Poughkeepsie native and resident Ray Watkins was born into gospel music, which has always been a huge part of his life. By the time he was 10, Watkins was taking piano lessons, singing in his church choir and aspiring to be like his idol, Ray Charles.
“My whole family, including my three siblings and my parents, were involved in music in some way or the other,” says Watkins. “My dad was in a gospel band called the Hudson Jubileers, which sang on a local radio station, WKIP, in the 1940s.”
Now Watkins is making it his mission to share gospel music with as many people as he can in the Hudson Valley. As chair of the Hudson Valley Gospel Festival, he is now in the throws of planning the second annual festival, which will take place on Sept. 18 at Bowdoin Park in Poughkeepsie.
According to Watkins, gospel music by definition is a relatively new art form. “Gospel music had its roots in Negro spirituals. The genre made its popular debut in the 1930s thanks to musicians and composers such as Thomas Dorsey, who was considered the father of gospel music,” he says.
The second half of the great migration of African Americans (beginning in 1940) brought many gospel quartets north, and interest in gospel music began to spread to New York City and outward to the Hudson Valley. Local stars included Marva Clark, Gretchen Reed and Toni Graham. In addition, many nationally famous gospel singers, including the legendary Mahalia Jackson, performed at various churches in the area as well as at venues like the Bardavon 1869 Opera House in Poughkeepsie.
Watkins recalls that gospel music bands were also featured on the radio by broadcasters such as Willie Hutson, whose “Hutson Gospel Train” aired weekly on WKIP starting in the 1960s.
While the public’s interest in gospel music waned in the 1970s, Watkins says his interest in the subject never subsided. He resumed playing piano and singing in his church choir as soon as he returned from a stint in the U.S. Navy in 1974. (While in the Navy, he played popular music for the ship’s band).
“After I returned, I grew to understand my father’s gospel music better,” Watkins says. “I wanted to find out more about the Hudson Jubileers and locate their recordings, but I found out there wasn’t anything out there.” As his research expanded, he was introduced to people who helped him in his efforts to dig deeper into the roots of local gospel music.
One of the organizations he got in touch with in the early 1990s was Arts Mid-Hudson, a Poughkeepsie nonprofit that helps drive support for the mid-Hudson Valley’s diverse, thriving arts community. Watkins joined the nonprofit’s board of directors and helped the nonprofit develop programs promoting gospel music through its Folk Arts initiative.
For 13 consecutive years, starting in 1994, Arts Mid-Hudson organized annual Christmas concerts at Poughkeepsie’s First Presbyterian Church, where African-American gospel music was performed as part of the series “Giving it Back: Folk Arts of the Mid-Hudson Valley.” According to Watkins, “The church was located in a central part of town and could hold over1,000 people. There were times when it was filled close to capacity.
“There were people who loved gospel music but weren’t going into places to hear it. The ‘Giving it Back: Folk Arts of the Mid-Hudson Valley’ series was a first step in bringing it back to the Hudson Valley,” he adds. “My focus was to showcase gospel music in public places as opposed to just behind the four walls of a church on Sundays.”
In 2019, Watkins was contacted by Dutchess Tourism and asked if he would be interested in organizing a gospel festival in the area. The inaugural Hudson Valley Gospel Festival, presented in partnership with Dutchess Tourism, Arts Mid-Hudson and local churches, held its inaugural event Feb. 21 to 23, 2020 at the Majed K. Nesheiwat Convention Center and Changepoint Theatre in Poughkeepsie. Tickets were $50 per day and $130 for the whole weekend.
Highlights included performances by Just Voices, the West Point Gospel Choir, the Livingston College Gospel Choir, and appearances by gospel singers Everett Drake and Edwrin Sutton. Also performing was the Hudson Valley Gospel Festival Choir, which Watkins had started specifically for the festival.
In addition to the performances, the festival featured events on the history of gospel music and workshops for youth ages 6 to 18. The event was attended by more than 100 people each day.
This year the Hudson Valley Gospel Festival had to be postponed to the fall due to Covid. The trimmed-back festival will take place on Sept. 18, from 1 to 5 pm, and will be held outside at Bowdoin Park in Poughkeepsie. According to Watkins, the festival organizers are expecting around 500 people.
To promote the event, Watkins has been working with Arts Mid-Hudson on monthly Zoom programs that are open to the public. Presentations on the history of gospel music in the Hudson Valley featured such topics as youth in gospel music and the making of the Hudson Valley Gospel Festival Choir. Arts Mid-Hudson is also promoting the gospel festival on all its social media channels and in local press and electronic media.
This year’s festival will feature the Hudson Valley Gospel Festival Choir, along with the West Point Gospel Choir, the Bethel Church of God in Christ Praise Team/Poughkeepsie and Bethel Missionary Baptist Choir. Watkins has also invited other choirs from Westchester, Dutchess, Ulster, Sullivan and Orange counties. In addition, there will be a performance by the Pioneers of Jazz, a 20-piece ensemble. Watkins says, “It’s a natural choice, since gospel and jazz go hand-in-hand.”
The Hudson Valley Gospel Festival is held in partnership with Arts Mid-Hudson and supported by a community committee that Watkins chairs. While there is technically no budget for this year’s event, the finances to cover professional sound technicians and other fees will be raised by revenue earned at the gate. Tickets are $15 for general admission, $10 for students and seniors and free for children under age 5. For more, visit artsmidhudson.org.
Laura Joseph Mogil is a freelance writer living in Briarcliff Manor. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.