That Something Within
By Tyler Francischine & Sean David Christensen
USC Thornton keyboard studies doctoral student Lenny Hayes partnered with USC Annenberg faculty member Miki Turner in honoring, reimagining century-old Black gospel hymn.
As a 9-year-old, Lenny Hayes got his first taste of solo performance when he sang lead in the youth choir at his neighborhood church, Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. Like the summer rain raising the rivers, Hayes slowly built his voice into a crescendo, captivating the congregation to do the same.
The Thornton doctoral student in keyboard studies kept that experience close to his heart while creating a new arrangement of “Something Within,” a gospel hymn composed in 1919 by Lucie Eddie Campbell, whose parents were enslaved in Mississippi.
“Bringing a classical sound and a Southern gospel sound together is a beautiful marriage that I try, when I can, to bring together,” he says.
The performance accompanies a video of USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism Professor Miki Turner reading her essay “That Something Within” that honors and reimagines the century-old hymn, presented earlier this month as part of USC’s Black History Month celebration.
Campbell was inspired to write the hymn after watching a blind guitar evangelist on Beale Street in Memphis refuse to sing, as “something within him” wouldn’t allow it. In writing “Something Within,” she became the first Black female composer of a gospel hymn. Learning the story behind the lyrics added a new dimension to Hayes’ experience of the piece, which pairs bright chords with dark words to communicate the double consciousness experienced by Black Americans.
“This happy melody has a bit of twistedness to it when we think about the lyrics ‘banishes pains,’” Hayes says. “I believe Lucie Campbell was saying, ‘Hold on, my brothers and sisters.’ Now, that gives me chills, because I can only imagine what writing that hymn must have felt like for her, in a time period where Blacks were free on paper, but they weren’t culturally and socially free.”
Hayes’ arrangement of “Something Within” reflects both his classical training and his upbringing performing in the church, adding unique flourishes to a traditionally repetitive melody to create a piece of music that soars and plummets with palpable emotion while accompanying Turner’s words.
“One of the characteristics of the Southern style of church music is gospel. Gospel, the sacred art form, was heavily influenced by blues and jazz, and I would be crazy not to acknowledge that that sound of music was definitely an influence in this arrangement,” Hayes says as he taps out a bluesy walk up to a five-chord on the piano. “Connecting to the personal aspects of the hymn’s story inspired me to create an arrangement that tells the story in a fresh way.”
In Turner’s essay and reading on the enduring legacy and the timeliness of the hymn, the USC Annenberg associate professor of professional practice interprets the lyrics through the lens of Black Americans’ experience in the century following its writing.
“That ‘something within’ Campbell is referring to is the inherent strength of our African ancestors, whose faith in God allowed them to make a way out of no way. The ancestors, who were shackled and sold, beaten and berated, bullied and lynched, were somehow able to rise above it all and give birth to generations of Black Americans who had the courage of their convictions and were willing to fight the good fight, even if it meant that they, like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and others, would not live long enough to celebrate the victories,” Turner says. “These are the shoulders upon which we stand in these troubled times.”
Hayes says he hopes his arrangement and accompaniment of Turner’s essay inspires listeners of all backgrounds and identities to think deeply about the hymn’s messages and to recall the strength and resilience within each of them.
“My hope is that the listener will walk away feeling that there is hope, there is faith, there is love in the midst of your trial, your tribulation, your struggle. Whatever you’re going through, there is a better day,” Hayes says. “Use the text of this beautiful yet painful hymn to inspire love and hope in your life.”
Read more about the USC Thornton Keyboard Studies program
USC Thornton ushers in the spring semester with a variety of events and performances that are open to in-person, limited capacity audiences.
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