By John Lehndorff
(This feature originally appeared in the 8/8/19 Boulder Weekly) It can be confusing for former Christians — your card-carrying liberal agnostics — when they have to admit that they really miss gospel music. They secretly love singing in the congregation, the power of the choirs, hymns and chants. They feel a little sheepish when they get misty-eyed during gospel songs at bluegrass festivals. Secretly, they know all the words.
These folks miss the feeling and the healing, not necessarily the sin and religion, and now there is solid science showing why. Research indicates that singing in groups triggers the release of serotonin and oxytocin, the bonding hormone. Communal singing can even synchronize heart beats. It makes participants feel better, especially when they are singing about good news, which is literally what “gospel” means.
That deep feeling will be shared on Sunday, Aug. 18 at the Folks Festival in two very different guises: One quieter and brainier, one loud, emotional and raw, and both deeply soulful. Both Dr. Ysaÿe Barnwell and the remarkable couple that forms The War and Treaty manage to lift willing hearts of all spiritual persuasions.
The day starts with a folk music icon who last graced the stage eight years ago with the African American a cappella ensemble she helped found, Sweet Honey in the Rock. Attendees need to come ready to sing, even if they think they have terrible voices and it’s too early in the a.m. to think, never mind harmonize.
Barnwell is a professor, author and composer/arranger, but her greatest gift may be in building vocal communities. She leads workshops that get people in touch with their own voices by singing together. Barnwell teaches what she calls “sacred songs,” the African American spirituals, uplifting hymns and songs from the Civil Rights era. She has a preacher’s zeal for inducing reluctant singers to harmonize and feel that rush. But it is notably spiritual, not dogmatic.
A different sort of catharsis — the good news of love — takes over the festival in the evening. The War and Treaty is not a sit-on-the-tarp-and-politely-clap acoustic act. It’s a full blast, stand up, sweat, moan and smile kind of electric band.
Fronted by Michael and Tanya Trotter, who met in Afghanistan, The War and Treaty stew somewhere in the midst of soul, gospel and Americana. “It’s our duty to give everything we have every night when we walk on stage,” Michael Trotter says. They face the audience with larger-than-life emotional vulnerability, leaving the audience spent and experiencing a transcendent communal hug.
The duo’s debut album, Healing Tide, produced by Nashville’s Buddy Miller, includes guests like Emmylou Harris. It’s packed with rousing, direct anthems including “Love Like There’s No Tomorrow” and “Are You Ready to Love Me?” They are evangelists of affection.
The War and Treaty’s “Down to the River” will likely send festival-goers to baptize themselves in the cold rushing creek running alongside the site. The Trotters’ sets are less concerts than tent revival meetings — but without the hell fire and damnation.
“There is a misconception that gospel means shouting and screaming and moaning. It belongs to the spirit. Religion is something that man created,” Trotter says.
“We suspend the ideology and extend an invitation to the spirit. That’s what I love, when everybody feels like they’ve had church without feeling bad,” he says.
It harkens back to Trotter’s childhood. “I just remember as a child watching my mother sing in church and seeing people’s reaction to the music — the tears and the joy. I learned that music has an emotional place in our lives. I think that music speaks to a part of us as humans that is not being touched very much anymore,” he says.
The band’s inspirations are wide-ranging. “My musical heroes include Nina Simone and Al Green. Pete Seeger is definitely one. Of course, Sweet Honey in the Rock and my favorite artist of all time, Mr. Ray Charles. I love the spirituality of Aretha and Johnny Cash’s story,” he says.
The War and Treaty arrived at its band name during a heated marital disagreement. “We’re passionate people. Tanya and I were arguing about me changing the name of the band again. She said, ‘Calm down, this is not a war and we’re not here to sign a peace treaty.’ I said, ‘That’s the name.’ She liked it, too,” he says.
Michael Trotter says it’s time for the next generation to testify about hope. “It’s our turn to figure out how to fight hate and build love. I love Nat King Cole because he always fought it with joy, with a smile,” Trotter says, adding that he is not discouraged by the daily horror on the news.
“I am absolutely hopeful that things can change for the better,” he says.
As Dr. Barnwell sings:
“When the universe is polarized by hatred, When we ourselves have been baptized in fear, When some of us are paralyzed in principle, When there’s anger in the falling of each tear, let us rise in love.”
The 29th Annual Folks Festival. Aug. 16-18, Planet Bluegrass, 500 W. Main St., Lyons. For full schedule visit: bluegrass.com/folks/lineup/main-stage