Ivy League Gospel
Work: Walter Cunningham Jr., Ensemble director, Dartmouth Gospel Choir
When Dartmouth College was in the market for a director of its gospel choir, it would have done well to pound the pavement in Chicago’s South Side, a famous incubator for soulful gospel music. But it didn’t have to, because Chicago came to Dartmouth, in the form of Walter Cunningham Jr.
The year was 2003, and Cunningham, who had been leading gospel choirs since he was 14, had left the corporate world to go back into music full-time. He was working on his first album when a friend told him about the Dartmouth position.
“And I’m like, ‘Really? Isn’t Dartmouth in New Hampshire? Why would they be interested in a gospel-choir director?’” Cunningham says in a recent phone interview. “My friend said, ‘I don’t know, but it is Dartmouth, so why don’t you inquire?’”
Cunningham did, and he got the job. It was the latest step in a unique journey that began in Waterloo, Iowa — his father was the state’s first black principal — and took him to the United States Military Academy, where he became the choir director, and later to Pfizer as one of the top salesmen during its launch of Viagra.
These days Cunningham, 43, splits his time between Chicago and Lebanon, New Hampshire, an arrangement he appreciates for the chance to experience a diversity of landscapes and cultures. His choir performs to sell-out crowds in Dartmouth’s Spaulding Auditorium and graces stages from the New Orleans Jazz Festival to the House of Blues in Chicago. Last year, the choir completed its first European tour; a second one is in the works. Next month, the group will perform at Jazz at Lincoln Center.
The power, synchronicity and jubilation of Cunningham’s group — 90 vocalists plus a rhythm section — tend to get listeners out of their seats and swaying in no time. It’s a righteous and uplifting experience, regardless of one’s spiritual beliefs.
Seven Days caught up with Cunningham in Chicago to find out about bringing gospel to New England.
SEVEN DAYS: Has gospel been a hard sell for the Dartmouth community?
WALTER CUNNINGHAM: At times it can be hard. It’s kind of like the times when your mom gave you medicine, or she wanted you to eat vegetables. All of a sudden, you found that she put medicine in your Kool-Aid, or folded vegetables into your burger. You know, that’s my approach: What if folks don’t know they’re getting gospel?
That’s one reason why I do a lot of remakes. I’ll do a song like “Rosanna” and change it to “Hosanna.” A song like Whitney Houston’s “I’m Every Woman,” I changed to “God is a Good God.” “Bohemian Rhapsody” I changed to “Rhapsody of a Dreamer” . . . Gospel music is so much more vast than “Oh, Happy Day” and Mahalia Jackson.
SD: You put a few ringers from your Chicago group, One Accord, into the gospel-choir concerts. Why?
WC: Part of the reason is, many of these kids come from backgrounds where they’ve never been exposed to gospel. One of the challenges is, from a soloist’s perspective, there are certain abilities that you’ve grown to hear. That’s something that some people intrinsically have the ability to do, or they were brought up in churches where that’s all they heard . . . But unfortunately, Dartmouth doesn’t have a lot of students like that.
When I have 90 students show up the first day, I’m lucky if five of them have the ability to sing solos, and I’m lucky if 10 of them have been in a choir. So I’ve got to get them up to speed quickly and give them an experience that allows them to be authentic. One thing that allows me to do that is by bringing people in to assist me . . .
The second reason I bring ringers is, from a musician’s perspective, in the Upper Valley area and in the student population, I don’t have a lot of gospel-savvy musicians. So a lot of my ringers are not vocalists; the vast majority are my rhythm players.
SD: The Dartmouth Gospel Choir’s concerts seem to have a strong religious message, but the performance doesn’t take place in a church. Do you get any people who criticize you or say, “What’s with all the God stuff?”
WC: Well, I do get it, and my comment is quite simple: Don’t come to a gospel-choir concert. The reality is that it’s gospel music; gospel sung of the tenets of the gospel. Now, I recognize that [some] people are there for the art. I appreciate that. But I also know that people are there for the encouraging, uplifting, inspiring aspect as well. So my job is to make sure I can navigate and be sensitive to the fact that people may come for various reasons.
The other thing I try to keep in mind is that we come from varying belief systems, so I try to focus less on doctrine and more on addressing the human condition, addressing hurt and pain, and the importance of love, and the importance of frustration and motivation, and the importance of fulfilling God-given destinies, and reaching out and being your all . . . I believe that I do it by tapping into a source, whether you call him God, Allah, Buddha, Jesus . . . I just focus on the fact that we can all agree it’s important we be about love, about inspiring, and that you tap into something beyond the finite system of your body.
SD: Tell me a little about the members of the choir.
WC: We are the largest, most diverse entity on the campus. We’ve got all classes, both year groups and economic classes. I’ve got kids from the Northeast to the Southwest. I’ve got kids that are from Africa, Japan. I’ve got kids who are Jewish and Christian; kids who don’t know what the hell they are; kids who don’t care what they are. I’ve got gay, straight and bi.
I give them a few ground rules. The first one is: “You’d better be ready for a growth experience, because in some way or another, you will grow.” Number two: “We celebrate uniqueness.” I don’t use the word “accept.” I hate that word because it has the connotation of “Well, I’ll deal with you and you’ll deal with me.” The third ground rule is: “You try and you comply.” You give me all of your effort, and, as a leader, there are certain things I ask that are not up for negotiation; it is what it is. That’s the West Pointer in me.
SD: It looks like you’re having a ball up there when you’re performing. Is this work for you?
WC: You know, it’s funny. I love what I do. I consider myself to be one of those rare people who loves what he does. But it is my job, and it is work. The vast majority of the music we do I’ve either written or arranged, because I can’t go to an Upper Valley audience and bring the same thing I would bring to a South Side audience. I would lose them. The other challenge is that 95 percent of gospel music is not available in sheet-music form, so that has to be written out and arranged. A lot of the preparation is work. What the audience sees is the performance aspect, which is the pinnacle. It’s fun, but there were easily six or seven months of preparation to just do that one performance.