Gospel, Darkness and Light at East Hampton High School Spring Concert

East Hampton High School Chorus
East Hampton High School Chorus, Photo: Richard Lewin

The East Hampton High School chorus will be premiering a newly arranged gospel piece as part of their Spring Concert on May 21. In what promises to be an unusual and thrilling collaboration and performance on May 21, David Douglas, Rev. Neil Fulford and Daniel Koontz with approximately 130 East Hampton High School singers behind them, will be debuting the arrangement of the foot-stomping, soulfully moving, joyous folk-gospel-blues song from the ’30s. It’s likely to bring down the house.

The piece, “I Am the Light of This World,” is attributed to the Rev. Gary Davis (1896–1972). Davis was blind from infancy, but he became an extraordinary guitarist, banjo and harmonica player, not to mention singer, and an acknowledged influence on giants across the folk, rock, R&B and gospel worlds. The fact that “Blind Gary Davis” who came from North Carolina, became a Baptist minister, is only one of several surprising coincidences surrounding this new arrangement.

The Rev. Cornelius (Neil) Fulford, 60, who will be singing the solo in “I Am the Light of This World,” also comes from North Carolina and himself went blind, suddenly, at the age of 9. He was told that nothing could be done. He prayed that if he ever recovered his sight he would devote himself to serving Jesus. Shortly after, he recovered his sight. He would go on to keep his promise, though not immediately. When he came north in 1969—“bright lights, big city,” he laughs—it was “entertainment” that claimed his heart. Though he sang with various groups all over Long Island for a few years, he still felt the call (“I always knew I would be a preacher”) and remembered his promise. And so he began studying theology, which included working with members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Today the Rev. Neil, who has been a custodian at East Hampton High School (EHHS) for five years, can be seen and heard as Pastor of the First Baptist Church in Cutchogue, where he also leads his congregation in song. He saw the light, he spread the light.

As EHHS Vocal Director David Douglas points out, the choral portion of East Hampton’s Spring Concert moves from darkness to light. Douglas, who is collaborating on the new arrangement with the EHHS chorus and composer Dr. Daniel W. Koontz (the organist and choir director at Christ Episcopal Church in Sag Harbor), notes that the three pieces preceding “I Am the Light of This World” illustrate spiritual evolution. Beginning with “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana, the chorus will go on to sing the “Lachrymosa” movement from Mozart’s Requiem, then perform an arrangement of an old folk song Douglas found on YouTube—“Hard Times Come Again No More.” The chorus will conclude with the new arrangement of “I Am the Light of This World.”

Douglas delights in telling how he and Koontz got together with The Rev. Neil, whom he calls “the nicest man in the world.” Acouple of years ago, Douglas was in the chorus room at the school, playing something on YouTube, when the custodian wandered in and started singing along, improvising. At about the same time, Koontz, who had worked with Douglas before, said he knew a piece he wanted to arrange for chorus. They all came together—“a perfect match,” Douglas remarks. Douglas set about rewriting some of the lyrics and Koontz started rearranging the Gary Davis song, transposing it to the key of F for the piano, and bringing it closer to the “standard Gospel pattern.” The Rev. Neil smiles broadly, “It’s now “a Ray Charles thing.” The students love it, and the Rev. Neil basks in “their talent, their love.”

Most songs have fixed durations, but with gospel, you never quite know, Koontz points out. The piece could take four or five minutes, maybe a bit longer, given a piano break and maybe a reprise. In any case, there will be light.

See the East Hampton High School Spring Concert at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, May 21 at East Hampton High School on Long Lane in East Hampton.

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