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In Your Words

How the Pipe Organ Shaped Black Music

Howard professor Mickey Thomas Terry reflects on Black Music History Month through one of its beloved yet fading instruments.

Dr. Mickey T. Thomas

In the corner of the third floor of the Chadwick A. Boseman College of Fine Arts, beyond the sharp whizzes of the piccolo and grand piano arpeggios, Mickey Thomas Terry, Ph.D., is stationed in the corner office, the very last room.  

Terry is a man of many keys; an avid piano player, a frequenter of the harpsichord, but a lifelong organist after a natural love sprouted at three years old. 

“Where I was in Greenville, North Carolina, there was only one Black church that had a pipe organ,” Terry recalled. “There was on old man that played the organ, and he was a directing the choir. I just fell in love with the sound, the concept, everything. It was a natural love, and I just knew I had to play it.” 

Celebrating the 45th anniversary of Black Music Month, Terry spoke about the organ’s multi-genre impact in Black music, his personal contributions in cultivating Black music history, as well as the preservation of one of its most important instruments: the pipe organ. 

“During the Civil Rights Movement, gospel music was considered the music of choice...to use at marches and rallies and bring Black people together in a more spiritually cohesive way,” Terry said. “I think in the way, music is a great communicator. It solidifies our culture. It can bring us together.” 


Crafting The Pipe Organ's History

Blacks in the ARts
Created by Terry. Blacks in the Arts is both a textbook and a time machine to understand the history of Black art throughout the world. Terry's goal for the anthology is to continue highlighting the “contributions and impact of Black artists.” (Source: Mickey T. Terry)

But Terry is a record keeper of Black music himself. he is on the 11th edition of the “African-American Organ Music Anthology.” In his works, Terry says his material goes beyond grouping Black organists together by their instrument of choice or stringing together a “who’s who” of the organ world.  

“I tried to make sure that Black women are always represented, because women are often overlooked, they’re dealing with racism and sexism as well,” Terry said. “I think about the interrelationships about loud, soft, sad, happy, things of that nature. I try to give a potpourri of things, a well-balanced meal so to speak, so my audience will truly see differences throughout the anthology to get a good blend. I’ve gotten wonderful results.” 

Black Music Month, Terry says, is an opportunity to discuss the rich history of Black music, and what could be in the future. As a master instructor, Terry says his responsibility is to “light the fuse,” as knowing is “just the beginning” for scholars hungry for knowledge and understanding.  “There are already too many people trying to minimize, tear down or deny what we have done and accomplished,” he said. Terry is also the editor and author of the book “Black in the Arts” which details the history of Black artists throughout America in music, art, and theater-selective reading materials. 

“I feel it’s my job to expose them to knowledge and they can draw their own conclusions,” Terry explained. “At the end of my course, I give a little monologue...I tell them, ‘This is just an opening, a beginning, I couldn’t begin to give you all there is to be given, but this will hopefully get you excited about listening, learning and experiencing.”  

The Future of a Fading Instrument

Terry shared a few facts about the pipe organ such as instrument’s roots in northern Africa as water organs, its role in gospel, jazz, the blues and classic music, its usual high cost of $1 million or more, and the organ’s more popular descendants such as piano or the newest cousin, the keyboard.  

“It’s getting harder and harder for churches to be able to sustain the costs of pipe organs, so a lot of churches are moving away from organs and going into keyboards,” he explained. “Musicians should have the experience and knowledge of having exposure to music, the culture, that these instruments bring. I would hate to see this instrument be regulated to museums or fond memories.” 

This Fall will mark a decade in the Department of Music for Terry. Whether it is previous roles of teaching church music classes with the School of Divinity, it is no surprise that Terry is a staunch supporter of the college of fine arts’ establishing curricula that explores the organ’s role in church music and the genre’s vital role in the Black music world.  

“It would be wonderful because no other Black school has that and it would open a lot of opportunities...and we could train them whether it’s a Pentecostal or Episcopal church,” Terry said. “Howard would be advancing and moving forward in terms of Black music.”