Guest Artist James Dargan Commemorates Black History in Performance

Guest artist James Dargan hoped to emphasize the importance of black history and to convey themes of positivity and joy in his concert.

Following an eruption of piano chords, guest artist James Dargan began his rendition of “Strange Fruit,” written by Lewis Allan and sung by Billie Holiday. Dargan’s crooning complemented the dissonant piano as he sang lyrics that highlighted themes of lynching and racism.

“I think ‘Strange Fruit’ was my favorite, just because I knew the song already and I think that it is a really cool, jazzy song that deals with heavy themes in a not-as-heavy way,” said audience member Henry Crater ’20.

Dargan created a new arrangement of “Strange Fruit” for his performance in Cochran Chapel this past Saturday night. This piece was part of his thematic concert, “Oh, Glory! Black History Matters,” which highlighted the importance of black history and life’s promises of joy and freedom through song.

“I just thought that [it would be amazing] if we could get him on M.L.K. Weekend [because] he does this whole thing on black history… The timing worked out great, I just love his voice and his approach to music making. I was really interested in his passion for social justice,” said event coordinator Holly Barnes, Instructor in Music and Director of Performance.

The concert unfolded into four sections — Call, Challenge, Welcome, and Rebirth — each featuring prominent black artists. Dargan sadi he hoped that by performing the artists’ most popular songs during their respective sections, he could channel their messages during his performance.

“So, you take the repertoire for the people whose names are at the top of the headings, and then you triangulate in on the places where the repertoire overlaps. Then naturally, because they take their musical activism so seriously, you’ll have a recipe for songs that connect. If you take the repertoire that these people loved, and really just find their greatest hits, then you find stuff that conveys a message,” said Dargan.

One of Dargan’s favorite songs to perform is “Deep River,” which is a spiritual song of African-American origin featured in the last rebirthing section. Beginning with low, rumbling notes, Dargan sings along to the slow, muted melodies, conveying themes of hope and the longing for happiness in the lyrics of the spiritual. His low and steady vocals remained constant throughout the piece, and he ended with a gentle hum.

“I’ve been singing this since I was knee-high as a grasshopper, as they say down South. My father was a musician and also a minister, so it’s kind of hard to escape spirituals. I remember the first time [my friend] Mark got into ‘Deep River,’ and said, ‘James, I’m an atheist. But when you sing this, I really love it,’” said Dargan.

According to Barnes, Dargan’s eclectic choice in music for his repertoire gave everybody in the audience an opportunity to listen to different styles of music and helped Dargan convey his theme and messages in a unique way.

“If you really like gospel music, that’s great, but you might fall in love with his voice and then listen to an opera aria that maybe you wouldn’t normally go to. It’s an interesting way to approach lots of different music, and I love the message and the journey through the program and the different sections,” said Barnes.