Why the Church Choir is a Symbol of Togetherness in the South

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The famed Mississippi Mass Choir featuring Mosie "Mama" Burk.
Making a joyful noise brings us all to the "welcome table."

Who doesn’t look forward to that moment in a church service when the choir director gives “the big swoop”—a dramatic sweep of the arms that signals the choir to stand?

For the congregation, it’s a moment of anticipation. What are we about to hear? Will it be rousing and uplifting or slow and moving? Most of all, will we “receive a blessing”?

What page are we on?

As for the choir members, they feel a sudden rush of adrenaline, fueled by a mix of excitement and anxiety. They're running through a mental checklist: Are we holding our music binders correctly? Are we on the right page? Does everybody remember that we decided to give the last note 8 counts instead of 4 like we used to? Will the sopranos hit that really high note this time (because they’ve been a little iffy during choir practice)?

"Please don't let me . . ."

Just before the musicians play an intro, every singer is repeating the same silent prayers: Please don’t let me come in early all by myself. Please help me to stay on key. Please don’t let me trip over the mic on the way to my solo. Please don’t let my voice crack. Please help me remember to smile and look up. Please help us all to sing for Your glory and not our own.

Choir members are family.

From little country churches with maybe 15 or 20 singers to world-renowned powerhouses like the Mississippi Mass Choir, you can tell when a Southern church choir is not just a group of singers but a musical family. You can see it in the way they support each other. A few altos will mouth a silent “beautiful” to that novice soloist as she leaves the podium and returns to her seat. A young bass will help the senior gentleman next to him find his place when he gets a little confused on that third repeat.

Gaither Homecomings, Elvis, and Mama Maybelle

What really sets our church choirs apart is the music that Southerners not only love but created. Our indigenous musical threads—from country and bluegrass to blues, jazz, and Southern gospel—weave together effortlessly in church. We come from a place where bluesy rhythms and sacred lyrics can comfortably sit together on the same pew. Mahalia Jackson, the Carter Family, Ricky Skaggs, Emmylou Harris, the Louvin Brothers, Roy Acuff, Mosie "Mama" Burks, the Blackwood Brothers, Dottie Rambo, Elvis, the Indiana-born Bill and Gloria Gaither and their Homecoming friends—all have sung their hearts out under the same Southern gospel tent, whether they were born in the South or just fell in love with the music.

"Ours is louder."

Not only are Southern church choirs close-knit, but there's a powerful bond between the choir and congregation. The choir is a church's voice in the community, representing it at local singings and church homecomings. During those events, rural churches can be a tad on the competitive side: Antioch Baptist might have a bigger choir than we do, but ours is louder. Beulah has the most sopranos, but we've got way more tenors.

Can we get an Amen?

At the end of the day, a church choir brings us all together like nothing else. We might debate whether the preacher's sermon was up to snuff—but when we hear a choir really open up on Oklahoma native Albert E. Brumley's "I'll Fly Away"? What you talkin' about!

Now that the choir has us standing in the church door, let's talk weddings:

Think the bride can persuade her choir to sing on The Big Day? Why, they'd be honored! (Unless she's walking down the aisle on game day. Then she's on her own—bless her heart.)

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