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Five men in suits and ties.
Courtesy of the Brotherhood Singers.

Homegrown Plus: Northern Kentucky Brotherhood Singers

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It’s time for another Classic Edition of Homegrown Plus! Until 2018, we weren’t recording most of our Homegrown interviews on video and we hadn’t yet thought of Homegrown Plus. But there are some concert videos from that era that deserve the Homegrown Plus treatment of placing concert videos together with an interview or other related video in an easy-to-find blog post. So embedded in this blog post, you’ll find two concert videos (from 2009 and 2013) with the Northern Kentucky Brotherhood Singers, a 2013 interview video, and a set of links to explore. The Northern Kentucky Brotherhood Singers, which since those days has shortened its name to the Brotherhood Singers, is a jubilee-style, a cappella, sacred gospel quartet from Covington, Kentucky.

At the time of their first concert at the Library of Congress in 2009, the Quartet was accompanied by Bob Gates, then director of the Kentucky Folklife Program. He provided us with an extensive background essay on the group, and there’s a link to it below. For their second visit in 2013, they were accompanied by folklorist Brent Bjorkman, and it’s Brent that you’ll see in the interview video.

Over 30 years ago, Ric Jennings formed the quartet out of the renowned Ninth Street Baptist Church Men’s Choir. Since the beginning, this community-based quartet has sung in churches, at special gospel programs, anniversaries, song services, and other sacred music events, which in the words of folklorist Ray Allen “foster a communal atmosphere conducive to bringing on the experience of the Holy Spirit or as they say, ‘shouting the church.'” (We should mention that the word “quartet” has evolved in Black gospel music to refer to a group with four part harmonies, which may or may not include separate lead singers–in other words, as folklorist Joyce Marie Jackson tells us, jubilee and gospel quartets often have more than four members, like the Brotherhood Singers.)

In addition to continuing the traditional community role of the gospel quartet, the Brotherhood has expanded their reach to a global audience, performing both spiritual and secular songs. They have become an annual hit in Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Switzerland. They have also been discovered by many secular venues in the Cincinnati area, by the National Folk Festival, the Richmond Folk Festival, and many other prestigious venues.The Brotherhood Singers’ first concert in the Homegrown Series was back in 2009. Note that we had some technical difficulties at certain moments of this concert, for which we apologize, but it’s still great fun!  Watch it in the player below!

After that first concert, the staff of the American Folklife Center continued to work with the Brotherhood Singers in various ways. My colleague Cathy Kerst and I participated in a videoconference with them in which they introduced an online audience to their music and the history of black gospel–way before that was common! In April 2012, along with AFC’s Thea Austen, they toured Russia as part of the first “Festival of Traditional American Music,” a joint project of the American Folklife Center, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, and CEC ArtsLink. In 2013, we figured it was time to have them back for a second concert, which you can see in the player below.

Following their second concert performance at the Library, members of the Northern Kentucky Brotherhood sat down with Brent Bjorkman to discuss their music. They spoke about how the group got started, their influences, their philosophy, and how their strong spiritual beliefs have kept them together. See the interview below!

You can find all these videos with more bibliographic information at this link on the Library of Congress website. You’ll also find them on the Library of Congress YouTube Channel.

Collection Connections

If you enjoyed the concert and interview, check out the Collection Connections below. You’ll find links to archival collections, guides, and other materials related to gospel music from the Tidewater region.

Event Videos

The Chosen Few: a Cappella Gospel from Virginia.

Cora Harvey Armstrong, a renowned Virginia gospel singer, performed with her family and band.

The Fairfield Four is a classic gospel quartet from Nashville.

The Legendary Ingramettes, another award-winning Virginia gospel group with roots in the Tidewater tradition, performed in the Homegrown series.

The Zionaires performed thrilling gospel from Delaware and Maryland.

The Singing and Praying Bands performed in an older spiritual style that is at the root of Tidewater gospel.

The Northern Neck Chantey Singers sang work songs of the menhaden fishery, which share stylistic elements of Tidewater gospel, since many of the same people sang chanteys while fishing and gospel in church.

Find more Homegrown videos related to gospel music at this link.

Field Collections Online

You can find gospel music and singing in the following AFC online collections and presentations:

Now What a Time: Blues, Gospel, and the Fort Valley Music Festivals, 1938 to 1943.

Southern Mosaic: The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip.

Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections, 1937 to 1942.

Folklife Today Blogs

Folklife Today featured a blog about the African American Spiritual “Come by Here” or “Kumbaya.

Folklife Today featured several blogs about the spiritual singers Becky Elzy and Alberta Bradford.

Find all Folklife Today blogs that mention spirituals at this link.

Find all Folklife Today blogs that mention gospel at this link.

Folklife Today Podcasts

Folklife Today featured a podcast about the African American Spiritual “Come by Here” or “Kumbaya.

Folklife Today featured a podcast about the spiritual singers Becky Elzy and Alberta Bradford.

Thanks for watching, listening, and reading! 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 several years, we’ve been presenting the concerts here on the blog with related interviews and links, in the series Homegrown Plus. (Find the whole series here!) For information on current and past concerts, visit the Folklife Concerts page at Concerts from the Library of Congress.

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