The Sing, Live and Love Like You Mean It Quest
by Ilona Kimberly Nagy
Bertha Singing at Hopewell Presbyterian Church, Hopewell, NJ
I first met gospel singer Bertha Morgan through Beverly Mills and Elaine Buck, authors of the forthcoming book If These Stones Could Talk to be published by Wild River Books. Mills and Buck, authors, speakers and community organizers had helped organize a Gospel Breakfast to benefit the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum (SSAAM), the only African American museum in Central New Jersey, that will reflect the same mission as their book, to tell the largely unknown stories of the African American community there.
On a sunny February day, my daughter and I walked into a bustling room at the Hopewell Presbyterian Church. We registered and stocked our plates from the buffet–and then headed back toward the main high-ceilinged room full of long tables. Immediately, I was drawn by the warm and friendly smile of Bertha Underwood Morgan (and her husband, Norman) from across the room–and so we headed to sit in their corner right by the church stage.
As we sat down, I mentioned I was a publisher and Morgan lit up, saying she had worked in proofreading after she first graduated from Durham Business College, for a Durham, NC newspaper. How did I know Beverly and Elaine? Excitedly, I told her a little bit about our book project.
Gospel music is an important theme in Mills and Buck’s book, as well as their regular presentations throughout the state of New Jersey and beyond. As Mills and Buck explain: “We start each presentation with a Negro spiritual song to set the tone and engage the audience as to why we are presenting these facts of how African Americans have endured the suffering and sorrows of being enslaved. Songs used by slaves as codes and signals, gave the exact day and time to escape to freedom. These spirituals were passed down from generation to generation in my family.”
The first published use of the term gospel was in 1874 when Philip P. Bliss edited a revival song-book titled “Gospel Songs” according to EarlyGospel.com. But gospel music can be traced back to early slave spirituals and stylistically African musical roots of deep expressive melody, call and response and foot-stomping, hand-clapping rhythmic energy. If instruments were forbidden to slaves in America, they simply layered more vocal harmonies and complex rhythms.
Back in the Hopewell Presbyterian church, when the music started, we all hushed and you can imagine my complete surprise when I saw Bertha Morgan–who had said nothing at all of her voice or singing career in our table conversation–walked directly onto center stage.
Gazing directly into the audience, Morgan’s rich yet haunting voice swept through the room in the song, “Soon I Will Be Done,” first composed by William Dawson, (1899-1990), founder of the Negro Folk Symphony, and the son of a former slave, who ran away to study at Tuskogee Institute at age thirteen. He would later direct the music department there as well as visit seven countries in West Africa to study the rhythmic influences in their music.
When you listen to Bertha Underwood Morgan sing, it’s hard not to lose some measure of composure. As for me, I began to cry before she reached the second verse, “I want to see my momma…”
Bertha Morgan’s mother Viola Waters Underwood from Kinston, NC (1918-1947) died when the young Bertha, one of three daughters, was very young. It was Bertha’s father, Eddie Bernard Underwood from Clinton, NC (1900-1959) with a rich tenor voice, who first encouraged the young Bertha and her sisters to “sing with feeling” at “any given time” around their dinner table and at family gatherings.
Born in Kinston, North Carolina on August 11, 1942, Morgan graduated from a segregated high school in 1960. “In school, I remember we learned all of these songs, like ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.’ They sang for us –and let us sing–in school. Then the teacher would explain what the song was about and I thought: ‘They could go through all of that and yet they could sing.’ That brought joy into my heart. I thought boy, if it gets rough. It was good to know that I could sing my way out of most things.”
“I can’t even remember how old we were when we would sing as a family. Whenever any of our cousins would come to visit (from Clinton or Fayetteville) we’d have dinner and daddy would say: Come on, girls! Let’s sing! Mean what you’re singing!” remembers the warm and elegant Bertha Morgan, who in her upper seventies, has glowing skin, shining eyes and an effervescent smile.
And sing she did. As a teenager, Morgan already found herself becoming a much sought after soloist. Morgan met the the love of her life, Norman Morgan in 1958 and they were married on December 29, 1962, at the Tabernacle Baptist Church. After her husband’s tour of duty with the Navy, they moved back to Burlington, New Jersey where her singing career and ministry blossomed. She sang in churches, schools, industries, conventions and in the community.Married over 55 years, she traveled with her husband as far away as Japan. They had five children, Marla, Lynn, Melicia, Dorion and Meloni, all of whom still regularly sing.
Morgan has recorded with the New Jersey Gospel Workshop Choir, South Jersey Mass Choir, Gregg Allen and Friends, Pastor Dorion Morgan (Morgan’s son) and Total Praise and the LGR Records Company with whom she debuted her first solo CD ”Negro Spiritual Songs of the Soul” for which her daughters and son laid background vocals in 2002 and her second solo CD “For the Rest of My Days” in 2005.
Let’s start with the song Soon I Will Be Done. What do you think about when you sing it?
Morgan: When I sing that song, I can imagine the days of my great, great grandmother as she worked in the cotton fields of North Carolina from sun-up to sun-down; in the sweltering sun with no shade trees or shelter from the elements of Summer. With sweat running down her face and body, no water to quench her burning thirst, the bugs and creeping things of nature all around her and sometimes on her. I had to imagine it. I don’t even know of my great-great grandmother. I imagine it knowing that she came through the era of slavery and that she was owned and worked in the fields in North Carolina and South Carolina where my family originated.
You lost your mother at such a young age.
Morgan: Yes, in the song, “Soon I Will Be Done,” I could whole-heartedly identify with the phrase in the second verse “I want to see my mother.” For as long as I can remember, I experienced living without my biological mother who died when I was about two or three years old…Oh how I’ve longed to see her, to know her, to have her hold me in her arms and just say “it’ll be alright”. As far back as I can remember, the only memory of my mother is in a casket with a pink flower in her hair. In the church where we would go for services, I always felt like: Mommy’s here. I felt a sense of protection and a sense of company. I loved that church, loved singing in the choir. Doing our little recitations on holidays such as Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day.
Mother’s Day was such a difficult time for me. The tradition at our church, the Mt. Zion Baptist Church on North Street, a little brick church in Kinston, North Carolina, was that each person would wear a flower signifying their mother’s life with a red flower, usually a corsage, a carnation. Or if your mother was deceased, you would wear a white one. Most were red. In my very young years, I only remember wishing for my mom.
I did have a stepmom from the age of 5 or 6. And she took care of us, three girls, and did our hair so pretty with little dresses with socks. And my dad, oh how I loved my dad…raising three of his four daughters all by himself for a while, he brought much joy to life in our home…He was a tower to me with a strong tenor voice and a love for singing in the church choir and in our home….He would tell us to sing like we meant it.
I was four years old when I had my first performance. I remember we had our coats and leggings to match and I couldn’t step up onto the platform. I kept trying to step up with my little legs. Eventually someone helped me get up on stage. My first solo performance must have been when I was about eight or nine years old. I was nervous, shaking. Songs, words began to mean things to me. If I got in trouble and was sent to my room, I didn’t mind. I could have my own concert in my room. I’d have a great time.
But my dad saw me, made me feel special and gave me a lot of pride in myself. In Middle School, during one performance, he said he spotted me right away, standing up straight, chest out. This has followed me right up until the present time. Dad passed away when I was 16 yrs old. Which only left me more determined to sing.
Maya Angelou once wrote: “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” There is something about hearing you sing that lands me into the magnetism of your full presence and, so also into the full present . That is such a gift you give to others. How do you feel when you sing?
Morgan: It’s always in front of my mind to bless someone through my singing. That those that are down can be lifted. People often come to me and say that they are touched by a song I sang. That I did something for them. I was asked to sing at funerals a lot. And I realized how many people were hurting. People crave peace and comfort. They crave hope. Afterwards most of the time, the family members had some relief while you were singing.
What is one of your favorite projects?
Morgan: After being married for over 25 years and raising our five children, it was Mr. Luis Rogers who owned LGR Studios and he said, I told my son to record you some day. I didn’t have any money. So, his son came to me as it was nearing Black History month. I remember going into the studio with excitement and a bundle of nerves, knowing that physically I probably would not be able to travel too far but also knowing that the album could go all over the world. I chose the songs. It was Black History month so I wanted to sing the spirituals, the ones I had learned in school. I was asked to record an album of “Songs of the Soul; Negro Spirituals.”
My preference is to sing to a live congregation. I love to see the faces of those to whom I am ministering. Singing as though it was my last time to share this hope. The first song I sang was Plenty Good Room. “Ok, that was good,” they said. ‘Do another one.” When I had stopped, I had 9 songs in a row with no accompaniment. The tracks were all laid in afterwards by my daughter and son separately.
Which project most excites you now?
Morgan: I am most excited by the Youth Achievers Committee of Burlington County – http://www.youthachievers.com – where I serve as a volunteer member and we encourage and inspire children in the area of math, science, and engineering. We put on science and math fairs and we also help children write essays and complete artwork explaining science. We also offer scholarships for children who are college-bound in the areas of math, science and engineering. We have alumni who are engineers and doctors.
Mahalia Jackson once wrote: Gospel songs are the songs of hope.” If you could have one wish for your children and future generations, what would it be?
Morgan: I want everyone to make a difference in the world. Seek to be counted among those that are the remedy for the situation rather than the cause of the problem. Reach out in love…love everyone. You might not like everyone, you might not like their ways, or their person, the way they handle things, but there is still a love that has to be had for every creature. Find the love over the not-liking. It’s the love of God, it’s a spiritual thing. It’s a soul searching. It’s a soul giving.
The flesh is weak, the soul is strong enough to reach beyond the criticisms and the ugliness. The strength comes from within. There is a song I sing: He looked beyond my faults, my ugliness, my lying, my cheating. My need to be a whole person, loving, kind, forgiving, with a conscience to change the natural ways. Reach out and touch somebody’s hand…if you can…promote brotherhood and sisterhood.
To purchase Bertha Morgan’s album, “Bertha Morgan Sings Negro Spirituals,” and support her singing, https://store.cdbaby.com/Artist/BerthaunderwoodMorgan.