Go Down, Moses: The Wings Over Jordan Choir
By Sam Barber and Timothy Collins
Then & Now Media, 2021
It’s always a thrill to help uncover important history that has been lost.
I have had that pleasure lately, along with Dr. Sam Barber, a professor of mine at Ohio State during the mid-1970s. Sam, a spry 90-year-old, has dedicated his life to collecting a treasure trove of African American musical history.
We’ve co-written a book, Go Down, Moses: The Wings Over Jordan Choir (Then and Now Media, 2021). We document the ups and downs of a once-popular African American radio and touring choir in the 1930s and 1940s.
Rev. Glenn T. Settle, the pastor of Cleveland’s Gethsemane Baptist Church, was charismatic, spiritually driven, and imaginative. He recognized the church choir’s power when he became pastor in 1935. He and the choral group deserve an honored place in the 1930s civil rights movement that was superseded by World War II and the highly publicized struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. Time and Settle’s personal weaknesses helped the once-famous choir fade into the past, even though their harmonies and message touched millions of people, Black and white.
Settle was born on a hardscrabble tobacco farm near Reidsville, North Carolina, in 1894. From childhood, he nurtured a dream of using music to overcome racial injustice. Radio eventually offered him a venue to spread his message of racial harmony rooted in education and traditional Negro Spirituals.
Like millions of African Americans, Settle left the South with his family, moving first to Uniontown, Pennsylvania, and then to Cleveland, Ohio. After ordination in the early 1920s, he rose in Baptist circles, accepting a call in 1935 to serve as Gethsemane’s pastor.
When Settle recognized the church choir’s unique sound, he got an audition on Cleveland’s “Friendly Station,” WGAR. The station offered ethnic programs to its diverse European immigrant audience, but offered nothing for Black migrants from the South.
Cleveland’s Black minority faced discrimination and segregation but had built community to fill educational, economic, social, artistic, and religious needs. Settle assumed a leadership role to carry out his dream of sharing faith, hope, and knowledge in a quest for racial equality. With Settle’s urging, WGAR opened a Sunday morning public service slot, the Negro Hour, for the talented choir during the summer and fall of 1937. The choir sang spirituals, with religious commentaries by Settle, and informative talks by area leaders on racial issues.
The format, a radio first for Cleveland, quickly became a success.
During the summer of 1937, Worth T. Kramer, white program director of WGAR, a CBS affiliate, informed CBS about the choir. Kramer coached the choir for radio performances and arranged a CBS audition. Two national pilot programs on CBS in November and December of 1937 were well received.
The choir, now named Wings Over Jordan, made radio history with its first CBS broadcast in January, 1938. In six months, Settle and the choir moved to fame as a pioneering musical, prayerful, and thought-provoking civil rights advocate. By March 1938, one estimate put radio listenership at 10 million.
The half-hour network broadcast included Negro Spirituals conducted by Kramer; brief spiritual commentaries by Settle, a gifted writer with a sonorous voice; and short addresses on racial issues by national religious, educational, and business leaders. It was an unheard-of hybrid combination of faith, education, and entertainment. In the beginning, all of the singers were working-class volunteers who spent about two weeks of each month on the road. Theirs was a religious mission.
Wings Over Jordan opened the white-dominated airwaves to Blacks’ perspectives on racial conditions. CBS chose the choir to perform on its School of the Air series broadcast via shortwave in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres. The British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) aired the choir on its Friendship Bridge program, with listeners in Africa.
The choir’s broadcasts and concert tours influenced race relations in immeasurable ways. Wings Over Jordan was the first Black-run radio production company. The nonprofit corporation supported itself with tours in large and small towns across the United States. Local sponsors shared concert receipts for community projects. The bus tours helped break down local segregation; the choir’s contracts insisted that concerts would be held before mixed audiences, even in the segregated South, where choir members were often lodged in private homes and ate meals provided by host families.
During World War II, Wings Over Jordan focused more on aiding the nation’s anti-fascist propaganda effort and entertaining troops for the United Service Organizations (USO). The Treasury Department sponsored messages about War Stamps and provided Sunday morning speakers. The USO and Department of the Army selected the choir to entertain servicemen in Europe in 1945 and 1946.
Settle, often characterized as a patriarch, held close control over the Wings Over Jordan organization. His appointment of Kramer, a white, as a conductor in January 1938, stirred upset in the choir but was soon accepted as a pragmatic decision to demonstrate racial harmony.
Disputes over compensation and working conditions were recurring, especially with the intense touring schedule. In August 1947, the entire choir boycotted a live Sunday morning broadcast from San Diego because of low pay and Settle’s alleged lack of consideration for members’ welfare. Embarrassed by the choir’s defiant no-show and perhaps low morale related to Settle’s personal behavior, CBS terminated Wings Over Jordan’s broadcasts in October 1947.
The choir continued to travel, but without significant radio exposure, became less visible during the 1950s. Not much is known about this time. Settle’s second wife, who managed the choir during the 1940s, destroyed a garage full of documents around 1970, about three years after Settle died.
Co-author Sam Barber, recalled listening to Wings Over Jordan broadcasts and carried his childhood memories into his doctoral research during the 1970s. Unfortunately, he was stymied in his work. Even African American music scholars knew little, if anything, about Settle and the choir, despite its tremendous popularity a couple of decades before.
One day in our class at Ohio State in the mid-1970s, I surprised Sam with a question about the choir, and, afterwards, told him that my father, Neil, worked for Wings Over Jordan doing public relations and advance work from 1939 to 1941. He had kept extensive records, including members’ contact information. Dad shared his memories and documents with Sam, allowing him to devote his career to researching the choir and developing extensive archives that are the basis for our long-overdue book.
Go Down, Moses: The Wings Over Jordan Choir is available through Amazon.com. Proceeds are dedicated to the nonprofit Wings Over Jordan Foundation.
Timothy Collins has been a participant-observer of rural life in America since the 1970s. He retired as assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs in 2016. Now, from his perch in small-town in West Central Illinois, he spends his time as a writer and researcher.