Spirits Rejoicing on Wax (or CD or Mp3 or . . . )

SR CoverPaul Harvey

A couple of notes about two recent works that I have loved, professionally for sure but really personally as well, on religious culture through music in the twentieth century. Self-indulgence alert: Both brought me back to two moments that changed my personal, and scholarly, lives, in ways I could not articulate at the time (if not interested in the personal stories, just click forward to the next track -- i.e. skip the next paragraph! -- to get to a discussion of the books). I  now understand those moments a bit better, thanks in part to these two vividly interpretive works: Jason Bivins's Spirits Rejoice: Jazz and American Religion, and Lerone Martin's Preaching on Wax: The Phonograph and the Shaping of Modern African American Religion.

In a reflection previously published about Manuel Vasquez's More than Religion, I began this way: "During the 1980s, while in graduate school, if people asked me if was 'still religious' or 'still went to church,' I often replied, with studied sardonic intonation, 'sure, I got to Yoshi’s regularly' . . . .when I left Yoshi’s [a jazz spot then on Claremont Avenue in North Oakland], I often felt that I had been part of some communal ritual of struggle, cleansing, and release, precisely what I no longer felt in 'religion.'" Joe Henderson, Betty Carter, Abby Lincoln, Horace Silver, Phil Woods, Tony Williams, and too many others to name were the ministers. And not just Yoshi's, but any number of musical centers in the Bay Area, most long since deceased (save for the beloved Freight & Salvage), that educated me in ways that were more important than anything I was reading in graduate seminars. One was called Koncepts Cultural Gallery, where one night, after two days of suffering through some intense migraines that left me nearly paralyzed, I stumbled onto a quartet of tuba, standup electric bass, sax, and drums that in a straight two-hour set surveyed nearly the entire history/repertoire of instrumental jazz, and singlehandedly healed/exorcised me.

I've spent a fair amount of time wondering about those experiences and trying to interpret them. I made a little headway, perhaps, but only now feel the work has come that engages this subject with the intellectual depth and passion I've been seeking. Jason Bivins's Spirits Rejoice: Jazz and American Religion is a hefty, deep volume that crosses several fields at once in exploring profound questions of sound and spirituality. In addition to this piece and this one (from April 28 and 29) already posted here at RiAH, I wanted to call your attention to this new posting at Religion Dispatches, an interview with Jason about (among other things) the process of researching and writing the book. One of the themes of the work in the instability of the categories "jazz" and "religion," and the interplay between the improvisational nature of both. Here is one story from the interview which says a lot about the genesis of the work: (continue after the jump)

Because of my own background in jazz reviewing and performance, I knew a lot of folks, I had a lot of contact information, and so when I buckled down with this research in late 2009, early 2010, I composed what I thought was a really good form email and I compiled a list of addresses. The subject line was “Research Project: Jazz and Religion.” And I got very, very few responses. And I was perplexed. I was miffed. I didn’t know how to go forward.

So one night it struck me that maybe the R-word was getting me into trouble, given the contemporary atmosphere with all the conversations about being “Spiritual But Not Religious.” So I thought, let’s do this, let’s go for a Hail Mary pass, and change only the subject line, just that one word—“Research Project: Jazz and Spirituality.” And the responses started pouring in.

So I thought, okay, this is pretty interesting. Is there an actual resistance to the term “religion” or did it simply fail to get on people’s radar because I’d used the word? It turned out it was the latter, because while a lot of folks didn’t know how to define religion, just as we in the academy don’t—and for alarmingly similar reasons, I should add—it turned out they were very interested in kind of dwelling in that inability. And in the inability to finalize terms—which ultimately means the inability to finalize identity: this was something that musicians ended up celebrating.

 Just one further comment about the book as a piece of reading. We all know those "hard" books where we give up reading because the payoff just isn't worth it, right?  This is different. To be sure, this is a challenging, richly textured and layered, complex work, that will make you slow down and pay close attention (hard for me, an inveterate skimmer!). But it isn't "hard" in the conventional sense of being hard to read. Some of it is straightforward narratives about the lives of the musicians discussed; and some of it actually is pretty hilarious (think Duke Ellington's pork chop). Rather, it's challenging in the good way of advancing a swirl of interpretations, both through the basic themes of the book as well as in individual chapters, that make you want to keep pushing forward. It's the CD you just got that makes you keep returning because there's something there each time that you didn't get the last time you heard it. And here's a good time to remind all of the listening guide that accompanies the book.

Fast forward a decade or so, early 1990s. Then living in northwest Indiana, I stopped off at some record store, and accidentally stumbled on a four-CD set entitled Roots and Blues: A Retrospective, put out by Columbia. There was, at that time, no category for what we now call “Americana” or “No Depression” recordings, and the most important compilation ever made of southern religious recordings from the 1920s to the 1940s, the six-CD set Goodbye Babylon, was more than a decade from being released.

Coming home and sampling the CDs, I came across a cut from the Reverend James M. Gates, then  unknown to me. He was doing his classic “Death’s Black Train is Coming.” I did not then know that this particular side, innovatively captured by Columbia engineers with recorded by the Rev. Gates in his home congregation in 1926, had sold more than 54,000 copies as a single after its release. The Rev. Gates’s most popular recordings outsold contemporary pressings by Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, and almost every black artist of the era. From the royalties of just two of most popular sides alone, Gates made as much (about $1200) as did Professor Benjamin Mays annually for his teaching at Morehouse College.

We now have the work that explores the economic and cultural meaning of the recordings done by Gates and dozens of others from that era, in Lerone Martin's Preaching on WaxRecord companies in search of talent caught dozens of black sermonizers in that era, and for a period from the mid-1920s until the early 1930s (and, for Gates, even down to World War Two), pumped out a plethora of their pulpit stylings for consumers to purchase. They advertised aggressively in black newspapers, especially the Chicago Defender, that had a national market of distribution, and they kept their records available for purchase in local grocery stores (and, later, chain stores such as Woolworth’s, even though the Rev. Gates recorded one fierce sermon entitled “Say Good-bye to Chain Stores”).  Recorded sermonizing helped to create the first generation of “commercial celebrity preachers.” There is a straight line, in other words, from the Reverend J. M. Gates to the Rev. C. L. Franklin and later to the Rev. T. D. Jakes.

After reading this book, I now understand again, but really for the first time, what it was that entranced me when first listening to the Rev. Gates, a moment that altered the course of my scholarly career since. These are two works of importance to me for much more than professional interest, and I hope many of you take the chance to cue them up and give them a few listens, because you may see the world differently afterwards.

***  Gratuitous coda: I had forgotten about this review of Goodbye Babylon, by the former New Yorker writer Sasha Frere-Jones, so linking here for your interest. Great concluding lines: "Goodbye, Babylon makes the agnostic in me want to jump and shout. The empiricist in me can't help but notice the road out of Babylon is paved with sorrow and blood, usually someone else's." ***


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