‘Those Who Came Before’ and the good old days of church music

By Doris Fields

In this day of mega churches, praise teams and liturgical dancers, it’s nice to remember what could surely be called the “good old days” of church going — the days when all it took was the right hymn picked up by the right church mother to send the congregation over the edge and into the realm of the holy spirit.

This was the Black church in the ’60s and ’70s. I reference those decades because that was the time frame of my youth.

My Sundays, morning and evening, were spent in church services, Baptist and sometimes Pentecostal. This was not because I was so “holy,” but because I loved the music.

As a young child, there were two particular groups that would come to Bethlehem Missionary Baptist in Chesapeake, West Virginia, and I revered them both. They helped to reinforce my dream of one day being a famous singer.

There was the Penn Family Singers from Powellton, West Virginia, which consisted of Lorene Penn and her children. She would sing the lead vocals, and her children played the instruments.

As a 7-year-old girl whose only real exposure to live music was in church, this was major. I would sit as close to the front as possible to catch every nuance of Miss Lorene’s singing. She always sang as if she had just recently spoken to God, and He said, “Tell the people this!”

She was the epitome of the Black church. 

Then, there was the Gospel Family Affair, a group of family members based in the Rand area of Charleston. Their harmonies had me hooked and mesmerized.

Again, this group included young siblings playing instruments and looking very sophisticated in my young eyes. The members of this group, as well as the Penn Family Singers, were superstars to me.

They were people just like me and they were doing what I wanted to do. That was an important revelation to a little Black girl in West Virginia who wanted more than anything else to be a singer.

Those dreams I had eventually came true, to some extent. But another dream that I have been cultivating for the past 10 years or so, has also come true.

I have now been given the opportunity to document some of West Virginia’s most notable Black musicians and community leaders through the art of filmmaking. 

Through my video series, “Those Who Came Before,” I have been able to talk to some of my heroes about their lives, contributions and who inspired them. The third video in this series will feature “The Gospel Family Affair.”

They will be featured along with some other notable musicians in the state. As an introduction to some and reintroduction to others, the group will be performing at the premiere of the second installment of “Those Who Came Before” at the Raleigh Playhouse & Theater on Neville Street in Beckley on June 15 as a kick-off to their Juneteenth Celebration weekend.

The second installment of the video will also include Jean Evansmore of Dubois On Main in Mount Hope, Hubert “Rabbit” Jones, a well-known bassist and historian and Leeshia Lee, author, playwright, photojournalist and community organizer, both from Charleston.

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