel music. While the alumni gospel choir has all this, so do many gospel choirs. Rather, it is a miracle because of its inception, creation, perseverance, and sustaining power through the years.

Its members, many of whom are graduates from the 1970s, live around the country yet travel at their own expense to rehearse and perform four times a year. They have produced two CDs, much of it original music, and have presented concerts in many U.S. cities and the  Virgin Islands. In 2012, their 40th year, they traveled for a week in China, performing at Shanghai Normal University and the Xi'an University of Arts and Science. The choir's members are devoted to each other, to a vision, and to the message of gospel music found directly in the lyrics they sing. The choir believes and lives its message.

Although officially founded in 1986 during Black Alumni Weekend, the choir's roots go back to the early 1970s. Back then, some of its founders sported Afros and had an urge "to rebel against the 'uni-dimensional' approach to music" in the churches of their backgrounds, says choir director Vaneese Thomas '74, dubbed the choir's "heart and soul" by other members.  She was also encouraged "to form a group where students of African descent could express themselves musically and spiritually without having to be validated by the dominant ethnic group on campus," she says. "As a result of the eventual support that this group garnered from the Swarthmore community at large, students of color have enhanced the music program at Swarthmore and have learned to appreciate their cultural heritage through music."

In 1996, the choir issued Hallelujah! Amen, its first CD; the group followed up in 2000 with Star Gazer, a collection of holiday advent music. The net proceeds of their sales fund two college scholarships. In 1999, Swarthmore awarded the Joseph B. Shane Alumni Service Award to the choir for "outstanding service and commitment to Swarthmore College."

When the former members of the student choir reunited on that particular Black Alumni Weekend in 1986, they found they just could not stop singing. Despite the disparity of their lives and locations and the demands of careers and families, they formed the alumni choir, an ensemble of now more than 30 voices dedicated to using gospel music "to speak in ways that words alone could not," says founding member Carolyn Mitchell, Class of 1974.

In her address to those assembled, Mitchell confirmed that the choir's purposes are to be ambassadors for Swarthmore and to "sing the praises of Almighty God."  She also described how the group's singing informed its members' academic experience: 

"By day in sociology class, we talked about the nonexistence of black culture, and by night we sang, 'I've Been 'Buked and I've Been Scorned.'  By day in biology class, we talked about the destruction of the ecological order, and by night we sang 'He's Got the Whole World in His Hands.'  By day in psychology class, we talked about Freudian and Jungian approaches to our psychological disorders, and by night we sang, 'Fix Me, Jesus.'  And by day in chemistry class, we talked about things that just don't change, like the equilibrium constant and the laws of thermodynamics, and by night we sang 'Expect a Miracle.'"

The Swarthmore College Alumni Gospel Choir receives back what it gives, what it sings, and what it believes. Even more than expecting miracles, it relies upon them.