At a time when human connection must necessarily happen with social distancing, music has been many people’s salvation.
Gospel music, with its aim of bringing hope, lifting hearts, mending broken spirits and reminding us that we’re not alone in our struggles, may not be everyone’s go-to genre, but a new record from Richmond institution the Ingramettes could change that.
Living on a sharecropper’s farm in Coffee County, Georgia, Maggie Ingram’s children grew up around the hard realities of deep Southern racism.
Like the day Ingram wouldn’t let the five youngsters out to play like she always did on Saturday mornings. Turns out she was waiting for the deacons at her church to come and cut down the man who’d been lynched nearby the night before.
“We knew that kind of racism,” says Almeta Ingram Miller, one of Ingram’s daughters.
After Ingram’s husband left for work one day and never returned, people offered to take in her children as workers — the three boys to a farm in North Carolina, the oldest daughter to New Jersey as a domestic — but she was determined to keep her family together. To make that a reality, she sat them down in a circle and, using a stick from a tree branch, beat out time as she taught them to sing. Ingram had always been musical despite having no training, playing an old upright piano in the barn and later at church services.
In December 1961, Ingram packed up her children and drove to Richmond after asking her pastor to contact a bishop here to arrange housing and a job. Arriving at the house in the Navy Hill neighborhood on Christmas Eve, the children were treated to their first glimpse of snow. Ingram’s new job was working for civil rights lawyer Oliver Hill Jr. and his wife. Ingram promptly joined a church and its congregants began hearing the Ingram children singing with their mother on a regular basis.
One person impressed with their sound was Joe Williams of the Harmonizing Four. With an upcoming show with the Soul Stirrers and the Dixie Hummingbirds scheduled for the Mosque Theater, Williams asked Ingram and her children to open the show.
“After that, we got offers from all over,” Miller recalls. “It’s amazing, but it’s always somebody in the right place at the right time to see and hear us.”
Maggie Ingram and the Ingramettes found a whole new audience when Virginia folklorist and director of the Virginia Folklife program Jon Lohman came to hear the group at the first National Folk Festival in Richmond in 2005. “He forged a relationship with us,” Miller says. “He said, ‘We’ve got to have you every year at the festival.’”
Mother Maggie passed away in 2015, but the group’s legacy endures with Miller taking on the matriarch’s role, along with granddaughter Cheryl Yancey and daughter-in-law Carrie Jackson.
“Take a Look in the Book,” the group’s new album, dropped March 20 and is the first effort with Almeta at the helm. The music showcases her vision and towering vocal abilities, drawing songs from new Appalachian sources like Ola Belle Reed, classics from Bill Withers and reworking family favorites, some of which date back to slave spirituals. For a version of Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands,” Miller added a couple of verses she wrote about her relationship with her own grandmother. She discovered Reed’s “I’ve Endured” when she heard it performed at the Folk Festival and knew she wanted to record it. “It paralleled my mom’s life, so I wanted to do it in a way my Mom would have done it.”
Produced by Lohman, a huge fan of gospel music, the record’s goal was to produce a studio album that captured the Ingramettes’ live concert experience. Too often, he recalls seeing a gospel group that really excited him live, only to be disappointed with the CD because of how watered down and processed it sounded.
“That intensity, that immediacy, that spontaneity that’s really the driving force of this music is gone,” he says. So instead of multitracking with members in sound isolation booths, they recorded the album live at In Your Ear Studio, with nearly everything done in one take. “The band is so tight we could do that, and the ladies utterly crushed it,” Lohman recalls. “Almeta’s lead vocal performance is beyond epic.”
During a tour through Serbia and Bulgaria in May, the Ingramettes couldn’t walk down the street without people recognizing them.
“You would have thought we were the Rolling Stones the way the audience was dancing and jumping on stage,” Miller says with a laugh. On the final day of the tour, they were taken to a conservatory where a Serbian choir sang the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ classic “Oh, Happy Day” for them.
It wasn’t as much of a stretch as the group initially thought, though.
“They told us that they love black gospel music because our struggle is so similar to the Serbian struggle for freedom,” Miller says. “Gospel music is universal.”
Over years of working with the Ingramettes, Lohman learned never to doubt the group’s ability to deeply connect with any audience with a level of immediacy and intimacy he’d not witnessed with other artists.
“Their music is soundly within the genre of traditional African American gospel, but their performances and recordings transcend any boundaries of religion, race, age or region,” he explains. “Their music is, above all, about human connection.”
“Take a Look in the Book” is available at legendaryingramettes.com.