Dr. Jason Thoms of Concordia College New York is having something of a viral moment. From Yonkers to Qatar, Bronxville to Zimbabwe, requests keep coming for his choral arrangement: 4 Protest Songs from the American Civil Rights Struggle.
Concordia’s Dean of Arts and Sciences and Director of Choral Activities has been offering his arrangement to choral professionals since 2015, when he composed it for Concordia’s choirs on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the Selma-Montgomery March. That year the choir took the pieces on tour to the South, and memorably sang them in the Brown Chapel and walking across the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The powerful impression of that tour – on both the singers and their audiences – prompted Dr. Thoms to offer his work to fellow choral directors via email. For three years in a row, however, he did not receive a single request.
All that changed with this year’s email. To date, over 500 requests have come in. Nationally and internationally, the climate seems right for songs of peaceful protest.
The inspiration for the arrangement came from a scholarly work Dr. Thoms came across. The writer was an academic who was present at the Selma-Montgomery March and documented the songs he heard, four of which make up Dr. Thoms’s arrangement: Oh Freedom, This Little Light of Mine, Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round, and We Shall Overcome. The arrangement presents the songs simply, trying to imagine the way classic songs of protest rise from a crowd – where repeated verses get everyone singing along and additional lyrics are added by around the third verse. The work includes suggestions for poems and readings to be used between the songs.
“Protest is what we do to stand up for something important, and at this moment people seem prone to do that.” said Dr. Thoms. “These songs are about perseverance – bringing people together to help give hope and nourish the spirit.”
Concordia’s Gospel Knights and Tour Choir will be joined by a number of high schools on April 5th when they hold a Concert for Civil Rights and Social Justice. The choirs will perform Dr. Thoms’s 4 Protest Songs together as part of a series of events at the college from April 4-17 commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.