Friday, September 19, 2008

Joyful Noise

Last Sunday, our church got the notion, as Yankee churches sometimes do, that they should do a spiritual. Uh huh. Don't get me wrong, I loves me some Bach and Mozart in the form of some Mass, but I like it more as classical music than as religious music. Most of the hymns of the 18th and 19th centuries don't do anything for me. White people up here grow up on the formal music, and they just are not equipped to take the musical journey down South. Doing "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" exactly as written on the page? That kind of music is supposed to jump up off the score and make you feel like, well like this:

Mahalia Jackson was a superstar, but she was also pretty typical of the women of her age. I remember the last of those large-and-in-charge matrons of the church with their hats and wigs, and the best religious music is supposed to make you feel like one of them just grabbed your skinny ass and dragged it into the aisle - clapping and dancing, or at least swaying to the beat, are not optional. When white people, white Yankees sing this music? I applaud the effort, but it makes me twitch.

That might sound funny coming from someone as white as I am, but there were three white people in the church I grew up in: my mom, my dad, and me. Mom was a schoolteacher in a small town and hated the small town gossip that spread through the petty old biddies that ran the social scene in the local churches, so we looked farther afield for our spiritual home. Dad worked in agricultural meteorology for the fruit growers over in Jefferson County, West Virgina. For those of you who think of WV as poor and white, Jefferson County is the exception to your preconceptions - it's either rich and white (the literati who surround Shepherdstown University) or poor and black. Harper's Ferry, where John Brown tried to free some slaves (and managed to free a few by killing them) is in Jefferson County - the descendants of those slaves are still there.

Dad used to eat lunch over in Shepherdstown in a greasy spoon run by a nut named Danny Frye - Frye was known to have a short temper and once threw an order of french fires at a customer who complained about his cooking. His long suffering waitress was an older black woman named Myrtle Stubbs. Dad and Myrtle used to chat a lot, and hearing about our search for a church, she invited us to visit hers, just up West Main street. So we landed at St. John's Baptist for the next 16+ years, until my father's death.

The organist at St. John's was Myrtle's big brother. He was a WWII Navy vet, who formed his first jazz band at age 12, named Newton Washington. Mr Newt could not read music, but his musical taste has shaped mine since I was 5. He died a few years ago, but you can find his picture at the bottom of this montage.

Mr. Newt was a bit of a hero to me. He was dedicated to making his town a better place to live - he volunteered all over the place, and served in local government. He formed an inter-denominational singing group called The Brothers of Harmony. He didn't have a flashy voice, but he had a mellow baritone with that touch of honey on the throat that older black men sometimes get. It used to send chills up my spine to hear him sing the last verse to the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" - the one ending with the words "as he died to make men holy, let us die to make them free".

He held no bitterness at all for the decades of mistreatment he had suffered prior to (and a bit after) 1964. His family had been slaves of a cousin of George Washington, and he used to talk about having to get up and move to the back of the bus when he crossed state lines on leave from the Navy in WWII. I was a bit of a WWII nut at that young age, and I just could not fathom treating a nice man such as Mr. Newt that way, to say nothing of a man in uniform.

I guess it's through Mr. Newt's influence that spirituality to me has always meant music. While theological doctrine is important, it's never been the point of worship for me. I do the best I can to pass that on, and it amuses me to no end to hear little voices whose mother tongue is an alien one to me (though I do speak it) singing We'll Understand it Better By 'n By (Mr. Newt's favorite, and mine) in Southern-accented English.

I'm still twitching from last Sunday, so I'll offer another favorite of Mr. Newt's, from the late, great Clara Ward, just to help me remember what it's supposed to be like:


Anne C. said...

Heh, John, when you described that church, my initial reaction was "where in the hell did he find a black church in Washington County?" And then you explained you went further afield.

We went to a white church, but that's because my dad was brought up anabaptist, and there's not many anabaptist black churches in the area. I knew very few black people when I was growing up and worried that I would be a racist. When I got to college I realized I wasn't (big relief) and found that I feel happier when surrounded by diverse colors and cultures.

More on topic, for a few years I went to a Mennonite church here in Colorado that had a musically inclined pastor who would try to acclimate his flock to jazz and spirituals. Mennonites have a strong singing tradition, but they are generally white, so while we probably did better than most trying to be dignified while belting out "Wade in the Water," we still fell considerably short of the exuberance the pastor was going for. It was worth the effort though!

John the Scientist said...

Well, Anne, it wasn't that far afield - we lived in the very south of the county, and it took less time to get to WV or VA than it took to get to Hagerstown. I think that was the same for you guys, if you went south on Rt. 67 you'd be out of the state in less time than it would take to to get to the county seat.

CW said...

Good stuff John... I had a some very similar experiences in low-country South Carolina and I'm a HUGE Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward fan. Go figure.

Jeri said...

My mom's church was a Robert Schuller clone church and they went for the full Broadway style entertainment experience. It was so choreographed, costumed and staged that there was no soul left.

I haven't listened to that much Mahalia Jackson or her peers - but I should - I have much enjoyed their pale (in the vocal talent sense) imitators (Eva Cassidy, Bonnie Raitt, etc...)