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 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: 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.”

1 comment:

Bob said...

Keillor's politics are really tied up in his faith, as he expressed it in the first paragraphs of his book, Hometown Democrat. (the book is basically a rant with a few main points--mainly that Republicans love God but could care less about their neighbors.)

I am a Democrat, which was nothing I decided for myself but simply the way I was brought up, starting with the idea of Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, which is the basis of the simple social compact by which we live and also You are not so different from other people so don’t give yourself airs, which was drummed into us children back in the old days when everyone went to public schools. Don’t be conceited.

So you can write: goody-goody for you, but don’t think you’re a genius because, believe me, you’re not. The democracy of the gospel. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God. All we like sheep have gone astray. These articles of faith, plus our common tongue and a fondness for jokes and the American landscape, bind us together in a union of souls, each one free, each one devoted to the union