For a closer look at this report, watch a TV report on Reverend Cora Harvey Armstrong tonight, April 21, at 8 p.m. on VPM Focal Point News.
Virginia Union University recently announced a new study center led by multi-Grammy award-winning choirmaster and artist Hezekiah Walker, designed to teach today’s students about gospel music, the sacred art form rooted in southern black church culture. VUU alumnus Reverend Cora Harvey Armstrong is one of Virginia’s most celebrated gospel artists, and her career spans 50 years and spans three continents. With her powerful voice and soulful piano playing, she embodies a centuries-old black cultural tradition, preserving the art form of gospel for generations to come.
“Traditional music, gospel music, will get you through some things,” Armstrong said last summer as she prepared to perform with her family singing group at the 12th Annual Gospel Music Festival at the Amphitheater. Richmond’s Dogwood Dell. The concert series attracts a range of professional and popular gospel artists to Virginia’s capital. It is hosted by Sheilah Belle, a Richmond journalist and midday radio host on Praise 104.7 FM.
“Gospel music means to me an opportunity to change lives, an opportunity to impact lives,” Belle said on this swampy day in August 2021 as speakers blasted out upbeat contemporary gospel hits and hundreds people streamed into space. “You can’t sing, you can’t talk, you have to live it.”
Armstrong was born and raised in Newtown, a town of just over 1,200 in King and Queen County, Virginia. Armstrong was raised in a strict faith home by parents who were very active in their church, First Mt. Olive Baptist. Armstrong would serve as the church’s music minister for more than 40 years.
“It’s all about the family and the Church of God. You had to go to church. There was no way to say, “I don’t feel like it today,” or any of that. You get up and get out of here,” Armstrong explained.
She came of age in the 1970s, and after high school attended Virginia State University in Petersburg, one of the oldest historically black colleges or universities in the country.
“Virginia State was my first time away from home in Newtown. And so, my first two semesters at Virginia State where I was the best student ever, until I hear the sound of the gospel choir rehearsing one night and I fell in love with that choir,” Armstrong said.
After eight years at Virginia State, including stints directing its internationally acclaimed gospel choir, Armstrong’s life took a turn, she said. Her focus on church and her music wavered as she partied heartily, made questionable choices and suffered domestic abuse from her partners.
“Every bad relationship, every black eye, every mean word said, everything I had to endure through a challenge, God was right with me,” she said. “Even though I wasn’t necessarily paying attention to him, he never took my hands off me because he knew he had more for me to do.”
As she progressed, Armstrong’s reputation as a seasoned gospel singer and pianist blossomed over the years, and she appeared frequently at churches and events across the Commonwealth, including including the Richmond Folk Festival and the Virginia Folklife Program. She has recorded several albums, including original songs she wrote and gospel standards like “Amazing Grace”, and has collaborated with renowned Virginia-based musicians like trumpeter and music teacher Bill McGee and Earl Bynum, an award-winning songwriter, musician and co-founder. of the Independent Gospel Artist Alliance and Conference.
“She’s not just a singer, she’s an aunt to many, a sister to many, a mother to many, even in gospel music,” said Bynum, who invited Armstrong to tour with him in Italy in recent years. “Many of us look up to her, and she [doesn’t] even know it.
Although he is still recovering from health issues that make mobility a challenge, Armstrong’s faith is stronger than ever. Just like his musical message.
“Whatever I have to go through and live and testify to people, if it helps someone make a better decision towards God and towards themselves, I think it’s worth being transparent,” Armstrong said. “It’s worth people knowing about my business and I don’t mind because it helps someone.”
To learn more about gospel music in Virginia, contact the Richmond American Chapter Gospel Music Workshopwhich provides information and choir training to churches and organizations in Central Virginia.