Revels Spring Sing Artist Spotlight: Dr. Kathy Bullock
Joining us on the Revels Spring Sing stage for the first time will be acclaimed performer, arts educator, choral clinician, and musicologist Dr. Kathy Bullock! Dr. Bullock’s work has taken her across the world, from her 29-year tenure as a professor at Berea College in Kentucky, to her gospel workshops in the US and the UK, to her research in West Africa and South Africa. Revels Digital Communications Manager Sydney Roslin sat down with Dr. Bullock to discuss her incredible body of work and experiences with gospel music.
Sydney: Hello, Dr. Bullock! Thank you so much for putting aside some time to talk with me. We’re very excited to have you as one of our guest song leaders at Revels Spring Sing. Have you attended or sang at a Revels Spring Sing before?
Dr. Bullock: This will be my first time, so I am excited as well!
S: I was wondering what your gateway into music was. How did you end up being a professional musician and music educator?
DB: I guess my gateway would have been through my upbringing in Washington D.C. My father was a Baptist minister, and the church in the black community was the center of everything at the time, so I grew up singing and playing the piano in church and taking piano lessons. It’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, both in terms in the African American and also in the more European or Western form, with lessons at school, and then later on, going onto college and graduate school to major in music. I went from school to teaching, and I ended up landing at Berea College in Kentucky, where I just retired from after about 29 years. My doctorate is in music theory and analysis, but I also grew up in the folk traditions of gospel and spirituals in particular. Since being at Berea, I’ve expanded my studies in both African and West African music as well as African American, both secular and sacred music forms. I continue to collaborate with friends from West Africa and South Africa, and for years I’ve taken students to study the diaspora and look for connections. During the summers I do a lot of singing camps where I’m joined with other adults, like at the Village Harmony Camp out of Vermont, Common Ground out of Maryland, and Augusta Heritage Center in West Virginia. I share my musical traditions and learn about other folks’ traditions.
I was also doing some touring in the UK for the last four or five years before COVID, where I’d go around to different community choirs and teach gospel music traditions. While I was at Berea College, I also directed a gospel choir for over twenty-five years. We started about thirty members when we started there, and we had as many as one hundred and fifty at one point, but we averaged about seventy a semester. And then I’ve been touring with a group of professional singers who do African American spirituals in a concert form. During COVID, I was supposed to have all these gigs, sharing music and stories of the African American people and the powerful, the powerful impact it has made, and then all of that was cancelled. But I moved on – I made several videos from my home in Kentucky, songs of encouragement that I posted on YouTube. I’ve done a number video projects, one dealing with the women’s suffrage movement, and another one that looked at Black women composers, highlighting people from the Kentucky area where I live. You could say I’m keeping busy!
S: You have quite a lot going on!
DB: But it’s been wonderful – I’ve enjoyed it all, and I love collaborating. Right now I’m at Bennington College in Vermont as a visiting professor. During the pandemic, I really saw music as a way of connecting people, affirming our humanity and our shared experiences. And it’s a window for the various cultures to help people understand each other. Take a lot of African American cultures and their rich traditions that are there, for example. Oftentimes the contributions of African American people have been overlooked, minimized, or omitted altogether in so many ways, and part of my work that I love is to share those contributions. That’s part of my teaching here at Bennington.
S: As someone who grew up as a performer, what led you into education and research?
DB: I love performing, and I’ve been doing that as long as I can remember as an accompanist, choral director, church musician, organist, that kind of thing. But I also love learning about the music myself, and I wanted to share that with others. And I love talking about music, analyzing it, looking at the structure, how it’s put together, what gives it power, that sort of thing. While I was studying music in college, I realized I could professionally talk about music, something I loved, and actually get paid for it!
S: In your research and teaching about African music in comparison to African American music, do you focus on the theoretical analysis of the music, or is it more based in sharing and preserving the music?
DB: I started by looking at the shared traditions and shared characteristics, looking at those aspects of what we call African American music, and looking at some of the historical connections to the African heritage. African American music could only have happened here in the United States, with people of African descent coming to this country and having shared experiences of enslavement for hundreds of years. So there was all of the western influence, and there was continued African influence, West African in particular. I’ve always loved West African and South African music, so that’s how I got into the field, and then I was teaching courses in world music so I developed an interest in the music of Indonesia and India as well. I was also taking students to study in Ghana while I was at Berea, where we continued to study the culture using the arts as our particular entry, particularly music and dance.
S: You said that you’re the daughter of a baptist minister and that your son is also a singer, so has music always been a family affair?
DB: Yes – my husband and I met in a gospel singing group, and my sisters and I would sing all the time. I’m one of six children, and one of five girls, so we would do our own concerts. I have a sister who’s a composer with a doctorate in composition out in California, and the others are still active in music to various degrees – music has been a prominent part of all of our lives. We also had to play for a lot of things, because my dad’s a preacher. We started our own little group, and each of us had different groups, and we would play for choirs in church. So it was a lot. Growing up, I thought it was just a normal thing to go around and hear everyone just singing.
S: And about your career now – you said you’ve retired from teaching and you’re planning to travel, lecture, and perform full time. When you are touring, what is the typical format of your performances?
DB: I would call them workshops, not performances. I travel from one community choir to another, and I will do sessions with the choir where I teach them gospel music and spirituals, and teach them about the history of the people while I’m doing it. My other projects are the same sort of thing, not so much recital, but a lecture. Sometimes, for music workshops, we’ll have a performance day during the workshop, but that’s really more of a workshop demonstration.
S: When you go in and work with a choir during one of these workshops, what are some of your priorities? What should the choir walk away with after you’re done working with them?
DB: I would like them to have experienced the power and the experience that comes from singing African American spirituals together. I like them to feel uplifted, inspired, and better than when they came, and to be filled with hope and encouragement. When we sing these songs together and are reminded of our own individual and collective power, that is when folks in this world make a difference. Actually, that’s my hope when they come to a gospel concert – part of it is about singing together and about that community that is created. There’s a scientific study about how singing together is more healthy for a person with high blood pressure, how it changes your heartbeat in a positive way. In England, in one of the community choirs I worked with, the choir director told me that a choir member had joined on recommendation from their doctor as part of their healing journey. That was the diagnosis, to join the choir.
S: What will you be performing at Revels Spring Sing this year?
DB: I will be leading everyone in singing some spirituals, and I will be singing a bluesy kind of jazz song with the instrumentalists, yeah. The whole idea is that I get everybody to sing along.
S: Is there anything else that you wanted to say to the Revels community?
DB: I’m just inviting them to come and have a wonderful time with us, just singing and jamming with joy. Joy is a choice that we can make, and I invite them to come share the joy.
Read more about Dr. Kathy Bullock at her website, https://www.kathybullock.com/. You can also follow Dr. Bullock’s work on her YouTube account @KathyBullock. And don’t forget to join us for Revels Spring Sing at the Center for the Arts at the Armory in Somerville at 3 PM on Sunday, March 20 to hear Dr. Bullock and the rest of our fantastic performers! Learn more at https://revels.org/event/revels-spring-sing-a-family-celebration-of-the-vernal-equinox/