Johnson House hosts a musical ‘rare experience of living history’

On Sunday, more than 30 young singers and their Germantown audience got what conductor Christopher Windle called a rare experience of living history.

“The Good Raised Up,” a 30-minute musical program presented by Commonwealth Youthchoirs, featured singers from the Keystone State Boychoir, the Pennsylvania Girlchoir, and FYI! (Find Your Instrument) Choir.

A specially commissioned piece supported by PNC Arts Alive and the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Composers Forum, “The Good Raised Up” premiered at Johnson House last March.

“It’s such a thrill to be back in this house performing this piece again,” Windle told the audience.

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Developed with words by Charlotte Blake Alston and music by John Blake, Jr., the piece gets its title from seventeenth-century Scottish Quaker Robert Barclay who is credited with the words, “I find the evil weakening in me and the good raised up.”

Pianist Abigail LaVecchia, drummer Adam Saah and violinist Peter Subramanian joined the kids for a simple yet well-executed performance in the west front room of the Johnson House, famous for the 19th-century Johnson family’s role in the Underground Railroad.

A standing-room-only crowd of about 40 people packed the space at 2 p.m. for the first of three Sunday performances.

June Krebs, a local retiree, came out for the show because Johnson House is her favorite Germantown landmark, “and I need to know more about history.”

“Music can bring people together better than anything else, regardless of their differences,” she added.

About the piece

With intertwining music, choral singing and lines sung or spoken by individual children, the program had five brief segments.

“There Is A Saying” described the formation of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society in late 18th-century Philadelphia, and the early stance local Quakers took against slavery.

“We contradict and are against the sale of men,” the kids sang, imagining the risky words of Germantown’s historic Quakers.

In “People Walked,” the performance evoked the experiences of people on the run for their freedom, with children’s voices representing dialogue between the hunted slaves, angry plantation-owners and even a baying dog-pack.

“But in Philadelphia, eventually a group of Friends took a stand,” they sang, moving on to the story of the Johnson family’s decision to aid slaves on the Underground Railroad at great personal risk, following the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

In the next segment, “Open Up!”, the house itself took its place in the drama as performers banged on the front door to signify a real-life visit from federal marshals who searched the home for escaped slaves.

“Have no fear, for when they search the house they will not find you here,” the chorus sang, quoting the Johnson patriarch as he hid former slaves in the house’s garret.

The youngsters augmented the climactic scene by pounding their own footsteps up the stairs just beyond the front room, to remind listeners of the searching marshals, and then sang that as far as history can tell us, no former slaves were recaptured from the Johnsons’ home.

The show concluded with a contemplative ode to the “Indwelling Spirit” that allows people to help others.

“There’s an indwelling spirit in the hearts of everyone, where the light shines through,” the choir sang.

Emotional response

Johnson House Executive Director Cornelia Swinson found herself near tears when she addressed the crowd at the end of the show.

“I have to take a deep breath, because every time I hear this, I fill up,” she said.

She shared the impetus for mounting “The Good Raised Up” again at Johnson House.

“We intend to do things in an entirely new way,” she said, citing a brand-new strategic plan that emphasizes the role of artistic collaborations in fresh and “relational” storytelling. “The lessons of how we work together [across racial and cultural lines] are the epitome of the Johnson House mission.”

Windle was also pleased with the performance. Enthusiastic young participants made the most of a chance to perform in a place brimming with the actual history.

“That’s the cool thing about this particular space, because it all happened here,” he said.

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