Episode Nine: Rev. Tarrence Paschall & The Chosen Few
The Chosen Few represents the great tradition of unaccompanied religious singing in the Tidewater region of Virginia. While only a handful of African American a cappella quartets still sing in Virginia today, the Tidewater region produced hundreds of such groups in the century following the Civil War. In this episode of Folklife Fieldnotes, we celebrate this music with The Chosen Few, featuring Reverend Tarrence Paschall, longtime leader of the legendary Paschall Brothers of Chesapeake, who in 2012 received the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Pat Jarrett: This summer we had the opportunity to go to Mount Nebo Rzua Church in Portsmouth Virginia to record The Chosen Few. They are one of the few remaining Tidewater gospel quartets, acapella four part harmony, groups, still singing actively. They're comprised of a number of members from a number of different churches. And one of the singers is the Reverend at Mount Nebo, which is Reverend Tarrence Paschall.
Reverend Tarrence Paschall: I came out of the army, and I came home from Fort Lewis, Washington – in the Tacoma area. And then I got home and there was an album my brother had - The Persuasions, this acapella group as well. The title, The Street Corner Symphony, there was a song called The Lord's Prayer, and we learned that song in about ten takes in his bedroom. And we took it to our father and he heard it and he got a good ear. He's said that sounds alright. But the next week, which was the first Sunday in March 81, he took us to a program that he was having his church. And we sung a couple of selections, one of his songs, and The Lord's Prayer and is the rest is history.
PJ: Your father. He was a preacher in the area, yeah?
RTP: He was the pastor for 30-something odd years. They called him the singing preacher. He would do events and promote events and he was always on the gospel circuit in the Tidewater area. He was singing until 1981. He was he could hold his own and people said you all can sing, but you ain't nothing like your daddy. He was somebody's preacher and some kind of singer. He was a philosopher. All I have to do is not mess it up.
PJ: The Paschall Brothers have been involved with the Virginia Folklife program since the beginning, and they're an amazing singing group. You should listen to some of this music.
Chris Boros: So you said that they are one of the few remaining quartets in the gospel world, acapella quartets, right?
PJ: Tidewater gospel specifically. It's a four-part harmony unaccompanied by music. It kind of centers around Norfolk, Virginia. After the Civil War, there were thousands of these groups. There were so many. I remember talking with Reverend Charlie McClendon and he was saying that when he was younger growing up in Hampton, there were groups on the corner just singing. It was how you would socialize on Saturday night. It kind of has this pumping bass of the doo-wop sound and you can see the link between that kind of gospel music and pop music of the day with vocalizations. You can hear it in some of these songs.
RTP: We've been to churches and arenas all over the Tidewater area - Hampton, Newport News, Western Virginia, that was before Google Maps. I don't know how daddy found some of the places - wooden churches, storefront churches, churches in the woods. But my father always told us that if you're faithful in little, God will reward you with more.
CB: Is there any discussion about why a lot of these bands have disappeared?
PJ: We made this recording for the Library of Congress? This kind of music was popularized by groups like The Golden Gate Quartet out of Norfolk, the Blevins Quartet, the Heavenly Gospel Singers - these are like 20s and 30s. And I think from what I've read, the style of gospel music changed, they added full bands and big sounds and full choirs and the sound just kind of fell out of popularity.
RTP: If you know someone, you know where they're going. My daddy taught us learn the song first. Then you can play with it. Just like a drummer, they call it stay in the pocket. And once you get the basic, then you can roll and play, but get back. Don’t lose your footing out there because if you lose your footing, he’ll tell you don't do that again. Until you learn how to step out without hitting anyone and coming back. (Sings) That's just one pitch and everybody is painting and gliding around.
PJ: There's a lot of work that goes into singing these harmonies. They sing four days a week. They practice three nights a week and they sing all day on Sunday. I'm just speculating, but it's an undertaking to do it well. Reverend Paschall talks about it.
RTP: The intricacies of harmony. It’s called a quartet and the reason it's called a quartet is usually because four people are singing. However, if you can get five people in there – this group is so tight. Don't step on anyone's toes, that's the saying, don't sing anyone’s pitch. As long as you don't touch anyone's pitch. This group they have the four part harmony that we had. But the point that I'm making is this, they allow us an opportunity to get a fifth. I've heard this group singing six-part harmony. Just don't touch anyone's pitch. Don't do it.
CB: If you've ever tried to sing harmony, you know how hard it is.
PJ: It's so difficult. This is why I use an instrument when I'm making music because my voice is used for a lot of things. Hence, the podcast, you too, we're here talking. But to sing in a group of people and to sing a distinct note that's different from the people standing next to you, I'm in awe every time I hear it, and especially when it's only voices filling a room and filling an entire church that it shakes me to my core. It's such a beautiful tradition and this music definitely informed pop music. I think in America you can't talk about any genre of music unless you're talking about gospel.
CB: It's safe to say this is how Rock N’ Roll became Rock N’ Roll. It comes from that tradition.
PJ: 100%. It all comes from gospel and blues in these black communities.
RTP: If you can rock them on Saturdays and make it to Sunday, that’s the thing. That's the gift.
PJ: Something that Reverend Paschall talks about in singing with his family and that's such an important structure for his musical life. He said that he came back from the Army, learned a song with his brothers, and their father who was known as the singing preacher in the Norfolk area said, alright, let's hear it. And then the next week, put him in front of the entire church.
RTP: I grew up in a place called Tidewater Park. And me and my brothers we used to sing together. We were in church singing in the choir, but we used to get on the street corner, get under the tree, what I would call liquid assistance (laughs). We’d sing The Temptations, we’re singing The Spinners, The Whisperers, The Manhattans, anything that had harmony. And people would enjoy it. One time, my father always hears about things. We come to rehearsal that Tuesday. On Sunday night, we won the gong show and got that hundred dollars. And Tuesday at rehearsal my father said how many people in this group? We said five. He said because I heard you all had a program. And I’m like, we didn’t have a program. And he said didn’t you all sing at the club Casablanca? Yes, sir. He said did you all win? Yes, we dis. How much you win? A hundred dollars. He said, now if there’s five men in the group, that's twenty dollars a man. He said, I would have came - y'all didn't tell me. We didn’t tell him because we knew we had no business in there. Somebody told him. Everybody knew us because we were from the area, we had fans that were proud of us. So we all had to give him five dollars apiece, give him his cut. But he said at least you won.
CB: So, he learned his craft through his family?
PJ: Like a lot of musicians who practice traditional music, they grew up listening to it, they grew up playing it, dancing it, and then it just continued and continues.
CB: And for these guys in The Chosen Few, is that the same for all of them?
PJ: I can't speak for these other singers and their families. We don't have the relationship yet, but I do know that they're dedicated to the church and they participate by singing. In some of these songs, you can feel the connection to the divine. It's definitely coming from a spot of love and from a place of reverence and worship. And that said, all independent of what I believe or don't believe, right? And I often think, this is my own theory here, any work that is inspired by the divine is of a certain quality if it's coming from a true place, it's that special place in everybody's heart where the belief comes from and no matter what you believe the quality and the connection is there.
RTP: The music still lives as long as I’m living.
CB: Even if you don't go to their church and believe in their religion, you can still feel it yourself.
PJ: Absolutely. It's that human connection. Especially the human voice. You can hear every single tone and it's not filtered by anything.
CB: These guys don't need auto-tune.
PJ: I think microphones actually get in the way. We recorded these guys in the church with two microphones and there were 7 singers.
RTP: Don’t step on your toes. You stay in your lane. That's what the young people say. If you could squeeze between somebody, the way The Chosen Few sings you can get in between the bass and the baritone, but every now and then that bass will slide up and slide back. But no one would know it because you don't stay there long.
PJ: I can definitely see the influence your father had in your singing. His lessons really do stick with you for your whole life, don't they?
RTP: Yes it does. Because he’s there. He's physically not, but there's nothing that you are a part of that’s not in you. Experiences. I can hear his voice. I look in the mirror and I see him. My daddy used to say experiences give you more to say and do. I could never miss my father because he's right here.
PJ: Reverend Paschall seems to have really gelled with these gentlemen. And they seem to be coalescing as a group as close friends and it's hard not to when you're singing together four days a week
CB: And you're singing worship music - these guys believe this together and they're singing it. I think that all has to do with them being a tight-knit group.
PJ: Absolutely, there are a number of reverends and ministers in the group. It's not just Reverend Paschall. So there are a number of preachers and they can they can sing a gospel. There's a band from Virginia called The Homes Brothers. They toured the world back in the 80s. Their gospel blues, rock and roll. Brothers. Sherwin Homes, Wendell Holmes, and Popsy Dixon. But something they said from the stage is: We’ll rock you on Saturday and save you on Sunday. And I feel like these Tidewater gospel groups, they will save you on Sunday but they'll do it in a way that feels like you're getting rocked on Saturday.
RTP: The response to a cappella music is the distinct form of art. We've been in venues where there have been other artists that use music and these are some phenomenal musicians. But when you sing a cappella, those musicians are like awestruck. If you've done something that's noteworthy, it's noteworthy. People remember you by what you did if you're not doing anything right now. You can use that as a cop-out or be encouraged to go on. That's what I choose to do. The food I ate last week, as good as it was, it's gone. I want to keep eating, that's why I said the music still lives because I still live.
CB: What's it like for you when you do go into the field and you meet this group, you’ve never met these guys before, right?
PJ: I’ve met some of them. We have a relationship with Terrence Paschall and the Paschall Brothers, and we're building a relationship with The Chosen Few. I think there was some skepticism in the group because we're some outsiders coming in. We don't go to these churches on the regular. Reverend Paschall knows that we follow through. But he had to convince some of the guys I think because who are these people coming out with microphones and cameras? I think until we showed up they were skeptical that we would even show up but that's what's important about following through. That's what's important about doing what you say you're going to do. And when you're working with communities that haven't always been treated fairly. That's a big part of Folklife is making sure that these relationships remain intact and are respectful and beneficial for everybody.
CB: Well, I was actually going to ask you that. Why do you do it? Is it to keep the tradition alive? Is it to just document it? What's the purpose for you personally?
PJ: The short answer is yes, but the long answer is I want to see these traditions stay alive. I'm not an expert in most of these forms of expression. I am an outsider in a lot of situations, so I want to make sure that I come in as a guest and show respect and ask questions and see what people need and not make assumptions.
RTP: My father said if you blow your trumpet loud, make sure it's right.
PJ: Personally, I think that creating music, creating art, creating a living making food. What else is there in life? That's why I do it is because I want to celebrate these things that make life worth living.
RTP: Rzua Church. 2515 High Street, Portsmouth, Virginia, 23707, that's how we tell it. And we thank God for all that are involved – The Library of Congress, Virginia Folklife, and whoever else that is behind the scenes because no tree stands without roots that’s unseen. God bless you all.