An Accidental Appearance Formed a Gospel Institution
Lena Mae Perry and her friend Ethel Elliott founded the Branchettes more than three decades ago — and it happened almost by accident. Both Lena Mae and Ethel were born and raised in Benson, North Carolina. Both attended the Long Branch Disciple Church. And one day the Long Branch Senior Choir was scheduled to perform at a church program in nearby Smithfield, but only Lena Mae, Ethel, and Mary Ellen Bennett showed up. They sang anyway and discovered the gift of their combined voices.
“The people were just shouting and crying,” Ethel Elliott once recalled in an interview, “even though there were just three of us.” They decided to continue as a group and they called themselves the Branchettes — small branches of the Long Branch, their home church.
The Brachettes’ style draws from the African American traditions of congregational hymn singing. Ethel Elliott passed away in 2004, but Perry continued to perform with pianist Wilbur Tharpe until his passing in June 2021. The group’s releases include “Singing in the Spirit,” and they are featured on the Music Maker Foundation release “Sisters of the South,” alongside artists like Beverly “Guitar” Watkins, Precious Bryant, and Etta Baker.
And appreciation for the Branchettes has grown over the years. In 1995, the group received the North Carolina Heritage Award and in 2001 they performed at the Carolina Roots: Women’s Voices of North Carolina event in Greensboro. They were also featured performers at the Ulster American Folk Park in Ireland.
Lena Mae Perry was born on January 1, 1939.
Top photo by Tim Duffy.