At the beginning of “We Shall Overcome,” featured artist Damien Sneed promised his audience in the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts a “musical journey.” Sneed, his fellow performers and UConn’s own Voices of Freedom Gospel Choir did just that as they played their way through important gospel, jazz and various other genres that were influential to activists of the civil rights movement.
The concert, billed as a celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., began with recorded words from one of Dr. King’s speeches. Sneed transitioned from this recording to piano playing and finally into singing classic gospels and spirituals. Songs like “Oh Freedom” and Duke Ellington’s “Freedom” from his Sacred Concerts gave the audience a taste of the songs civil rights leaders might have sung together in church.
But “We Shall Overcome” was no soft-spoken, sedate sermon. The songs had an energy and a power to them that was felt by many in the audience. In one upbeat spiritual, vocalist Linny Smith invited the audience to get up, clap their hands, spin around and even dance. Throughout the rest of the concert, the audience was often invited to get out of their seats and come up to the front of the theater to dance.
Sneed mentioned that he and his group had talked with the Women’s Center before the performance, and used part of the second half of the show to spotlight some important female singers and their work. Various vocalists sang Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” as well as “Proud Mary” and “A Natural Woman.”
The tide of the show turned to Motown songs, and vocalist Linny Smith had a turn at center stage when he sang Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.”
“I feel like I just got out of church,” Wendell Taylor, a Farmington Valley resident, said after the show. “I like the Motown stuff because I grew up with that. It just feels like you got out of a Pentecostal worship service, which is pretty cool.”
Sneed talked a little bit about how these songs were sung to get people through hard times. Sneed said that he himself had felt troubled in the past because he didn’t know that it was ok to be original. Mentors told him he needed to pick between his love for classical, jazz and gospel, but he didn’t think he should have to choose. After meeting and befriending teacher Alicia Peters-Jordan, one of the vocalists on stage with him, he learned that it is ok to be unconventional and follow one’s own path.
“Whatever it is that you do, continue to do it,” Sneed said.
The high-powered show fittingly concluded with a rousing version of “We Shall Overcome.” As Dr. King’s speech played in the background, Sneed played quietly on the piano. His playing swelled, and the other instrumentalists joined in before all the vocalists began to sing. Sneed asked the audience to stand, sing and take one another’s hands, just as activists did during the civil rights era.
“It was really wonderful,” Ione Jackman, a Mansfield resident, said. “I thought it was very inspiring, lots of life. [My favorite part was] The end. ‘We Shall Overcome” – it’s so moving to me.”
Sneed walked through the audience as the song came to an end, and he, his singers and instrumentalists finished with one last high-key verse of “We Shall Overcome” before meeting audience members in the lobby after the performance.
Their vibrant show certainly gave life to the celebration of Dr. King and his fight for equality.
Stephanie Santillo is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.