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Shades CAnon

Shades has a core group of about 6 songs that we perform every year. We refer to these songs as our canon. Learn about the unique story behind each of these songs below: 

Amen/We Shall Overcome
Amen/We Shall Overcome | Traditional performed by the Soul Stirrers 

Freedom songs are spirituals that were revisited, revised, and used to lead people in protest, especially during the Civil Rights Movement.  Lyrics like "Woke up this morning with my mind stayed on Jesus" became "Woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom".   We Shall Overcome was based on a gospel hymn called I Will Overcome, written by Rev. Dr. Charles Tindley.  A minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church who is often called the founding father of American gospel music, Reverend Tindley first published the song in 1901.


When Americans were looking for songs to sustain them in their struggles for justice and equal rights, they turned to spirituals and gospel hymns for sustenance.  


In 1945 members of the Food and Tobacco Workers Union held a five month strike against the American Tobacco Company in Charleston, S.C.  One protester named Lucille Simmons led the workers (who were mostly African American women) in a version of I Will Overcome to end each day of picketing, to keep spirits high. Union organizer Zilphia Horton learned the song from Lucille and taught it at the Highlander Folk School where she was musical director.  It became her favorite song, and that's the way she ended all of her meetings. It was published in 1948 by Pete Seeger in Peoples Songs (Bulletin No. 3 (Sept., 1948)), a newsletter to promote and distribute labor songs. The song was first recorded on Folkway Records as We Shall Overcome in 1952.  Guy Carawan re-introduced the song to Highlander when he became Music Director there.  He also taught it to the students at the founding meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, in Raleigh, NC, 1960.  One of these students was Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock. It was picked as a slogan of the Civil Rights Movement and was quoted even by Martin Luther King, Jr. in one of his speeches.  I guess it's no surprise that when the founding members of Shades set themselves to the task of starting a music group to represent their cultural heritage, Amen/We Shall Overcome was one of the first songs they improvised and sang together.  Still to this day, Shades closes each show with this meaningful song.


         - Titilayo Ngwenya '92


Amen/We Shall Overcome is one of the most important songs in the Shades repertoire.  One of the first arrangements by our founding members, this song speaks to anyone struggling through the present into a brighter, better future. The song elicits strong emotional responses from people in other countries too.  Folks from any generation can relate to struggling through difficult times.

I love the shape and texture this arrangement gives to that struggle. It starts low and calm with just the basses. These strong men provide the foundation for our journey. Their solidarity gives us the courage to join them on the second Amen. The soft, mellow, slightly somber tone of the beginning is like embarking on a journey you know will be difficult. As we keep singing, we support each others voices, grow stronger, and crescendo together a little more each line.

Now members of the group have the courage to stand out and lead us to new heights (with ditties in the second Amen verse and the first We Shall verse). When we change into the true melody of We Shall Overcome, we signal a change of spirit. We are united in rounds of We Shall Overcomes.  When the men join the women in that Overcome before the big break, that is the loudest point in the song. Together we have come so far, and yet we still have so far to go. For me this is the most dramatic part of the song.  We soften our tone. Maybe because what lies ahead is more dangerous and frightening than what we've already been through.  Maybe our leaders are tired, and we need time to re-energize.  Maybe some of us have given up. Still what sounds like the voice of a child, smiling and unafraid, says, Yes, someday and reaches out to all sisters and brothers to encourage them. This child still believes and so should we. There is no turning back now.  The strength of spirit and assurance in what we sing overtakes us as we end on a note of undeniable triumph!


        -Lindsey Ford '05

More Than a Paycheck

More Than a PaycheckWritten by Ysaye M. Barnwell Performed by Sweet Honey in the Rock


Greg Serebuoh '05 & Ashley D. Dixon '01 ask founding member Kimberly D. Dixon '92 about choreographing More Than A Paycheck.  Interview on Saturday, June 13, 2009, Chicago, IL.


GREG:  So you choreographed Paycheck?  How did that come about because that's an interesting tune?


ASHLEY: Amazing


KIMBERLY:  Thank you, I did choreograph More Than A Paycheck. And the way that those movements came about-- I was a Theatre major, and so I was thinking about 'scene' and bodies on stage.  And then the song having the multiple parts that were point and counterpoint--that definitely inspired me to say that we shouldnt all [do] the same thing with the same rhythm, but we should [complement] each other, painting a whole scene...That is one of my favorite songs aside from the choreography because of the message. I knew that any movement we did had to have the same gravity of the words.  So... looking back I think I wanted to have the bodies paint the scene that the words were painting, of people trying to live... and this thing infecting their ordinary lives and affecting their ordinary lives.  


So I wanted it to look ordinary-- everyday things, one woman doing another womans hair, somebody hanging laundry.  It seemed important to have a soldier. I think one of the guys came up with that idea, and it felt right because it wasn't just the domestic sphere at that point.  It was the larger community.  And there was a darkness to having a soldier represented because you know--Is that soldier threatening the community? Is that soldier protecting the community? Will that soldier be lost to the community?  Its that sort of...


ASHLEY: Unspoken communication?


KIMBERLY: You were listening! (laughter all around).I had no idea, again, that the movements would last and that people would get something out of them. I just knew that we had to do something on stage because the song had a certain repetitiousness that I didn't want to be deadly. I wanted for the song to be alive and for the listener to be drawn through the song, and so that's why it was important for the movement to start at different times and end at different times.


GREG: I have a follow-up question...If you were to give notes to the current and future members of Shades as they perform that song--because I think that in the times I've seen it, even though the movements are the same people do it slightly differently--- what would be the notes that you would give to people as they are starting to learn the how to carry your body or...mental frame of mind?


KIMBERLY: If I were to give notes on how to perform the choreography of More Than a Paycheck, I would encourage people to keep their minds active even as they're repeating a movement... every time you do it should be with energy, as if it's the first time you've done it.  And these are common acting tips. 


It's like someone whos been on Broadway in Cats. You gotta sing Memories freshly every night. I think that sort of energy will give their movements a stateliness, a pride that I think is important. I don't want people to look like zombies. I would encourage people... to make sure that no one's movement steals the scene-- that it all weaves together and just try to think about an experience or situation they've lived through that's related.  So, if you're the woman who is doing another woman's hair, think about the time your Grandmother did your hair or the time you did your little sister's hair, and so on....If you're a soldier imagine what it would be like to be marching for a cause under someone else's thumb. Whatever the dynamic--- just try to put yourself into that. So it's a bit of acting.  I think my title was choreographer, but I guess I was also asking people to be actors... as well as singers.


TITILAYO: I think the most beautiful thing about the choreography is that it brought out this humanity, and this connection... You spoke about it-- "Think about what it's like to have you grandmother doing your hair"-- The emotions, the actions you designed were very intimate, very familiar. I think right away people saw that and there was a connection.  


KIMBERLY: The word humanity strikes me, and I think that is what I was striving for in those movements because Shades came about with a bit of a political agenda of showing humanity. I think More Than a Paycheck was emblematic of that desire to remind people of our humanity

Nkosi Sikeleli'Afrika

Nkosi Sikelel'iAfrika | Written by Enoch Sontonga © 1897 Performed by Ladysmith Black Mambazo

Over the past 20 years, so much has changed in the context of which Shades sings Nkosi Sikeleli Afrika. When we first sang the song in 1989, Aparthied was still enforced in South Africa.  Nelson Mandela was still in prison.  Student activists built shantytowns on college campuses to bring the inhumane conditions of black South Africans to light.  There were protests demanding that universities and major corporations divest from the South African economy.  A few years prior, Artists United Against Apartheid released a single vowing not to play a South African resort in Ain't Gonna Play Sun City. The ska tune Free Nelson Mandela was popular in the UK.


That is the backdrop against which Shades began to sing Nkosi. Back then the internet was not yet the global bridge that it is today.  You couldn't simply call up lyrics of the song, or translations from African languages.  I believe it was founding member Tonya Farmer '92 who sat, transposed, and taught us the entire song phonetically.  Though we didn't know Xhosa or Zulu, we knew that in singing this song we could show our connection to Africa.  Our very first Shades performance was at the Afro-American Cultural Center (the House) during Black Solidarity Day; and so we knew about the concepts of unity, of finding common ground, of furthering mutual goals.  We knew that song could be our medium for protest, for reaching back through the Diaspora to our roots. And so we sang in solidarity to the South Africans who were suffering and fighting oppression.  We sang to recognize that there were human beings on the other side of the world who were still deprived of their freedom and human rights.  We ended the song with Amandla! Awethu! which used to be the most popular freedom chant in the struggle against Apartheid. It means Power to the People.  When we sang it, we raised our fists in the air to symbolize black solidarity, a call for freedom, and to signify our steadfast faith that change would come.  


And change did come. Each new tap year continued to sing Nkosi, and each year students witnessed the dismantling of the racist institution of Aparthied. In 1990, Mandela was released after 27 years in prison.  In 1994, South Africa held their first democratic election, and Mandela was elected president. In 2003, Shades made a landmark tour to South Africa where they sang for the enthronement ceremony of African royalty.  They were able to sing and fellowship with a South African vocal group and see Africa for the first time.  


Shades changed too.  As more and more students expressed an interest in singing music of the African Diaspora, singing soul music, singing music with meaning Shades became more racially and culturally diverse.  Rooted in black solidarity, a different kind of family was being forged.  I was proud to learn that Shades travelled down to New Orleans in 2005 to sing for people who had been devastated by hurricane Katrina and the government's sluggish response to the disaster.  It told me that Shades still knew the power of music to heal and to support those who were struggling for basic human rights.  Though many things have changed in the group, some things have fortunately stayed the same. 


          -Titilayo Ngwenya '92

Soon Ah Will Be Done

Soon Ah Will Be Done | Traditional Spiritual performed by the Fisk Jubilee Singers


While there are several renditions of Soon Ah Will Be Done, I can only speak to the interpretation as performed by my specific group within Shades. Our interpretation was informed by the reflections of Sara Heron '03 who really made this song come alive for me.


I think of Soon Ah as broken into 3 sections.  The first is intense and strong. The men's voices mimic the sound of a train, and the women's notes rise and give a sense of forward motion.  The combination brings to mind the Underground Railroad. We sing with conviction, knowing that our time on earth is short-lived, and the pain that we feel will end soon.


The second section is slow, almost mournful. It's a feeling that no matter how certain you are that the life beyond will be better, life on earth is no less burdensome. We pick up the pace during "No more weepin' and wailin'" but there's a tone of reprimand. Do not give up. Do not lose faith.  We are stronger than this.


In the last section, the women sing ah instead of ooh for the first time. The effect is haunting and ghostly. We've assumed the role of the ancestors watching from above.  The tenors join the women with their beautiful and equally haunting "No more weepin' more weepin' and wailin'... and wailin'..." We're almost like angels, reassuring those on earth that their time will come too.  The result at the end are ditties sung loud and strong.  The lyrics speak of flying away. Our hope is renewed. 

 -Chantal Nong '03

Wanting Memories

"Wanting Memories" | Written by Ysaye M. Barnwell © 1992 Performed by Sweet Honey in the Rock

If it were possible to combine all the qualities that make a cappella music at all listenable; to write a song that is emotionally affective, never tending toward the cloying; and to assemble a group of singers around a song improvised upon smartly and artistically so that its every performance was oddly relevant and fulfilling, you'd only have to look to Wanting Memories.  Perhaps Sweet Honey in the Rock's most recognizable song, it is as important as any closing Shades song.  Neither musically nor lyrically complex, the harmonies are warm, unpretentious and soothing. The lyrics are comforting in their simplicity.  This unembellished meditation on loss is as nostalgic as it is hopeful.  The continuous bass line and the women's descants that float above the last verse, urging us to think on these things, achieve the kind of quiet yet dynamic musicality the very best of all Shades songs possess.


Wanting Memories has no real canonical stake in the volume of African American music, but it is central to understanding just what makes Shades and its music so alluring: so much a cut above the  sea of limp doohs and dahs in aggressively uninspired college a cappella music.  The speaker begins by saying that she wants memories so that she can see the beauty of the world through the eyes of the person she has lost.  That sentiment is deeply important to Shades: the idea of using music to harness a perspective that is foreign to one's own, be it social, spiritual, or cultural. Since you've gone and left me, there's been so little beauty. The lyric invites us to share that pain too, to contemplate loss and the yearning for fulfillment.  But by the end of the song, the singer is sure to be blessed again and over again having transformed a time of devastation into a call for faith. 


This rich musical narrative pulls you into its seemingly melancholy journey and then releases you into an assured hopefulness. As the song gently suggests: consider, reflect, listen to the music, to yourself. If you are lucky, you can leave wherever you happen to be and dwell on things that are true.


     -Kevin Quinn '01

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