Eric Dozier, supreme musician and cultural activist, is a force to be reckoned with. His singing workshop in the southern New Zealand city of Dunedin over the weekend 12-15 July will be treasured for ever by Dunedin Community choir members and leaders, and those who came simply because they love to sing.
All of us – soaring sopranos, edgy altos, bluesy tenors and down and dirty bases – experienced such elation, and also intense moments of sadness, through the music and through the stories and teachings of this man.
Raised in a little town called Bakewell in Tennessee, Eric Dozier was immersed in gospel music through his family life, playing the piano in his local church at the age of five. Many of his extended family members and cousins sang, and the stories behind those songs are in his bones. Eric became involved in a programme helping young people to express themselves through music and drama. Following that, he became active in Unity Youth Choir, believing absolutely in music’s ability to unite the people of the world, one song at a time.
Luckily for us, his grandfather, after watching a video of Eric’s work with a Canadian choir in Vancouver told him:
Son you keep doing what you’re doing, because you know … this music was never meant just for us”
These days, you never know where he might be in the world. He’s like some mighty spiritual musical cyclone, swaying bodies en masse. If you think I’m exaggerating you want to hear the sound this one man makes all on his own.
I learned the difference between sub-genres: soul music that swirls the sacred African-American music into a contemporary sound; folk spirituals like ‘This Little Light of Mine’ and ‘He Has the Whole World in his Hands’; uplifting songs to cancel out statements such as “You have no soul. You have no light. God doesn’t love you. He loves Us.”
And then, arranged spirituals. You don’t move your body or clap to these ones. You stand straight as a tree and use all of your voice and held in your voice is the story and the emotion of that story. This was ‘Soon I will be Done’, one of the most technically challenging but awe-inspiring pieces he taught us. This song has the strong sense of moving towards something monumental, and that something turns out to be either Freedom or Death.
This is a powerful song, he says. “Imagine you’ve been a slave for thirty years. You’re standing at the threshold of freedom. It’s going to happen but you can’t show on your face any emotion because you’re not there yet. It’s just over there. Imagine, feel that hope … now, sing it again…”
The bases start: “Soon Soon … Soon Soon”, like a drum beat in the grass. Other parts join in. The minor chords are luscious. Call and response, call and response. To Eric the call and response is not just groups of people singing phrases back and forth. We are connecting with each other, listening with respect, moulding and shaping the sound we collectively make. It’s like a magical unifying technique.
Arranged spirituals have a definite beginning and an end with a complicated bridge in the middle that breaks all the parts out – like cracking open an egg, showing the yolk and then putting it all back together again. The ending is always perfection itself.
The songs he taught us represented all the different sub-genres, mixing pure fun, sadness, magic, solidarity. I loved them all but was overcome by Eric’s incredible choral arrangement of the Stevie Wonder song ‘Love’s in Need of Love Today’. I was unable to sing this through without blinking away tears.
Love’s in need of love today
Send yours in right away
Hate’s goin’ round
Breaking many hearts
Stop it please
Before it’s gone too far
Could any words be more relevant right now?
People all over the world, join hands, start a love train, love train …
Alison Denham is a Dunedin poet, working as a business analyst in the IT world of clinical software. Her second poetry collection Raspberry Money was published by Sudden Valley Press in 2013.