Thursday, December 09, 2004

Sweet Little Jesus Boy: A Spiritual for Christmas

For me, it's just not Christmas until I've listened over and over to the song "Sweet Little Jesus Boy." It's a spiritual credited to the writer Robert MacGimsey. Some of the lyrics:

Sweet little Jesus Boy,
they made you be born in a manger.
Sweet little Holy Child,
didn't know who You was.

Didn't know you come to save us, Lord;
to take our sins away.
Our eyes was blind, we couldn't see,
we didn't know who You was.

In the other verses, the writer, in the broken language of an ex-slave, writes about how the Holy Child grew up and was mistreated, but lived his life as an example to the people he served. The writer apologizes for not recognizing the Savior.

I love that song, partly because the arrangements I've heard of it are soul-stirring and beautiful. But I also love it because it pierces my soul. It's sweet and mournful at the same time. Even though it's a Christmas song, it reminds me that the story of Jesus is about so much more than his birth. He came and lived a sinless life. He allowed himself to be sacrificed for our sins so that we could have peace and know God. And he faced terrible rejection. John 1:10-11 tells us: "He was in the world, the world was there through him, and yet the world didn't even notice. He came to his own people, but they didn't want him" (The Message).

The people of his day didn't recognize Jesus. And those who did recognize him sometimes found the cost of following too great. Too much. Not worth it. And so they left. They said, "No thanks." They abandoned him, hoping to find an easier way.

My face wasn't among those in the jeering crowd that screamed for Jesus' death 2000 years ago, contorted with rage and betrayal and hate. I wasn't cheering as the Roman soldiers whipped and beat him. I didn't turn away, angry that he wasn't going to change the world with my politics or my ideas about power or humanitarianism. I didn't stand in front of him, wondering if he was who he claimed to be, and then leave downcast, feet shuffling, disappointed.

Yet I do sometimes live as though I don't know who he is. I get caught up in my own problems and drama and busyness and stress, and fail to see his hand in my life. I bark and complain and make self-centered demands—Doesn't he see me? Doesn't he know I need his attention?—without remembering the ways he's already chosen to shine on me. I forget that the sweet, harmless baby who lay in a feeding trough is actually a king, a king with nail-wounded hands and compelling eyes, a king who promises adventure and gestures toward me, speaking in one-word sentences: Come. Follow. Sacrifice. Look. Listen. Live.

I don't remember, don't believe with all my strength, that the child born in Bethlehem—a town whose name means House of Bread—is the Bread of Life. The child would become the nourishment and satisfaction for my hungry soul, the Bread broken again and again, with plenty for all.

Just seem like we can't do right,
look how we treated You.
But please, sir, forgive us Lord,
we didn't know 'twas You.

The good news, the sweet, shining, truest story of all, is that the humble-born infant, the Holy Child who saw and sees with the all-knowing eyes of the Eternal, is willing to forgive me, to open my blinded eyes, to give me yet another chance to know who he was and is. May I listen to this song—and to God's heart—until I get it right.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

"Shut Up!" The Gospel Music Career of Little Richard

In this segment from WHYY’s Fresh Air program, rock historian Ed Ward discusses the brief period of Little Richard’s career in which he sang gospel music. It wasn’t as informative as I’d hoped, but it did make me want to find out more about the Pompadoured One, whose real name is Richard Wayne Penniman.

This 2000 article from the Chicago Sun-Times is a start. Dave Hoekstra reports that Mahalia Jackson was a major influence on Penniman, and that he was ordained as a Seventh-Day Adventist minister at Alabama’s Oakwood Theological College (also the alma mater of several members of Take 6). He’s also mused aloud about eventually doing an all-gospel show.

Hoekstra writes:
“Nearly all of Penniman’s dramatic phrasing and swift vocal turns are derived from gospel. The architect of rock’n’roll mixed that ministry. . .with theatrics he learned from the traveling medicine shows that rolled through his native Macon [Georgia]. Colorful medicine men would wear lavish capes, robes and turbans, all of which left an impression on Penniman.”

This is intriguing—a mixture of gospel, medicine and theater. Music, medicine and theater. It would be interesting to explore the interaction between these three elements that is present in gospel music, gospel concerts, and different forms of worship. Perhaps I shall in a later post. Awop-bop-a-loo-mop-alop-bam-boom!

Penniman also credits his piano style to Esquerita, a pianist he met while traveling with a preacher, and Brother Joe May, a Missouri-based gospel music singer.

Has anyone seen The Little Richard Story, the biopic mentioned in the article? Are there any good biographies that really explore Penniman’s life and the tensions he felt between his faith, homosexuality and his love for both gospel and rock’n’roll?

A couple of other Little Richard links:

An Encyclopedia Encarta article, which notes that Penniman’s father was a Seventh Day Adventist, a bartender and a bootlegger. (?!)

Some of the information on this website conflicts with that in the encyclopedia entry, but it’s interesting nonetheless. I’m curious about whether his R&B track “Ain’t That Good News” was a spoof on the spiritual “Ain’t ‘a That Good News.”

Listen to Penniman sing gospel on Little Richard Sings the Gospel, Pure Faith and It’s Real.