Artful Lives: Almeta Ingram-Miller
Music Credits: “Take a Look in the Book,” composed by Maggie Ingram and Almeta Ingram Miller, “Time is Winding Up” composed by Maggie Ingram,” “I’ve Endured” composed by Ola Belle Reed, all performed by The Legendary Ingramettes, from the cd Take a Look in the Book.
“I Have a Dream (Tribute to Dr. King)” composed by Maggie Ingram, from the cd, Do You See What I See ,performed by Maggie Ingram and The Ingramettes.
“Family Prayer,” composed by Maggie Ingram, performed by Maggie Ingram and The Ingramettes, from the cd, All Together Now: 15 Years of The Richmond Folk Festival Live.
Jo Reed: From the National Endowment for the Arts, this is Art Works, I’m Josephine Reed.
You’re listening to the title track from the cd “Take a Look in the Book” performed by the 2022 National Heritage Fellows, The Legendary Ingramettes. The National Heritage Awardees epitomize what it means to live an artful life. The recipients all have deep ties to their communities and are often voices for those communities, working to keep their traditional arts alive and vibrant and sharing them whenever and wherever possible--often while working day-jobs. The Legendary Ingramettes are a case in point. The Legendary Ingramettes are a case in point.
Six decades of music, generations tied together through the force of will of powerful women, The Legendary Ingramettes is widely considered Richmond, Virginia’s “First Family of Gospel,” with their roof-raising harmonies stirring audiences from churches to festivals to concert halls. Maggie Ingram began the group—she was a mother left with five small children to raise, and she taught them to sing modeled on the male gospel singers of the 40s and 50s and they began to accompany her as the “Ingramettes,” singing in South Florida churches—and then moving to Richmond, Virginia in 1961. Jon Lohman who heads Richmond’s Center for Cultural Vibrancy writes, “Together, the Ingramettes… bring the spirit of a Sunday morning service to the stage, enthralling audiences at such prestigious venues as the Kennedy Center, National Folk Festival, and countless others across the United States.” Maggie Ingram passed away in 2015, but she had handed the mantle to her daughter Almeta Ingram Miller who continues her mother’s legacy of music, ministry and service leading The Legendary Ingramettes. Their cd “Take a Look in the Book” is a showcase for their musical energy, soaring harmonies and great story-telling. Still bringing audiences to their feet, hands clapping in time, The Legendary Ingramettes recently toured Serbia and Bulgaria with the U.S. State Department and have just received a US Artists International Award to perform in Ireland. There is so much to say about The Ingramettes and their journey—but since Almeta Ingram Miller is one of the best storytellers I’ve ever spoken with…I’m going to let her do the talking.
Jo Reed: Almeta, I want to begin by congratulating the Legendary Ingramettes being named 2022 National Heritage Fellows.
Almeta Ingram Miller: Ain't that wonderful?
Jo Reed: Yes, it is great! And I think to talk about the Legendary Ingramettes-- we need to talk about your mom, Maggie Ingram.
Almeta Ingram Miller: Absolutely.
Jo Reed: --, and she began this gospel group, Sister Maggie Ingram and the Ingramettes--
Almeta Ingram Miller: A long time ago.
Jo Reed: --a long time ago. Tell me about her.
Almeta Ingram Miller: My mom-- I don't think she realized the vision that she actually had, because this group was actually born out of necessity of being a single parent, a mom being left alone with five children to raise. She was only 28 years old when my dad left the family, and it was five of us, three boys, two girls. And this was out of a desperation to keep her family together. And she didn't know what else she was going to do, but she did know that whatever she was going to do it was going to be because she kept her five children with her, and kept us together as a family unit. And that has actually defined the nature of this group, even as others have come along, it is a family unit. This is a woman of great faith, great faith in God, and always seeking God's guidance, and she is now having to raise us alone with no real job skill set. She all of her life worked as a domestic. Her dad pulled her out of school in the third grade to work in the fields. Her family were sharecroppers on a cotton plantation in Douglas, Georgia, and she was pulled out of school in the third grade to work in the fields. So this is someone with little or no education who by the time of 8 or 9 years old has taught herself to sing, has taught herself to play an old upright piano that's in the barn there on the plantation. So with no real job skill set, and that was a daunting task to keep a family of five together. And this is the 50s, so she's got a task ahead of her.
Jo Reed: Were you still in Georgia?
Almeta Ingram Miller: We were in Miami, my dad moved the family to Miami, he had family in Miami, and that's how we got there. My sister and I were born in Miami, my three brothers born there in Douglas Georgia. Dad worked as a-- well, they would call it a landscaper now, but he just cut grass in the old Orange Bowl Stadium there in Miami. He cut the grass and trimmed the hedges there. This is before the days of electric and gasoline powered lawnmowers, so it was very manual labor. My mom always worked as a domestic, a maid in other folks' houses, cleaning them, as we went to elementary school. So he just-- it just became too much for him to take care of five children.
Jo Reed: So, your mom decided she's going to form a gospel group to keep all of you together, five kids.
Almeta Ingram Miller: That is what she did. That is how that happened.
Jo Reed: And how did she teach you to sing?
Almeta Ingram Miller: Well, she taught all of us to sing herself. While other children were outside playing, we would be in the house, sitting in a circle, she's got a stick off the ground, beating time to help us be able to keep time, and she taught each of us to sing our different voices. Now this is a woman who has had no formal training in singing herself, but she taught all of us to sing each of our parts, even to my oldest brother, he sang bass for us, because you got to remember, this is in the 50s, and this is in the days when the male quartets kind of dominated-- especially these African American male quartets, they dominated the gospel music scene. And so we knew we were going to do traditional music because that is the music that she grew up on. This is what she knew. And so she taught us to sing the same style as the male quartets.
Jo Reed: Got it. And that was so unusual then.
Almeta Ingram Miller: Absolutely. She was always, just always interested in the traditional gospel music, the quartet style of singing. And so our style of singing was copied from that style of singing. So now you've got these women, these little girls and their mom, and we're singing this hard, traditional male quartet style of singing.
Jo Reed: Oh my goodness. Do you remember any of the earliest songs that your mom taught you?
Almeta Ingram Miller: I do remember some of the songs that we used to sing. There was a song-- a young man by the Archie Brownlee sang a song called I'm Going to Leave You in the Hands of the Lord, and the lyric content was always so important to her because this is what helped us get through our struggles. This is what helped us to get through our struggles. We would listen to these, you know, not just because the lyrics were hopeful, and they were, because this traditional quartet African American music has always followed our history as African Americans. And so the music has always reflected the times. When times were sad the music was kind of sad. When times got a little happy, the music got a little more upbeat and happy. And so this is what happened. At some point, though, she began to write herself. We didn't sing their songs anymore, she began to write her own music. And one of the first songs that she wrote was a song called The Time is Winding Up.
Jo Reed: I love that. That's on your new album.
Almeta Ingram Miller: And that song, we put it on the CD, that's a tribute to her,
she wrote that song. This is just a wonderful educated in the school of hard knocks I guess you would say. And as she begins to write, she begins to write about her life and her experiences and what's going on with her. So that's really what now sets us apart from just singing songs that the other groups have written. Now she begins to find her own voice, and to write her own message, and she's got these five little children to sing that, to bring that music to life.
Jo Reed: And how old were you when you started performing?
Almeta Ingram Miller: I started performing onstage with my mom at the age of 4.
Jo Reed: Oh my goodness.
Almeta Ingram Miller: Oh yeah, yeah. Yeah, I could sing, I could--
Jo Reed: Were you nervous?
Almeta Ingram Miller: Yeah, yeah. I knew enough to be nervous, but it didn't, you know, that kind of wore off after a while because many of the groups and things that we sang with, they knew us, they knew my mom, and everybody was, oh, you know, cute little kids. But it was hard work, you know, yeah, yeah. We had to learn to sing our parts, to keep our notes, to project our voices, and once again, nobody's got any formal music training here. So we're just singing from what we know.
Jo Reed: Absolutely. And where would you be singing?
Almeta Ingram Miller: We sang all around in the Miami area. We were born and lived in Dade County. We would sing in Liberty City, Pompano Beach, Fort Lauderdale, all the surrounding places there around Miami. Sunday afternoons was always filled with Gospel singing. And as far as going to Orlando, even in Orlando.
Jo Reed: And what was traveling around, I mean, Florida is many things, but it's also the Deep South, and especially back then. What was the traveling around like for you and your mom, you know, with five kids, and being Black in the South.
Almeta Ingram Miller: Absolutely. And traveling around in Florida, we kind of stayed within our culture and our own people. This is what has been so incredible about getting here to Richmond, and the things that have happened now so far because all of the audiences were African Americans, all of the churches we went to were African American. We did have because Miami isn't that far from Cuba, and so we did have some of that culture there. But just about everything we did was with our own culture, it was within the African American community.
Jo Reed: When and why did you come to Virginia? What was that journey from Miami to Richmond?
Almeta Ingram Miller: Yeah. What prompted that is once again two things. First, my mom's deep, abiding faith -- she wanted something better for her children. In Flroida…we were affected by things like poll tax and not being able to vote and, she wanted better for us. In her prayers it was I need to keep my family together, I need to do something better. And then my second-oldest brother Lucius, he developed a heart murmur. The doctor says it's because the weather is so hot in Miami year around. And so the doctor tells my mom that this Richmond, Virginia has a better climate. There's some heat but then there's some cool, and so if she could get him to somewhere where it wasn't hot year around that that condition may heal. And so that was in her prayers, and she says that God told her to pack us up and move us to Richmond, Virginia. We had no family here, we didn't know anybody here. What she did was ask our pastor at our church did he know of any church in Richmond, Virginia. Now we belong to a denomination called the Church of God in Christ, and we had churches here in Virginia, so that's what our pastor in Miami called the pastor up here in Richmond, Virginia, and he says, "I'm sending my folks up there. They're going to live up there. Can you look after them until they can get up on their feet?" And that's how that happened. Once again, my mom was playing the piano, the five of us were singing. And people would hear us sing in church, and so we would start to get invitations to sing around here in Richmond. And how we got started singing in this state is that the lead singer of the Harmonizing Four quartet, and that's a great quartet, you know, internationally known from here in Richmond, Virginia. He was a member of Hood Temple AME Zion Church, and we sang at Hood Temple one Sunday, and he stayed behind after the service, walked up to my mom and said, "Listen, I'm going to have a big show, I'm bringing in all kind of groups here, famous people, the Caravan Gospel Singers, the Soul Stirrers are coming, the Dixie Hummingbirds are coming, and I would like for you and your children to open up the show." We go out on stage, it used to be called the Mosque, We open up the show at the Mosque, and the rest is history. People from all over begin to call us and want us to come and sing for them.
Jo Reed: That's amazing. And meanwhile, you're all performing, your mom is writing music, she is taking care of five kids, but she also still worked a day job.
Almeta Ingram Miller: She got to work, she's got to.
Jo Reed: And she ended up being the housekeeper in the home of a very prominent civil rights attorney.
Almeta Ingram Miller: Isn't that crazy? Isn't that crazy how she goes to the Virginia Employment Commission when she gets here, and all she knows how to do is domestic work, she's a maid, and they go through the rolodex, and they say, "Oh, okay. We've got somebody that called, and they want somebody to come in." And they send her to Overbrook Road here in Richmond's north side, and she knocks on the door, and she meets this lady and her husband, they have one son, and this guy turns out to be Oliver W. Hill Sr. She begins working as a maid for them. And so, of course, Mr. Hill, you know, she's doing this Southern cooking, he's got people coming over there, Thomas Henderson, Thurgood Marshall didn't mean anything to me until later on. They're working on Brown versus the Board of Education. I'm a kid, I didn't really know the significance of all of this. And she's there cooking for these people who are working on civil rights legislation. He found out that she had some kids that sing, so he had us to come over and sing for them while they were there, and it was just incredible. It was just incredible. He says, "We got to do something for you, Maggie. We got to get you, you know, listen, I love your cooking, you know that, and you keep this house spotlessly clean, but there is more in you than cleaning houses." And so he helps her to get a job with the city of Richmond, working in social services, and here's what she did. She drove, the caseworkers would have clients out in Amelia County and Powhatan, and they would have to bring them in to go to St. Phillip's Hospital. When we first got to Richmond there was a Black hospital and a White hospital. So they were looking for people who could go out in the country and bring the African American people who did not have transportation or were too elderly, and the only caveat is that you had to be able to drive a stick shift. Well, growing up on a farm and driving trucks and tractors and, hey, my mom fit right in, and they gave her a job, they hired here. She worked there for the city of Richmond, see? What a life.
Jo Reed: And meanwhile the Ingramettes really take off in Richmond.
Almeta Ingram Miller: Really, really take off. We now have a radio broadcast on WANT, that was the Black radio station here. And so on Sunday mornings we would go there, and we would open up their broadcast day. And so, you know, yeah, we were now being heard on an AM radio station, but it's all over Virginia. And this is just incredible, we catch the attention of a man by the name of Ernie Young, and he owns Nashboro Records in Nashville, Tennessee. And he asked my mom to bring us up there, and now-- we're just children, but we're recording a record for Ernie Young in Nashville, Tennessee. And I got curious, and I went to the Library of Congress archives, and mom, she's there, the record that we recorded with Nashboro Records, it's there in the archives at the Library of Congress, so it's incredible.
Jo Reed: So you're used to live performing, Almeta. What was it like when you're suddenly in a recording studio? What was the difference for you then? I'm sure it was exciting, but it had to be different from live performance.
Almeta Ingram Miller: It really was because one of the things about live performing, and I noticed this about my mom, and I've continued to keep that, she always connects with the people that she's singing to, and so it's always that we try to connect with the audiences. When you're in the recording studio, now it's very disciplined, this is disciplined singing that every note has to be perfect, every sound has to be. Because now this is going on, at that time, wax, and it was a very different experience for us. We're used to clapping our hands and doing that sort of thing, and now you can't do that in the recording studio. You've got to be very disciplined, and almost regimented in what you do. And my mom always had a concern that the spirit of the music would not translate onto recording, but it seems to have done that for her, so,
Jo Reed: Yeah, it's a different experience. This sharing of family stories that you do as you're singing, or the stories that are in your songs, did that begin really early on?
Almeta Ingram Miller: It did. It did. She has always shared her history, her childhood. She always shared that with us. We didn't have a lot to do, we sang a song that says, "Come on and let's have a family prayer."
So every Sunday morning she cooks breakfast, and we all come down to the table, and this is our boardroom, we don't have a conference room, we don't have a boardroom, so when we sit around the table this is serious business. We're talking about the things that we've gone through, and the things that we've been through, and she wants us to understand where-- I don't even know where the concept came to somebody that only had a third grade education, that it's important for me to share with my children where we came from, our history, the things that we have gone through. Because we were living it, for the most part we were living it with her. When we would go to my grandmother's in Georgia, we'd ride the Silver Meteor train to Waycross, Georgia, and then my uncles would meet the train with the mule and wagon, and we'd go on the mule and wagon back to Douglas, to grandmother's house. There's no electricity, no running water, no plumbing in the little house, ythere's a well on the back porch, there’s an outside toilet. One Saturday morning we can't go outside and play. My grandmother's sitting in front of the front door with a rusty shotgun across her lap, and we're trying to figure out what's going on, and little later we hear the mule and the wagons come up in the yard, and we go and peak out the window, and in the words of Billy Holiday there is strange fruit hanging from the tree where we live. We're just children, we're just six and seven, and there is strange fruit hanging from the tree. So we have lived through this, and my grandmother's sitting there not knowing if they were going to come, because they knew that the rowhouses that we lived in, they knew that there were Black people living in those houses, and she didn't know if at some point they would just decide to lynch us all. So she's sitting there, afraid, and telling us, you all still be quiet. And nobody's saying anything. Then the deacons from the church come and cut the guy down from the tree.
Jo Reed: That's an experience you take with you for the rest of your life.
Almeta Ingram Miller: Yeah. I will never forget that. I'm 70 years old now, and I will never forget that. I will never forget that. But here's how they met that, here's how my grandmother and my mother met that it's some people, they don't understand, they don't understand, and you guys can't grow up hating them. This was the truth of the matter, that we've got to live here, we're sharecroppers here, we've got to live here. We just got to try to live our lives here, and this is one of the reasons that we moved to Richmond. It was kind of funny to me that my mom says, "We're going to move up North." And then when I get here, and we start studying Virginia history, I learned that this is the capital of the Confederacy. I thought we moved up North, and we start learning about the Mason-Dixon line and everything. I quickly learned where we were.
Jo Reed: And meanwhile, the music that you were singing, and the way you were singing it, it was both a reflection of those times, but a comfort for the people living through those times. Is that fair?
Almeta Ingram Miller: Absolutely. Absolutely. That's a marvelous assessment. That's a marvelous assessment, because when you're in that living situation, and all you're trying to do, here's this woman, she's just trying to get her children raised, and trying to us the education that she was not afforded to have. So it was still all-Black school, but at least we were in school, we were in school. And so the singing for us now, this is a release, this is a way to rise above the things that are happening to us in real time. This is a way to rise about that. And, yes, we met that when we out, we went to Amelia County to sing, and stopped at one of the service stations on the way home to get some gasoline, and we're told we would have to go around the back, and my mom just told us, "Get in the car.” We met that from time to time, we did. Now this is in the 60s, now we're in the 60s, and we still met that from time to time. But the music was a joy, the music was uplifting, and people have always left feeling better than they did when they came, and that kind of made us feel better, too.
Jo Reed: As you're singing, and as you're reaching out to people with your music and with your spirit, you're also reaching out with your spirit by doing so much community work, I mean, that's sort of baked into the Ingramettes.
Almeta Ingram Miller: Listen that's one of the things that, boy, and we didn't get it at first because we were children, and we're like, man, we're having a hard enough time making ends meet ourself. But my mom was never the type-- she was the type of person, --I got to make life better for somebody else. Later on in life, I hear this term pay it forward, you know, that wasn't a term they used back in the 60s, but she's always done that, and the marvelous things that have arisen out of that, that I'm only one person, I can't do everything, but I can do what I can do, even though I'm just one person. Listen, it's always been about serving, it's been about serving, her life was about serving for the greater good, for the greater community, and that's one of the things about her that I so loved, and that I've continued to do for the greater good, for the greater good. It may just be that this is how we came to have communications with the Department of Corrections here.
Jo Reed: That's what I was going to ask you about.
Almeta Ingram Miller: Yeah, we were asked to come and sing in Powhatan, there is a Camp 13 there, right now it's in Chester, but right up Courthouse Road. These were minimum security correctional facilities. There's one in Caroline County, Unit 2 was in Caroline County. And, once again, they didn't have violent offenders, or these are people who are getting ready to go home in less than a year, and nonviolent offenders, and we partnered with one of the churches here, Mount Gilead Baptist Church. Every fourth Sunday that church went to the prison to do a church service, and so we sang there one Sunday, and the pastor asked my mom, he said, "Would you come and go with us when we go to the prison?" And, of course, she said yes. And that started or relationship with the Department of Corrections. When we got there, we put a piano on the flatbed truck, on the back of a flatbed truck, and they let the inmates come out into the yard, and we sang for them. Now, as we're getting ready to go, some of the guys are saying, "Listen, the next time you come, is it possible you could bring my wife and kids, I haven't seen them in over a year, they don't have a way to get out here, this is too far, and they don't have transportation." And now this begins another dimension of ministry. She begins now to get people's wives and children together, listen, if you got somebody down at Camp 13, we're going down there to sing Sunday, and you'd like to come with us, and you'd like a ride to come there, meet us at such and such a place, and get on the van that we've got, and we'll take you down there with us when we go to sing. And she starts this, and then we go to Camp 2 there in Caroline County, and we take people and their wives and children down there. And so finally she asked one of the wardens at the correctional center, "Is there a way that we could institute this on a regular basis, maybe like a family day?" And he takes her idea, and he talks with the governor and they institute family day at the corrections centers where people's children can come, and spouses can come.
Jo Reed: And then she goes on to distribute food in the neighborhood because people have food insecurity.
Almeta Ingram Miller: She does that. She does that. We do that now. You got five kids, a lot of times when we'd go out to the country to sing, some of the older parishioners, some of the older congregants would come and say, "Miss Maggie, I got a bunch of apple trees there, all of my children are grown, and the apples is just falling on the ground and getting rotten and everything. Maybe you and your kids would want to come and get some of the pears or the apples or peaches or..."-- especially in Amelia County, there's a big peach grove down there, we were invited to just come down there and pick them-- tomatoes. So we spent the summer canning and freezing and, you know, making butter, and this or that, and then she'd come back because at this time now we're living in the Mosby Court Housing Project over here in Church Hill, and she would call our neighbors, she would call our friends, and we would do that. We've instituted that now, even into some of our travels where when we're singing now, my sister, she'll come and we'll do some soul food cooking, well, she does healthy soul food cooking. And so many of the times now, we've done some concerts where my sisters cook, and we fed the entire congregation that was there, just fed them. But she's always doing it, neighbors and friends who may not, you know, we were all having a hard time, and we're all in this together, but she was not satisfied to have something for herself when other people were in need. And she's always done that, for the greater good-- looking beyond herself and her five children, who desperately needed everything we needed, but she's got to do something for the greater good. And that's what makes her life such a wonderfully blessed one, that she served, she served her community.
Jo Reed: And a great tradition to give to her children, a great legacy.
Almeta Ingram Miller: Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely. That's one of the reasons we've continued that. We want to honor God, and then be a blessing to others.
Jo Reed: And the Ingramettes begin performing in other places. You begin performing in folk festivals. You became a regular at the Richmond Folk Festival.
Almeta Ingram Miller: Listen, I know. That came about, there was a young man here, he passed away last year, but his name is Larry Bland, and he worked in D.C. at the National Council for the Traditional Arts. They were getting ready to just start the National Folk Festival here in Richmond, and since Larry was from Richmond, they said, "Larry, listen, we're going to be starting this in Richmond, Virginia." He said, "Well, you can't go to Richmond without letting Maggie Ingram and the Ingramettes sing." They'd never heard of us, and Larry got us on the first year, that they started the folk festival here, and people came out to hear us. I will never forget Governor Tim Kaine coming out to see us perform. We were all sitting out there, and they're sitting out there in the grass, everybody's having a great time, and it started our association with the Virginia Folklife of the Virginia Humanities. It started a wonderful relationship with Jon Lohman and the Virginia Folklife. So every year now we've been asked to come back, and we close the festival out on Sundays, we're always the last folks to sing at that Folklife tent. Oh my goodness, just thousands of people have come to see us and to have us sing for them, and it's always been a great honor for us, always a great honor for us, especially here in Richmond, because this is home for us.
Jo Reed: And you had said that the folk festivals were really introducing new audiences to you as well.
Almeta Ingram Miller: Absolutely. Now there's diversity in the audience, and I got to tell you, now you thought I was scared when I was a little kid, when we start now we're sharing the stage with bluegrass and with country music, and the music was not unfamiliar to me, because like I told you, when we moved up here in the 60s, I think when we got here I don't think they had the three stations, I think there was just one station, might have been WTVR, that was back in the day when T.V. would sign off at midnight.
Jo Reed: Oh, I remember. National anthem and out.
Almeta Ingram Miller: I know. I know. You're getting the national anthem, and then that bullseye on the screen. Oh my goodness, such memories. What memories. But when we came up here, on Saturdays the biggest thing that we had going for us was to watch the Porter Wagner Show featuring Dolly Parton, okay? And even then I knew she was going to be somebody special. I was like, man, this lady is something. So we grew up in the South, and so we've always heard Southern gospel, bluegrass, country music, it was not unfamiliar to us. I've always had such an appreciation for the music, and the folk festival gave us that venue it was-- oh my, it just blew my mind. It just blew my mind to be onstage with these marvelous people that I've grown up seeing on television. And so we didn't know how they would accept our music, but I got to tell you, after our first show that day, by the time we got to our second show at the first Richmond Folk Festival, I saw the bluegrass pickers, they got a beer in their hand, and they're coming and sitting down on the grass in the front row, they're coming to see the Ingramettes. So we had a marvelous relationship with them all the time, we really did. And when mom passed away, at Watermelon Festival in Berryville, Virginia, when they got the word that my mom had passed away, all the pickers came onstage and played in tribute to her. So it was just wonderful. It just opened up an entirely new world of us, especially when we now talk about diversity and inclusion, but always through this music we've gotten a chance to rub up against other cultures, and I got to tell you, we've got more similarities than we have differences, we found that out. We found that out.
Jo Reed: You've performed in a lot of great, great venues. Many of them, and had great moments, but I would have to think, and I could be wrong, but one of the great experiences would have to be you performing at the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.
Almeta Ingram Miller: Listen. Listen, I got to tell you, That was such an experience for us because here's what happened. We had a hurricane come through here. We were scheduled for that Friday night. I think the hurricane came through that Saturday or that Sunday. So they canceled all of the other festivities that weekend, and they were only going to have the Friday night show. So now we're in the Kennedy Center, and normally we would have done it on the small stage, that show that night, on the Millennial stage. They moved us to the big room where they do the Kennedy Center Honors and all that stuff, because you got all these people in town for the Martin Luther King dedication, and they're not going to have anything on Saturday and Sunday. So here's a Friday night, and is packed from top to bottom. My mom is standing in the wings, and Victoria Rowell from the Young and the Restless, she is doing the introduction. She had come into our dressing room and met us and had prayer with us and everything, and she did the introduction for us as we got ready to go onstage. And I'm looking at my mom standing in the wings as they're introducing us, and I’m thinking to myself when you were a little girl in the cotton fields of Douglas, Georgia, in Coffee County, could you ever have imagined that you would be standing in the wings of the John F. Kennedy Center of Performing Arts, getting ready now to go out onstage before thousands of people and sing at this dedication? And what was so wonderful about it, she wrote her own tribute to Martin Luther King, we sang that for them. We sang the song that my mom wrote, I Have a Dream, to a standing ovation that night.
Jo Reed: After your mom passed, did you know you wanted to continue with the Ingramettes?
Almeta Ingram Miller: She started training me to do that long before she passed. Even while she was still able to sing, she pushed me out to the front. I've always done some song writing. I've always done that, but it was always songs that I wrote for my mom to sing, and I could have lived the rest of my life singing backup for my mom because she is my favorite singer ever. But she began now to give me more of a voice, of a voice in the leadership of the group, of a voice singing lead, she did that before she passed away. Because that was always her goal. She said, "You guys got to keep doing this, you got to keep singing, I don't want you to stop when I'm no longer able to travel with you. I want you to keep going." So I didn't have to step into this cold. I really felt that I had been prepared to do this. If not, I would not have done it because this is, man, this is so different from how we started out when I was just a little kid, and I thought about this the other week, my mom, here she is, she'd got to play the piano for us, she's got to drive us there, she's got to dress us, she's got to comb my hair, she's got to get haircuts for the boys, now she's got to drive to the program, play the piano and sing, now she's got drive us back home and make sure we get up and go to school the next day. So now, to be in a position of leadership with the family members that are still with us, I do have a second generation, my sister's oldest daughter, Cheryl, she sings with us, and then I have a sister-in-law, Carrie, she still sings with us, to continue to keep this group together, with the other musicians that have come in, and they've had to learn our music our way because I'm not going to change that. That works for us, what we do works for us, to share ourselves with the audiences, to share my mom's stories, but then to share some of my own, to share some of my own, I've learned that, I learned that from her, to share some of my own stories, to share myself with them and to connect with them just so they know, that they feel a little better for having come to a concert with the Ingramettes.
Jo Reed: Well, in 2020 you released a CD, “Take a Look in the Book”, with the Legendary Ingramettes, and that was the first CD since your mom passed. How did the CD come together?
Almeta Ingram Miller: Oh my goodness. Well, I give a lot of credit not only to the Lord, yeah, thank God, but a young man by the name of Jon Lohman who is now a head of the Center for Cultural Vibrancy, he came out of the Virginia Humanities and Virginia Folklife. He's been a folklorist for over 20 years. It was Jon who now began to put us on these venues in Galax, Virginia, in the folk festivals. And so what Jon, as he talked with me, he said, "Listen, you know, you guys, you. Need to release something now, now that your mom's gone." So I'm sitting here, and some of the music I knew we were going to do, like “Take a Look in the Book”, I knew we were going to do that because that's a song that my mom would have recorded had she lived, that's a song that I wanted momma to do. So as we're going down the song list, he gets the idea that, you know now what? You know what would be nice, if you put some other type music on here. And so now we get to Ralph Stanley's Rock of Ages. This is bluegrass, but done our way. I will never forget how we-- Ola Belle Reed's song I've Endured, I was in Galax, Virginia, and heard the Whitetop Mountain Band singing that song. Well, they've got pickers and guitars and a drummer in there, I've endured da-da-da, and everybody's clapping their hands to the beat, and I'm listening at the lyrics, and I'm like man, that's my mom's story, born in a mountain many years ago, we climbed the hills and valleys through the rain and snow, I've seen the lightening flashing and heard the thunder roar, but I've endured.
Just so much of it resonated in my heart and in my spirit, and so we pulled from those songs, and then of course, on that CD as well, we did a cover of Bill Withers' song Grandma's Hands. And those are not songs that we would normally sing, but they worked for us, they worked for us.
Jo Reed: And you wrote the final verse to that, reflecting your own grandma's experiences
Almeta Ingram Miller: Absolutely, absolutely I did. I did a tribute to my own grandma, I really did. So we did what we needed to do for Bill Withers, but then I wrote the last verses. Early in the morning, grandma would go to the fields, and grandma's hands, they would pick cotton until her fingers would bleed. Late in the midnight hour we'd be sleeping in our bed, grandma would tiptoe to every room and lay on her hands on everybody's head. When grandma got a little older, the strength in her hands was gone, she would still raise her hands to heaven and say, "Lord help me hang on," but I don't have grandma anymore. So I got to tell you, I was so inspired, I was so inspired by Bill Withers, I said, "Listen, I got a grandma," and remembering my grandmother, and that's how the tradition continues, that's how the tradition continues of sharing who I am. And this is what my mom said, you don't have to make things up, just share who you are, and it will resonate, it will resonate, and that's what we've continued to do, to share our story.
Jo Reed: Well, you do that very specifically in that CD with Beulah Land. You tell this great story in the beginning of it, of being at your grandma's in the tin tub.
Almeta Ingram Miller: Absolutely, absolutely. And, listen, I look back on that now and, oh, listen, my grandchildren, they're in their late 20s now, and they still say things like grandma, all of y'all took a bath in the same tub of water? Yes, we set a tin tub of water out in the sun so it could get warm, and on Saturday afternoons we all got ready, and we took our bath. My sister and I went first, and then my three brothers would take their bath in the water, then my grandmother took her bath in the same water. I miss those days. I wish I could just sit a tin tub of water out in the sun and let it heat up there.
Jo Reed: Well, you recorded “Take a Look in the Book” in just three days?
Almeta Ingram Miller: Yes, we did. I know, right? Yes, we did. Yes we did, and here's the thing, because, I wanted to do that cleaned, sanitized thing like we did in Nashboro, that regimented-- and Jon said, "You know what? If you do that, I think you're going to lose the flavor of what you're doing. I think this will do better if you guys come together, and then you can feed off of each other's emotions, and you can do that, and that will come through in your recordingAnd that's how we did that, that's how we did that so quickly, and it did come together that way.
Jo Reed: Oh, it's a great CD.
Almeta Ingram Miller: It was wonderful, it was a wonderful experience.
Jo Reed: And it came out at the beginning of the pandemic which was actually a great gift, so thank you.
Almeta Ingram Miller: I'm so glad. I'm so glad because from a marketing standpoint people were thinking this is insane. Who releases a record in the pandemic, we do, because we needed to do that, yeah. We needed to do that because so many people, yeah, were disconnected, were disconnected, and this we hoped would bring them some joy, would connect them in some way.
Jo Reed: And it did. It really was a great gift, Almeta, so thank you.
Almeta Ingram Miller: Oh, thank you so much. I'm glad you enjoyed it.
Jo Reed: You always refused offers to cross over to work with R&B or soul performers like James Brown. Why?
Almeta Ingram Miller: Yeah. Well, my mom did that. She turned those offers down. She's had many offers to do R&B, to do, you know, she's had many offers that way, and even us as a group, many offers. But we found our niche, it's just been amazing to me that a little lady from Coffee County, Georgia, and five little kids, that God would use us in the way that he has to draw people closer, not only to each other, but closer to him. And man, that's got to be great, there's nothing better, that in and of itself is a miracle, that I would go to Serbia and Bulgaria--
Jo Reed: I was just going to go there. Tell me about that.
Almeta Ingram Miller: Okay. All of us girls that are in the group, my sister-in-law, my niece, and myself, that's the first time we've ever been out of the country. And I'm sitting there, now I'm really concerned because I understand that a lot of these places that we're going on this tour, these people don't speak any English. We just sang our music, we just sang our music, and such a love and appreciation, everywhere we went, the hundreds of people following us. We had the greatest time there. We got to go to the embassy and meet the ambassador, and he hosted us at his house, and so can you just imagine?
Jo Reed: Yes in fact I can! The Ingramettes have received many, many honors, and now you're National Heritage Fellows. What are your thoughts about that?
Almeta Ingram Miller: Here is someone saying, "Listen, we have seen your lifetime body of work that we know you were just plugging away at it because it's what you were called to do. It was mission for you, it was ministry for you, it was work for you, and you weren't doing it to get accolades, you were only doing it to make some little space in the world just be a little better because you had been there, just make some little space in the world, make someone a little happier just because you had been there, because they had crossed your path, because they had spent time with you in a concert that their lives were transformed, they were better off than they were when they got there." And that's all we ever started out to do. But to be recognized, and here it is, the bittersweet part of this is that my mom is not here, because so much of this we have stood on her shoulders, on the things that she taught us, on the way that she taught us to sing, the way that she made these decisions, and she stood fast, and she held fast. She could have cut and done other things, but she did not, she did not, she remained faithful to the mission, she remained faithful to the ministry, and had this not come along our lives would be no less enriched, but I am so glad, I’m just so happy, I’m privileged, I'm proud, I’m humbled by it, I am just blown away by the fact that something that we did, for somebody else, was recognized. And it's been a lifetime journey, it wasn't a sprint, this has been a marathon, and I'm so grateful that someone thought enough of what we did, because that wasn't the reason that we did it. But to be recognized in this way -- this is just the most incredible, the most incredible thing, and I am so deeply thankful, and so deeply grateful. I know it sets us on this national stage, but what we did to get there is to blossom wherever God planted us. He planted her on a plantation in Douglas, Georgia, and she blossomed there, we were planted in Miami, Florida, and husband left you with five kids, and she continued to blossom there. And so you got to blossom where God plants you, you got to make the best of it, and this just says to me that it was worth it,
Jo Reed: Almeta, so many congratulations, and--
Almeta Ingram Miller: Thank you, Josephine.
Jo Reed: --truly thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Almeta Ingram Miller: Oh my goodness, this has just been wonderful. I love sharing story, I do. Thank you so much for having me.
Jo Reed: Not at all. It was truly my pleasure. Thank you. That was Almeta Ingram Miller leader of 2022 National Heritage Fellows, The Legendary Ingramettes. You can keep up with The Legendary Ingramettes at legendaryingramettes.com. and here’s a heads up: we are celebrating all of the 2022 National Heritage Fellows on November 17 when we’ll premier a film that documents all of their extraordinary work. Check out our website arts.gov for more information as the date approaches. You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Follow us wherever you get your podcasts and leave us a rating on Apple, it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed, Thanks for listening.
Almeta Ingram-Miller is the leader of the powerhouse gospel group and 2022 National Heritage Fellows the Legendary Ingramettes. The National Heritage Awardees epitomize what it means to live an artful life. The recipients all have deep ties to their communities and are often voices for those communities, working to to keep their traditional arts alive and vibrant and sharing them whenever and wherever possible—often while working day-jobs. The Legendary Ingramettes are a case in point. In this musical podcast, Ingram-Miller, a born storyteller, talks about the group’s six-decade-long journey and the vison and legacy of her mother Maggie Ingram, who began the group when she was left with five children to raise on her own. Her goal was to keep her family together. So, she taught them to sing gospel, and Maggie Ingram and the Ingramettes were born—singing in churches in South Florida until the family moved to Richmond, Virginia in 1961. Ingram-Miller talks about living and traveling in the Deep South during that time, the way gospel music reflects the struggles and the joys of the Black community, how the Ingramettes began performing at folk festivals that expanded their audiences, and the group’s work with correctional facilities. She also discusses the matriarch of the group, Maggie Ingram, and how her songwriting reflected her experiences, Maggie’s passing that led to Almeta taking on the leadership of the group and making the recording Take a Look in the Book, and the legacy of service begun by Maggie that remains at the heart of the Legendary Ingramettes.