Against the backdrop of a bright blue Sunday sky, men dressed in white tuxedos sway back and forth and clap their hands on a stage draped with blue piping. Dotted between them, women in long white dresses twirl in place, the buttons on their cardigans glittering under the hot stage lights. Just in front of the choir sits Larry Bland perched at his piano, dressed in a tuxedo, and belting gospel music joyously into a microphone.
This was the scene the day that Larry Bland & The Volunteer Choir played the inaugural Richmond Folk Festival in 2008. This October, the Volunteer Choir will once again grace that stage to perform for the Folk Festival’s tenth anniversary. “The folk festival has international recognition and an international flavor of presenting music from all genres,” Larry Bland, the longtime Director of the Volunteer Choir, told me over the phone one warm afternoon in early fall. “It’s a centerpiece for the city of Richmond’s cultural recognition and outreach,” he continued. “We’re really looking forward to our appearance this year.”
At the Folk Festival, the Volunteer Choir will also celebrate their own 50th anniversary. The group originally formed at Richmond’s Second Baptist Church in 1968 and Bland has led the choir for nearly its entire tenure. “We really grew up together,” he reminisced. “By and large, the Volunteer Choir have been my alter ego in terms of my creative spirit.” Bland has been able to truly express his love of music and his creative vision for music-making through the choir’s on-stage execution. “They have embodied what my creative mind has envisioned,” he explained.
Bland’s vision for the choir from the beginning was to incorporate show elements—choreographed dancing, twirling, and rhythmic movements—into their performance, breaking the mold of what a more traditional gospel choir might look like. “We were doing a lot of choreography before it was popular,” he said.
In addition to their forward-thinking choreography, Bland wrote gospel arrangements of secular songs for the group to perform, a practice which added to their mainstream appeal and expanded their popularity. “That’s one of the things that made the choir so popular,” he said. “Our presentation of gospel music was as a genuine artform rather than as coming out to do a worship service.” As a result, the group has performed with a number of pop music luminaries and in a wide variety of settings, including with Steve Bassett and the Richmond Symphony, at the June Jubilee and Dogwood Dell, and most recently, at the inauguration of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam last January. Bland described his approach as “taking the edge” off gospel music, thereby making it more accessible to mainstream secular audiences. “We were able to transcend bringing the feel of gospel music and bringing that into other venues and working with other artists.”
In a difficult turn of events, the Volunteer Choir’s Folk Festival performance will be particularly meaningful this year. “After this year,” Bland said, “my intentions are to retire.” He plans to step down as the choir’s Director in December. He explained that, with age, the choir has had to slow down their performing schedule and scale back the choreography that made them so popular in their heyday. “Generally, the choir is getting older, and those original members who are not deceased are grandparents. Some of the things that we were known best for, we’re just unable to do,” he laughed.
All in all, Bland would rather have a say in when the curtain falls on his career with this legendary performing group: “You really have to know when it’s time to say, listen, it’s been a fabulous run,” he said confidently. “Richmond, Virginia throughout the years has been just absolutely extraordinary in how they have supported and cheered us on. We will always love the supporters we’ve had throughout the years,” he said. “We want to go out on a high note.”
Looking back on his almost 50 year history directing the Volunteer Choir, Bland is most grateful for the opportunities for expression that working with a dedicated group of people who are like his own family members has afforded him. “As I’ve often shared with them, I can create arrangements, I can have stage performances in my mind that I create, but until they execute it, it doesn’t manifest itself.” The ability to bring his ideas and creative passion to life have deeply moved Bland during his tenure as director of the Volunteer Choir. “I will eternally be grateful for them allowing me to lead and offer up my talents through them,” he declared. “I can say that through the Volunteer Choir, they have certainly helped me realize my musical dreams and creativity.”
Bland says his departure is bittersweet, but at the same time, he has no regrets about his tenure with the Volunteer Choir and is proud of the impact the group has made on the Richmond music community. “Some flowers are just meant to bloom where they’re planted,” he smiled. “We certainly have blossomed right here where we were planted. Richmond has embraced us in a great way.” After a moment, he began laughing heartily through the phone, then boomed, “Let’s take a beautiful bow while we can still bow!”
Larry Bland & The Volunteer Choir will perform at the Richmond Folk Festival on Sunday, October 14 at 3:15 PM on the Altria Stage. For full schedule of festival events that weekend, visit richmondfolkfestival.org.