EDITOR’S NOTE: This post, a personal essay concerning an endangered archive of radio recordings in Detroit by University of Michigan Professor Derek Vaillant, has been temporarily embargoed due to a security concern regarding a specific location discussed in the post. It will be restored as soon as possible, with additional details from the author. — Special Editor Neil Verma
Tuning Into the “Happy Am I” Preacher: Researching the Radio Career of Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux
Welcome to the second installment of our Thursday series spotlighting endangered radio archives across the United States, promoting the work of the Radio Preservation Task Force (RPTF), which is part of the National Recording Reservation Plan of the Library of Congress. Our series kicked off two weeks ago with this post by Josh Garrett-Davis exploring both the history of Native American radio and new ways of thinking about it, and the series will conclude with a piece next week by the University of Michigan’s Derek Vaillant about radio recordings in immediate need of preservation in Detroit.
Between possible archives and endangered ones, we have an article about an archive that has begun to speak after long years of silence. Below, Professor Suzanne Smith of George Mason University gives us a preview of her research into a radio evangelist who was among the most prominent African Americans of his day, yet has been largely forgotten. Smith’s fascinating work not only revisits Elder Michaux as a historical figure, but also gives us a clear sense of how a project in radio reservation relies not only on institutional resources, but also on personal outreach. As many of us who are part of the preservation project are learning, media history lives on in storage units, basements and lockers, preserved by collectors, churches and communities that only individual connections can truly reach.
– Special Editor Neil Verma
In October 1934, the Washington Post published a feature about Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux in which it boldly declared that the “radio evangelist extraordinary, is the best known colored man in the United States today.” At the time, Elder Michaux, known as the “Happy Am I” Preacher, had a national radio show on the CBS network that broadcast his ministry of happiness and holiness to over twenty-five million listeners each week.
Like many popular evangelists of his era, Elder Michaux promoted his image as one of God’s prophets, presciently envisioning that radio could revolutionize the purview of modern evangelicalism. Michaux first used portable radio equipment to broadcast his holiness revivals in the mid to late 1920s in his hometown of Newport News and these religious programs were among the first of their kind in the United States. By 1929, Michaux moved to Washington, D.C. in the hopes of expanding his mission.
As an African American, Michaux initially had difficulty convincing local D.C. radio outlets to put him on the air. Eventually, he persuaded James S. Vance, local owner of WJSV, to broadcast his weekly revivals. When the CBS network bought WJSV in 1932, the budding evangelist achieved a national audience in the millions.
The key to Michaux’s success was his ability to combine his preaching with snappy, upbeat gospel songs that reminded listeners that a holy life leads to a happy life, a message that resonated with Americans navigating the economic trials of the Great Depression. By the late 1930s, the BBC invited Michaux to broadcast his program on its network and listeners around the globe soon began to tune into his WJSV broadcasts in via shortwave hookup. These opportunities allowed the charismatic preacher to reach a vast international radio audience that extended from Europe to Africa, South America, and the Caribbean. That Michaux’s broadcasts, like his story, have disappeared from radio history has impoverished our sense of the role of race in the soundscape of the era.
My current book project examines Michaux’s extraordinary life and career as a radio evangelist. For this post, I want to explain both Michaux’s significance to the history of religious radio as well as African American history; and how my research has led me to join the Radio Preservation Task Force in an effort to preserve the surviving recordings this important figure, but understudied, figure.
In spite of his many accomplishments, Elder Michaux has been largely overlooked in the histories of religious radio and African American religion. Scholarship on religious radio from the 1920s and 1930s tends to focus on figures such as Father Charles Coughlin and Aimee Semple McPherson with only passing mention of African American preachers such as Michaux. In the history of African American religion in the 1930s, Michaux tends to be overshadowed by scholarship on other major figures such as Father Divine and his Peace Mission Movement and Sweet Daddy Grace and his United House of Prayer. Although Michaux’s ministry was often categorized as a religious cult in the popular press of the time, his Gospel Spreading Radio Church of God was firmly a part of the black Holiness movement and continues to have ten active congregations today.
Throughout his career, which began in the late 1920s and extended until his death in 1968, Elder Michaux defied the odds and challenged boundaries of race, theology and politics to become one of the most successful religious leaders and media celebrities of his time. As early as 1926, Michaux, whose Holiness ministry openly welcomed all races, was arrested for baptizing whites and blacks together. Once established in Washington, D.C., Michaux led annual mass baptisms in the Potomac River and later at Griffith Stadium that drew tens of thousands of followers. At the height of his fame, from the 1930s through the 1950s, Michaux was regularly invited to the White House to consult with Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower about the racial issues of the day. By the early 1960s, Michaux engaged in public debates with both Martin Luther King Jr. and Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, about the direction of the civil rights struggle.
My book argues that Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux is critical to our understanding of how religious leaders used the mass medium of radio to literally “sell” evangelical faith movements in modern America. Elder Michaux was the first to fully develop the concept of a “Radio Church,” which offered official membership to followers and created one of the first, if not the first, virtual religious communities in modern America. A true evangelist, Michaux sought to reach believers and potential converts wherever they were and knew that the radio could facilitate his mission in revolutionary ways. In an interview in 1938, Michaux explained, “I wanted to give people religion over the air so they might have it at home. Then they couldn’t have an excuse for not going to church. They couldn’t say that they were tired or didn’t have the right clothes. They could get God and his teachings right in their own parlor.” Most significantly, Michaux’s entrepreneurial skill at marketing his Gospel Spreading Church of God through the radio was simultaneously in service to his race and racially transgressive in ways that complicate our understanding of how modern religious movements navigated Jim Crow segregation.
So how can we actually give an account of Michaux’s contributions? Researching radio programming from the 1920s and 1930s presents a number of challenges for any historian because recordings of broadcasts from this period are rare. Fortunately, Elder Michaux began his career on WJSV, one of the most powerful stations in Washington in the 1930s (which became WTOP, the most popular local news radio station in Washington, D.C. today). The first director of WJSV under CBS ownership was Harry Butcher, who had the foresight in September 1939 to record an entire day of programming, which is remarkable considering this was accomplished without the use of magnetic recording tape. Although this collection does not include Elder Michaux’s program, it is a valuable audio snapshot of the radio era in which he thrived.
My quest to locate recordings of Elder Michaux’s broadcast has led me to destinations as far away as the BBC archives in London, which houses two recordings of Michaux’s first British broadcasts; and as close as the main branch of the current Gospel Spreading Church of God here in Washington.
In the past two years, I have also developed meaningful relationships with congregants of the church, who have begun to be willing to share their private archive of recordings. During one oral history interview, one church member, who is 92-years old, gave me a reel-to-reel tape from Elder Michaux’s funeral service, which was broadcast in October 1968. Another elder member from Newport News sent me recordings of Michaux preaching at Lorton Prison in Lorton, Virginia in the 1950s. Most significantly, I recently met the current sound engineer at the church, who has been a member since the 1940s and has a large archive of reel-to-reel tapes of Michaux’s radio broadcasts from the 1950s and 1960s. At the height of his fame in the early 1930s, Elder Michaux broadcast his religious services daily and never missed a week of broadcasting until his death in 1968. The church has only kept a fraction of these broadcasts. Nevertheless, a significant number of them exist and are housed in the church’s private storage. I am currently trying to assess the scope of the church’s collection, which has involved reaching out to church members in Philadelphia, New York City, and Newport News, Virginia. I am also trying to investigate grants that might support my efforts to digitize the tapes as soon as possible since they are at risk of deterioration in the church storage facilities.
My research on Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux’s career has convinced me that more work needs to be done to pursue the preservation of African American religious radio broadcasts in general. The work of the Radio Preservation Task Force can support this mission, but it will also involve grassroots outreach to established African American churches. Many of these churches regularly broadcast their services and may have their own private archives of recordings that can offer us an invaluable glimpse at the aural history of African American religious practices in the twentieth century.
Moreover, through my ongoing relationships with the congregants of Elder Michaux’s Gospel Spreading Church of God, I have developed a deeper appreciation for the importance of personal outreach to African American religious communities in the service of preserving the history of religious radio. The efforts of the Radio Preservation Task Force are critically important in terms of identifying existing institutional archives, but only through individual connections with these vital, but often overlooked minority communities, will we be able to discover and preserve these treasures of our radio past.
Suzanne E. Smith is Professor of History in the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University. She is the author of Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit (Harvard University Press, 1999) and To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death (Belknap Press, 2010). She is currently working on her third book, tentatively titled The ‘Happy Am I’ Preacher: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux.
All images courtesy of the author.
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This is the conclusion to a two-part post by SO! regular writer Maile Colbert. Read Part One from Monday, January 12th here.
As we are primarily a visual culture, no longer connected to what environments can tell us through sound, we’ve lost aural acuity once central to the dynamic of our lives.
From what we have just begun to see, it appears that ancient human beings had learned well the lessons imparted by natural sounds. Their lives depended as much (if not more) on their ability to hear and understand the audio information imparted by their surroundings as those given by visual cues. –Bernard Krause, Ph.D The Soundscape Newsletter 06, June, 1993
All newborns emerge with the same cry, it is near impossible to distinguish one from another, even as a mother. This could be for many reasons and serve many purposes. Should something happen to a birth mother, the indistinguishable cry may help draw attention from another. It could be that, considering niche effect (in which animals adapt their calls to a frequency less populated by other environmental sounds), aside from biological reasons, a newborn’s cry is shaped by the wombscape from whence it came, and I speculate that generally speaking one wombscape is similar to another. Primarily what a fetus is hearing is low frequency. So it would serve that they would have an instinct to initially call out in a high frequency range. The baby then develops its cry according to its surrounding, such as a household in the city versus a country, a household with other children or not, a household with constant media sound.
My daughter has the most incredible earsplitting high frequency bark when she wants attention. If this doesn’t work (such as when “Baby, Mama has to wash the garden manure from her hands before she picks you up”), she’ll roll into a gritty horrific low growl that sounds like she’s being strangled. One of these always works, and I often wonder about these sounds’ relationship to the white noise (her specific mix in a more mid-range involving pink noise and a “rain on roof” recording) that has been a constant since her birth, and is still used for naps, some feedings, and bedtime.
Sound Machines and Noise
From my late pregnancy insomnia, to creating a calming environment in the labor room at the hospital, to keeping a consistent calming environment in the recovery room, to using that sound as a signal that it is time to calm, time to sleep…a sound machine has been a constant already in my daughter’s new world. It started with an app in Paris, at a festival during my third trimester, my waddling condition wouldn’t allow me to walk around much nor meet friends for drinks, etc. So I choose to stay in the hotel room and read. The fetal babe wasn’t in the mood to read, kicking and dancing, perhaps excited from the music at the festival. For a little while I played with her, her kicking in response to my pokes and prods. But soon I knew we both needed to both settle down. I was always fascinated by my parents’ sound machine as a child, it seemed something magical. I found and downloaded an app that allowed you to create your own mix, and so it began.
But recent research poses the question of whether a sound machine can actually affect hearing development. Some researchers have questioned if prolonged exposure to consistent sound could affect auditory pathways to the brain. I wonder what then of infants who grow up near, say, the ocean…or like my mother near a stream and small waterfall, a constant sound in her childhood and soundtrack to her memories from then. Or near a busy road or even walkway. Of course I want the babe to grow up to enjoy and focus on a varied soundscape. But at certain points, the noise has been a lifesaver! It’s been especially useful now combatting construction sounds, as babies tend to focus on background sounds, most likely for survival:
Of course it is very important to be aware of the strength of the sound a baby is exposed to, all too easy for our very visual culture to ignore. Even a sound machine with the volume too high, or the proximity too close, could reach decibels over 80, a threshold that could cause the tiny hair cells in the ear needed for hearing to die. As we lose these, we start to lose our hearing. The amount of energy in a sound doubles with even just a three decibel climb. If any sound makes it difficult to hold a regular conversation, chances are it’s past this threshold and could be doing damage. Our world is in many ways getting increasingly louder. As our cities grow, its sounds grow, and we are exposed to more constant and louder soundscapes. Will an accidental evolution be for us to adapt to losing our hearing? For me of course, this is a very bleak thought.
Your words are preserved in the tin foil and will come back upon the application of the instrument years after you are dead in exactly the same tone of voice you spoke in then. . . . This tongueless, toothless instrument, without larynx or pharynx, dumb, voiceless matter, nevertheless mimics your tones, speaks with your voice, speaks with your words, and centuries after you have crumbled into dust will repeat again and again, to a generation that could never know you, every idle thought, every fond fancy, every vain word that you chose to whisper against this thin iron diaphragm.
-Edison’s Ars Memoria, concept for the phonograph
A recorded sound transcends time. It allows a listener to share a space and perspective with the recordist. It allows a future people to hear the songs of people passed, and of their shared past. It allows for an extinct bird to call into the future, for a child to hear that bird and wonder, and question, and to have that question affect her future and therefore perhaps the future of others. I often think about what soundscapes or sound I have experienced that my daughter might not have the opportunity to experience when she’s older. Already since my childhood growing up in part in Hawaii, three birds I knew, I had heard, that my mother grew up with, that her father grew up with, that his parents grew up with (and so on)…are no longer calling in the wild. But what the world and I can share with her and her generation, can give her, can leave her, are recordings.
Kaua’i `O’o: http://macaulaylibrary.org/audio/6031
Hawaiian Crow: http://macaulaylibrary.org/audio/13434
The library I am constantly creating, shaped by my choice and perspective…where to hit start, when to stop, where to point the mic, what equipment to use, how to frame this aural moment that captured me and invoked the desire to save and to share.
I think of this very often these days, as a friend and great soundscape ecologist and composer has passed. Steve Miller (www.stevemiller.net ) left a wealth of music, sound, and writing that his daughter and family can share. His daughter will be able to put on headphones and share a space her father formed with his perspective, his choices, his interests. A sharing active with him.
A sharing that transcends time and space.
Future Memory, for Odette
Sound has a hold over my daughter in a way I wasn’t quite expecting. It’s almost a punch line that the daughter of two parents that work with and study sound would have such sensitivity. The smallest sounds can pull her from sleep, can pull her from eating. They can be a character for her, making her laugh, cry, yawn, widen her eyes in amazement.
It was only natural my partner and I decided to make an album as a gift to our daughter. We had wanted to do the same marking our history together years back, and had various sound recordings and unfinished ditties in a library marked “Future Memory.” The idea behind it was an aural coming together of our history and feelings expressed and translated through sound and song. We realized, of course, in many ways this was Odette’s history as well, and she our future.
The album became Future Memory, for Odette, a lullaby album in dedication and celebration to her, and including sounds from her growing in the womb, soundscapes we hope will be a part of her life, and in recording them in some way ensuring that, a score written for her while I was in labor from a friend, songs her father and I began and finished together during the stages of pregnancy, birth, and her first year, and collaborations and contributions in sound and music from family and friends would be her legacy.
This is her first song:
Dedicated to Odette Helen, and to the family, daughter, and memory of Steve Miller
“Future Memory, for Odette” to be released in 2015 through Wild Silence (www.wild-silence.com ). A dedication album to a new born daughter…a mix of her parents’ recorded and shared sounds, memories, hopes, and dreams towards a future with her. Sounds of her womb-scape, birth, and first year…music in collaboration with friends and family across oceans and land…an album of lullabies for Odette.
Maile Colbert is a multi-media artist with a concentration on sound and video who relocated from Los Angeles, US to Lisbon, Portugal. She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!
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This Is Your Body on the Velvet Underground– Jacob Smith