traditional African American gospel
Raleigh, North Carolina
Hailing from the North Carolina Piedmont, Lena Mae Perry and Wilbur Tharpe are outstanding gospel performers, known for their joyful renditions of spirituals and hymns delivered by Sister Perry’s soul-stirring vocals paired with Tharpe’s sanctified gospel piano. In various configurations, The Branchettes have been performing for more than 40 years, bringing their old-time style to audiences and congregations both near and far.
Initially, The Branchettes consisted of Ethel Elliot, Lena Mae Perry, and her aunt Mary Ellen Bennett, all members of the Long Branch Disciple Church’s senior choir in Johnston County, North Carolina. The trio formed by chance in the 1960s, when the three women found themselves the only members to show up for a scheduled choir performance. Despite their small number, they discovered in their trio a powerful capacity to move congregations through song. Accompanied by pianist Wilbur Tharpe, the group, taking their name from “Branch” in their church’s name, became known for its uplifting old-time style. Although Bennett passed away many years ago, the younger two women embarked on a long career as The Branchettes that took them deep into their community and as far away as Ireland.
Ethel Elliot passed away in 2004, but Perry and Tharpe continue to perform as The Branchettes. Perry and Tharpe have been singing spirituals, gospel, and congregational songs since childhood, and still perform in a traditional style that evokes their “foreparents and that old-time religion,” as Perry puts it. Perry’s powerful and expressive singing harkens back to the oldest forms of African American sacred song, while Tharpe’s keyboard is reminiscent of the early 20th-century “sanctified stride” style—the first piano style to ever be widely accepted in congregational song. Tharpe learned to play by ear in living rooms around his community, and became the pianist for a church in Durham by the eighth grade. In addition to his military service and a career as a middle school teacher, Tharpe has served as the regular pianist for up to four churches at once.
Perry describes hymns and gospel as “a medicine for the soul,” just as good for the singers as for the audience. It’s tradition that makes their brand of medicine so strong. “When you sing it the old way,” Perry says, “you’re really meaning what you’re talking about.”
The Branchettes keep up a steady weekend performance schedule of gospel programs in churches around the region, often playing two or three programs per weekend. Each March, they celebrate their “singing anniversary,” having marked their 43rd year together in 2016. Perry and Tharpe have performed at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Merlefest, and the North Carolina Statewide Folklife Festival, as well as in churches, universities, senior centers, and museums across North Carolina. Last year they made their debut performance at the 75th National Folk Festival in Greensboro, North Carolina. In 1995, The Branchettes received the North Carolina Heritage Award, the state’s highest honor for traditional artists.