In the Homegrown Plus series, we present Homegrown concerts that also had accompanying oral history interviews, placing both together in an easy-to-find blog post. (Find the whole series here!) We’re continuing the series with Cora Harvey Armstrong, a gospel singer, piano player, songwriter, choir director, and bandleader born and raised in King and Queen County, Virginia. The Richmond-born musician and producer Bill McGee has described Cora as “Aretha Franklin on piano, Mahalia Jackson with her voice, and Shirley Caesar with her style.”
Cora began taking piano lessons at the age of five. She had a gift for playing by ear and soon learned to read music as well. Cora and her sisters Clara and Virginia sang for many years with their mother, the late Eva Elizabeth Harvey, as The Harvey Family. After the death of their parents, the sisters, along with Cora’s nieces Clarissa and Ruthy, continued singing as part of their worship.
Cora majored in music at Virginia State University, where she directed the internationally acclaimed VSU Gospel Chorale. For more than forty years she has been a favorite Gospel Music performer at festivals and celebrations around the country and abroad. She has toured and lectured on Gospel Music in Japan and Europe, and is a sought after artist, pianist, psalmist and preacher.
In the concert she was joined by her sisters Clara and Virginia, her nieces Kimberly, Ruthy, and Clarissa, and a band that included her friend Juan Nelson and her great-nephew Davin Jackson (Clarissa’s son) on drums. Watch the video in the player below!
In the oral history, I spoke with Cora and her sisters and nieces about their family’s long history of singing and praising in church, starting with Cora’s grandfather, Reverend Watson Harvey. We spoke of her musical background, including her singing and piano lessons; her university education, which included touring with the VSU Chorale; and her career, from church performances to her portrayal of Mahalia Jackson in Tom Stolz’s gospel musical, to several plays based on her own life. Her sisters and nieces joined in to give an unusually full and entertaining portrait of a stellar artist who performs most comfortably and most often surrounded by her family. Watch the oral history in the player below!
The American Folklife Center’s Homegrown Concert Series brings music, dance, and spoken arts from across the country, and some from further afield, to the Library of Congress. For information on current concerts, visit the Folklife Concerts page at Concerts from the Library of Congress. For past concerts, including links to webcasts and other information, visit the Homegrown Concerts Online Archive.