Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Why I'm Thankful for Gospel Music

Well, one reason anyway: miracles happen when I hear it.

Check out this audio, and you'll hear what I mean: It's of writer Anne Lamott reading the chapter titled "Knocking on Heaven's Door," from her spiritual memoir, Traveling Mercies. I've linked to version that appeared on salon.com; I'm not sure how close it is to the one that appears in the book.

This is going to take some work, but it's worth it, I promise:

1. Go to thislife.org, the website of the radio program This American Life.
2. In the window on the left, scroll down to "Search This Site," and type in "Anne Lamott."
3. Tap on the first listing that comes up on the right, titled "Music Lessons."
4. Choose whatever audio system you listen to.
5. Once that window pops up, move the bar that controls the timing to 39:57 into the audio (although the whole program is enjoyable, this is where Lamott's reading begins).
6. Enjoy!

This story (and, for the record, much of Lamott's work) pierces my heart every time I read it. A loving, grouchy, Jesusy lady who isn't always sure how she feels about her fellow man finds herself in a situation that's one part scary and two parts annoying. But remembering a miracle she's seen--a miracle wrought in part by God's work and gospel music--is enough for her to rest in for a while. The audio also includes a rendition of "His Eye is on the Sparrow" performed by Renola Garrison (the woman mentioned in the story) with accompaniment by pianist Anne Jefferson.

Here's my favorite quote:

"I can't imagine anything but music that could have brought about this alchemy. Maybe it's because music is about as physical as it gets: your essential rhythm is your heartbeat; your essential sound, the breath. We're walking temples of noise, and when you add tender hearts to this mix, it somehow lets us meet in places we get to any other way."

May the sweet wonder of God's work in our lives--and the beauty of His good-news music--allow us to meet Him and those around us in fresh and loving ways.


More on Gospel in the Public Imagination

My post on Gospel in the Public Imagination caught the eye of my friends over at GetReligion, who gave me a shout-out and referenced it on their blog. The GR crowd generated some really interesting comments. I'll quote two of them here:

"'What does gospel music mean in the public imagination?'
--it is thoroughly aestheticized cultural detritus that is accepted and approved if stripped from its origins. Of course Keillor's audience knows gospel is "black Christian worship music," but that is OK as long as "black"=voters patronized by white liberals as a specially protected, historically victimized culture group with the inevitably odd practices and beliefs of all "ethnic" folk. Gospel's OK as long as there is no accompanying sermon about the evils of homosexuality. Similarly, bashing Revelation prophecy enthusiasts is OK because we know that means crackers and rednecks, not the black men and women on urban cable access shows. Farrakhan is not, in our cultural logic, a "fundamentalist." "Black religion" is all good but we keep its non-aesthetic contents out of view. "White religion" is conditionally good insofar as it is not hostile to the Democratic Party platform and other triumphs of Enlightenment. Failing that test, white religion is possibly more menacing than Al Quaeda."

and another:

"On Gospelgal's question: 'What does gospel music mean in the public imagination?' I am writing this Sunday morning from the South of France where I attended a large Gospel concert at Le Dome in Marseille last night. Probably 1500 people there, very revved up with the music - big rock show staging and lights and sound, almost all the songs in English, with many favorites old and new.
But when the singers talk in French about Jesus and what he means to them - a pall and and a hush. When one leader asked how many folks believed in God, maybe 10% of us gave a shout out for him. Everyone here loves the music - until it talks explicitly about its subject. "

Here's how I weighed in:

"[The above posters] kind of picked up on what I was wondering: In the public imagination, is gospel music OK as long as it's just 'ethnic music' connected to 'black religion?' ("Well, those are just their customs.") Is it enjoyable as long as it's not connected to actual red or blue religion and the controversial beliefs/voting patterns that can result?

In Keillor's case, this might be part of the answer: (from http://prairiehome.publicradio.org/features/ptth/2001/06.shtml)

" . . .indeed, the Sanctified Brethren are there in Lake Wobegon. My people. People who take Scripture seriously and defend their revelations with fervor and thus are not always the easiest neighbors to get along with. But surely worth paying attention to. And some of them have a sense of humor. I do suspect that my liberal pals have an easier time about Born Agains if they are black than if they're white, but maybe that's just a suspicion on my part."'"

This was a really exciting discussion to me. Not only were we talking about music, but that gospel-driven interchange became a way to think about politics, race matters, matters of faith, et cetera. Good music, good times, and a little something to think about.

Oh, and welcome to any new lurkers I may have who've bounced here from GetReligion! Don't be strangers, now.

While You're in Your Post-Dinner Daze this Thanksgiving...

. . .Check out this amazing multimedia website and oral history project supported by the University of Denver Center for Teaching and Learning:

"Sweet Chariot: The Story of the Spirituals"

As far as I'm concerned, it's Christmas!

Here's some information about the project, from the DU site I've linked to above:

"The Spirituals Project, in collaboration with The University of Denver Center for Teaching and Learning, has developed a comprehensive multimedia educational website for use in courses at the University of Denver and for members of the public at large who are interested in learning about the history and ongoing cultural influences of the spirituals. Entitled Sweet Chariot: The Story of the Spirituals, this website includes an historical overview as well as sections outlining the evolving cultural and musical contexts of the spirituals; issues of survival and resilience in the spirituals tradition; the historical use of spirituals in the service of freedom and equality; the influence of the spirituals on the performing arts and on American literature; and a section on the present and projected future influences of the spirituals tradition. The site includes sound clips of songs used to illustrate various points, excerpts of interviews with artists, composers and community workers, and links to library and Internet resources for those interested in further study. The project is supported by the University of Denver Center for Teaching and Learning.

Oral History Project
Supported by grants for the LEF Foundation and the Union Institute and University, The Spirituals Project has interviewed a number of professionals and lay people around the country who have been involved actively in efforts to keep the spirituals tradition alive and vibrant in the twenty-first century. Included among the people interviewed to date are the noted composer/conductors Brazeal Dennard, Roland Carter, Jackie Hairston and Hale Smith; singer/conductors Horace Boyer, Francois Clemmons (Harlem Spiritual Ensemble), Vincent Stringer (National Spiritual Ensemble) and Linda Tillery (Cultural Heritage Choir); pianist/vocal coach Sylvia Olden Lee; and the late great singer/educator William Warfield. Oral excerpts and associated written transcripts from some of these interviews are available on the Sweet Chariot multimedia website.

This is amazing--and I'll post more thoughts later. In the meantime, check out this interesting sidebar, which is part of the introduction. Bold emphases are mine:

What is the Difference Between the Spirituals and Gospel Music?
Many people ask what the difference is between the spirituals and Black gospel music. Simply put, the spirituals are the Southern sacred "folk" songs created and first sung by African Americans during slavery. Their original composers are unknown, and they have assumed a position of collective ownership by the whole community. They lend themselves easily to communal singing. Many are in a call-and-response structure, with back-and-forth exchanges between the leader and the group. A formal concert tradition has evolved from the original spirituals, with solo and choral arrangements based on original slave melodies, employed for performance by amateur and professional artists. Black gospel music originated in the churches of the urban North in the 1920's, and has been the predominant music of the twentieth century Black Church. Each gospel song has an identifiable composer. Gospel fuses musical elements of both the spirituals and the blues, and incorporates extensive musical improvisation, with piano, guitar or other instrumental accompaniment. While the gospel tradition descended directly from the spirituals and the blues, the spirituals have also continued to exist as a parallel cultural force.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Gospel Gal's Late-Breaking Political Roundup (Or, "Gospel Music In the Public Imagination")

I am a nerd. In fact, I am the type of nerd who squeals with delighted glee when she discovers the local NPR affiliate on a road trip.

That’s what I was doing yesterday on my way home from the St. Louis area (birthplace of ragtime, yippee!). Tuning in to public radio, I was excited to find that I was going to catch Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, one of my favorite radio programs.

And then, I heard something blogworthy.

Keillor began this week’s show with a rant about “born-again Christians” and why he believes they shouldn’t be allowed to vote. I was a bit taken aback for several reasons.

The first is that I’m not sure who he was talking about. For example, was he mocking the general voting patterns of born-again Christians as defined by, say, George Barna? Fundamentalists? Evangelicals? Charismatics? The Left Behind crowd? Somewhat leftward-leaning activists ala the Sojourners bunch? (I’ve already offered my disclaimer about being a nerd, right?) And to be honest, I wasn’t sure that he was sure who he was talking about—just that whoever it was a) wasn’t listening (Hel-oooooo) and b) deserved a potshot.

The second thing that caught me off guard was the dry vitriol—in contrast to the gentle, lovingly humorous treatment he directs toward the Lutherans in his Lake Wobegon stories. I’m a Christ-follower—and a Lutheran school alumn—with a rather irreverent sense of humor, so I’m usually pretty good for a laugh at the expense of my people. This was quite a bit darker and sharper than that (and far from the gentle “how many [fill in the plural form of chosen denomination] does it take to screw in a lightbulb” jokes that came later). But hey, it’s his show.

But the real biggie (and the reason I’m blogging about it for the gospel gals and gospel guys out there) is as follows: Just after he finished his monologue/rant/tirade/otherwise simply wonderful introduction, Keillor introduced the show’s musical guest. It was gospel singer Jearlyn Steele. During the course of the show, they sang “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” and “Let Us Break Bread Together On Our Knees.”


Keillor lent his warm, steady bass to these beloved gospel numbers—two of the most precious to the most traditional of the flock—as if he hadn’t just trashed the folks who wrote and sang those very songs.

Garrison Keillor is no dummy. For years I’ve enjoyed his folksy wit and admired his ability to convey truths about the human experience through his work. I’ve even gotten used to his heavy breathing, the dark, sonorous speaking voice and the wheezing of nose hair.

I should add, too, that I don’t know if he is currently a part of any faith tradition. So I don’t know if he was being ironic, thumbing his nose at born-agains or even saying, “Hey, everybody, even the sharpest barbs are offered in good fun. Let’s sing, shall we?” Perhaps he’d booked Steele for the show months before the election, and just happened to be in a particularly foul mood about the red-state victory. Maybe the opening monologue is completely spontaneous. I don’t s'pose I’ll know soon. But I think this incident presents the gospelgal.com readership with an interesting question:

What does gospel music mean in the public imagination?

In this case, Keillor failed to connect gospel music with the people of faith who sing it (and vote, red or blue, as they believe their faith compels them to). At least from my end of the radio, Keillor seemed to sing the music with the same delivery he usually brings to any folk song. So . . .is the message of gospel music not distinct enough to distinguish it from folk music?

I think of most forms of traditional gospel music as folk music (notated spirituals like the work of the late Moses Hogan and choral gospel like the work of Richard Smallwood et. al feel more like art music to me). But the definitions we’ve explored on the site so far speak about the spiritual/theological dimension of gospel music. In fact, part of the never-ending debate over what is or isn’t gospel music concerns that spiritual element. For example, is a song like R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” that has inspirational lyrics and a gospel sound a gospel song? In the public mind, is gospel music only folk music, or is the distinction clear enough. Hmmm. Sounds almost like a microcosm of the “civic religion” discussion.

All right. The rambling has begun. Here are a few more recent examples of gospel music in the public/political imagination:

This article in the online version of the London Times suggests we gauge a politican’s ability to connect with the black community by watching him sway and tap his foot to gospel music. I offer the following choice tidbits in a spirit of bipartisan sauciness:

“Albert Gore III and John Forbes Kerry, two of America’s most blue-blooded and buttoned-up white politicians, swayed awkwardly to gospel music and preached a message of black revenge in churches . . .”

OK—we’ve got the multiple adjectives, just in case we’re not completely sure these guys aren’t necessarily in their element. And, um, “black revenge”? Like what, Nat Turner style? Frankly, this sounds like a painful experience for everyone involved.

The article continues:

“Mr. Gore looked utterly incongruous, failing miserably to tap his foot in time to the febrile mix of gospel music, electric organ and wailing worshippers inside Jacksonville’s Abyssinia Missionary Baptist Church . . .”

*Sigh* We get it. He’s out of his element. And puh-leeze, can somebody describe an Af-Am church service without using words like “febrile” and “wailing?” I guess that’s how it looks if you haven’t grown up attending those sorts of services, but I’ve read so many of these descriptions that sound like some sort of freakish voodoo ceremony. . .the natives are getting restless . . .

“ . . .President Clinton, a Southern Baptist whose ability to connect with black congregations—he could even sway in time with the music—has seen him become the first white politician included in the [gospel gal's note: Arkansas] Black Hall of Fame.”

I hope any budding politicians out there are taking notes: ability to sway + ability to clap on 2 and 4=ability to connect with black congregations. Because that’s what really matters. *Shaking head*

Moving On . . .

A Detroit Free Press article includes this quote from Donnie McClurkin regarding his appearance at the Republican National Convention: “We cannot be political and spiritual at the same time.” (Do you agree?)

Quotes to Chuckle Over:

“There ain’t nothin’ better than some gospel music and weightlifting.”
--Daryl Tapp, Virginia Tech defensive end, to the Daily Press

“All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard no horse sing.”—Louis Armstong, quoted in African American Quotations)

More on Kanye:
Gospelflava.com features this editorial on Kanye and “Jesus Walks” from the perspective of radio executive Christopher Squire.

From the editorial:
“ . . .Gospel is not a trend . . .it’s a lifestyle. It is more than the emotion of the moment; it is the commitment of a lifetime. It doesn’t mean that you are perfect; it means that you are committed. Committed to a message that is designed to bring men and women to a full knowledge and understanding of Christ . . .a life-changing experience.”