Singing in a Strange Land


One of my favorite review projects over the last year was Nick Salvatore's Singing in a Strange Land: C. L. Franklin, the Black Church, and the Transformation of America. I don't see this book discussed very much in the context of African American religious studies, so it's high time for a little plug for it on our blog!

C. L. was, of course, the father of Aretha, and a well-known and widely recorded minister in his day. But he was much else besides, as the compelling narrative shows. I'm reprinting below my review from the American Historical Review last year. This is rich biography that taught me a lot about a subject that I thought I knew a lot about.

From American Historical Review, vol. 111 (2006), pp. 850-51:

Nick Salvatore has set a high standard as a lucid and engaging biographer of vitally important if at times lesser–known figures in American history –– beginning with his well–known Bancroft–prize winning study of Eugene V. Debs and then his unjustly neglected work on the nineteenth–century black labor figure Amos Webber. This time, Salvatore has chosen a distinctly twentieth–century figure: the Reverend C. L. (Clarence LaVaughn) Franklin. Nowadays, he would be recognized, if at all, as the father to Aretha Franklin. Unfortunately, as Salvatore tells us in the acknowledgements, Aretha did not (would not?) sit for an interview. This leaves holes in some parts of the book which are regrettable, even if the author cannot be blamed. Aretha’s older sister Erma, however, evidently befriended Salvatore, and judging by the footnotes she provided a wealth of insight into the family.

Salvatore’s mastery of biographical narrative provides a rich and enduring portrait of the African–American experience from South to North through the twentieth century. As well, Salvatore’s supremely assured writing on African–American religious culture and politics is most impressive; this book is, incidentally, one of the most compelling works now existing on twentieth–century African–American religion. My only quarrel is with the title. This volume best shows C. L. Franklin’s role in the “transformation of the black church,” not so much the transformation of America, for C. L. was pre–eminently a man of the church, even when he entered the secular world.

More than a “life and times” biography, this is a beautifully rendered social history of a portion of the African–American migration story of the twentieth century. Franklin began life in Sunflower County, Mississippi, in a brutal locale ruled by apartheid but productive of an astonishing array of musical and cultural talent that sprang from oppressed African–American communities. The young Franklin took his turn with the mule and the plow, was converted (ironically enough in an unspectacular, even dutiful, way, much like Martin Luther King Jr.,), and then, more vividly, received his call to preach. Like so many others, he moved from the Delta to Memphis as the first step in a migration that would eventually take him briefly to Buffalo during World War Two, then to Detroit, where he would make his name and his fame, and eventually part–time to Los Angeles, where he pastored a church even as he remained with his home congregation in Detroit.

As a preacher, Franklin was a master of “the whoop,” the rhythmic and ecstatic style of African–American folk sermon delivery. He took it to new heights when he married the African–American sermonic form (and even classic and storied sermons known by all, such as “The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest”) to contemporary themes. Franklin’s generation of ministers, including his Memphis contemporary the Reverend William Herbert Brewster (author of the gospel classic “Move On Up a Little Higher”), grew restive with the fundamentalist literalism of their earliest religious training. They understood that “the whoop” would be even more powerful, not less, when linked to the modern African–American experience of migration, segregation, discrimination, as well as upward mobility.

From early in his career, moreover, Franklin easily joined the sacred and the secular. He had grown up in the 1920s in the era of the phonograph, and later said, “I always liked the blues.” In the 1950s, at the height of his fame, hehosted figures such as Art Tatum and Dizzy Gillespie in his home. His congregants mostly turned the other eye towards his probable frequent dalliances with female congregants as well as gospel stars such as Clara Ward. Franklin made his national reputation through the broadcasting of his church services on the radio (including Aretha’s debut at his church when she was 14, already possessing that voice), and even more so through LPs of his sermons, which led to an extensive touring career.

Salvatore makes it clear how much C. L. burned inside through painful personal experiences of discrimination and humiliation. At the same time, Franklin stayed at some remove from politics. Partly this was due to his commanding personality, which simply made him poorly suited for attending to the quotidian organizational details of groups such as the NAACP; partly this was due to Franklin’s unabashed pursuit of the pleasures of life: “he had come a long way from the plow, and he meant to enjoy it” (227). In the 1960s, however, Franklin could not avoid the deterioration of urban life and the fact that local black radicals teamed him with the establishment.

In the 1970s, Franklin went into decline, his increasing dependence on alcohol masking his declining powers of performance. In June 1979, he was shot in a bungled burglary attempt at his Detroit home. He languished in a virtual coma for years, and died in 1984. From his youngest years, he had asked for more than a little respect; Salvatore has given it to him.