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A choir that's been singing African American spirituals for 60 years will give its last concert

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A choir in Michigan's been keeping the tradition of African American spirituals alive for 60 years. Now its aging members are preparing for their final concert. Sophia Saliby of member station WKAR reports.

EARL NELSON SINGERS: (Singing) Good news, chariot's a comin'. Good news, chariot's a comin'.

SOPHIA SALIBY, BYLINE: Spirituals, like "Good News, The Chariots Are Coming" (ph), have been a part of the Earl Nelson Singers' repertoire for decades. Their founder, Earl Nelson, started organizing the choir in the early '60s in Lansing. Ruby Frazier was an early member. She says Nelson wanted to honor songs created by enslaved Africans.

RUBY FRAZIER: He could hear the spiritual being changed into, like, dancing music. And I think that was his initial desire, was to bring it back to its original intent.

MARY ANNE LARZELERE: I found the spirituals to be so sad in some ways and joyful in some ways.

SALIBY: Mary Anne Larzelere joined a few years later. She says, as a white woman, she didn't grow up knowing spirituals, but the group was always open to everyone.

LARZELERE: And, of course, this was right about in the middle of the civil rights movement. And I thought, this is something I'm going to do.

SALIBY: Nelson led the group up until the late 1970s. The current director, Verna Holley, took over for Nelson after that.

VERNA HOLLEY: The spirituals still address the troubles of the world. And so we feel that we are like messengers as we sing the songs in our repertoire.

SALIBY: The choir now has about 25 members, ranging in age from 40 all the way to 90. Frazier, who's sung with the group for 59 years, says singing spirituals is a family tradition.

FRAZIER: I had a 6-month-old child in my arms - my son - when I joined the group. He is now one of the tenors.

SALIBY: And even if they aren't all related, the group has become close-knit. And that togetherness is revolutionary.

FRAZIER: Because we sing so much in harmony - all colors, all cultures together.

SALIBY: Larzelere and Melvin Holley will tell you the group has been a constant in their lives, including their weekly practices.

MELVIN HOLLEY: Every Monday night.

LARZELERE: Every Monday night for the last 57 years of my life.

SALIBY: But that routine was interrupted by the pandemic. And the group is smaller now. Some of the members died during that time. When they came back together late last year, choir director Verna Holley says they made the difficult decision to give one final performance.

V HOLLEY: After you get to be a certain age, it's apparent that you must lay down some things that you have always done.

SALIBY: The group's final song, called "That's Enough," will feature Melvin Holley, a bass. Larzelere says it's a powerful way to end their last concert.

LARZELERE: It will be a sad time when he stands up and sing that song, but also a joyful time that we've been together.

EARL NELSON SINGERS: (Singing) He raised me - that's enough - and he saved me - that's enough. He taught me - that's enough - and he brought me - that's enough.

SALIBY: The singers say they're hoping a younger member may decide to bring back the group in the future. But for now, they plan to get together a few times a year just to sing.

EARL NELSON SINGERS: (Singing) Lord, that's enough. That's enough. Oh, yeah.

SALIBY: For NPR News, I'm Sophia Saliby in East Lansing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sophia Saliby