In 1905 the Rev. Charles Albert Tindley published some of the oldest and greatest songs of the black gospel music tradition: "Stand By Me," "The Storm Is Passing Over" and "We'll Understand It Better By and By." The songs grew out of Tindley's grandiloquent--and popular--sermons as a Philadelphia Methodist minister. Thanks to the imagination of Bernice Reagon, the Smithsonian Institution's tribute to Tindley at the Museum of Natural History last night anchored those songs deeply in that oral tradition. Tindley's life and preaching were dramatized by actor Avery Brooks. His songs were performed in every possible style by 32 different singers and musicians.

Brooks, a veteran of Arena Stage and the Kennedy Center, gripped the edges of Tindley's pulpit with vein-bulging intensity and delivered a sermon of extravagant analogies that built to a crowd-stirring climax. The hymns seemed to grow inevitably from these galvanizing sermons. The 16-voice Howard University Gospel Chamber Ensemble gave the hymns robust arrangements. Reagon, a Smithsonian scholar and gospel singer with Sweet Honey in the Rock, supplied commentary. She explained how Tindley's "I'll Overcome Someday" was transformed by civil rights organizers into "We Shall Overcome" and led performers and audience in a stirring rendition of that hymn. The show will be repeated tonight and tomorrow afternoon.