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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The following video installation by Mandie O’Connell, is part three of a four part series, “Round Circle of Resonance” by the Berlin based arts collective La Mission that performs connections between the theory of José Esteban Muñoz and sound art/study/theory/performance.
The first installment and second installments ran last Monday. The opening salvo, written by La Mission’s resident essayist / deranged propagandist LMGM (Luis-Manuel Garcia) provides a brief introduction to our collective, some reflections on Muñoz’s relevance to our activities, and a frame for the next three missives from our fellow cultists. It is backed with a rousing sermon-cum-manifesto from our charismatic cult-leader/prophet, El Jefe (Pablo Roman-Alcalá). Next Monday, our saucy Choir Boy/Linguist (Johannes Brandis) will close the forum with a dirge to our dearly departed José (August 9, 1967- December, 4, 2013).
—LMGM a.k.a. Luis-Manuel Garcia (curator)
Concept and Performance: Mandie O’Connell
Filming and Editing: Piss Nelke
Music: Khrom Ju (La Mission)
Piss is Power.
Power exists in urination, in this basic and most crucial of bodily acts. Problems with urination can result in embarrassment, infection, hospitalization. And yet so many of us women encounter confining, unfair, cruel, and Puritan limitations to where, when, and how we can pee, while our male counterparts traipse around urinating wherever they please. It is time, brothers and sisters, to re-politicize piss.
Brother Muñoz taught us that utopian projects require fellow participants, not audiences. We need a Urinary Utopia, a Piss Paradise that is open to men, women, trans and intersex people of all colors. Let’s shower down a blissful piss, a rainbow-colored golden shower where we all can piss wherever the fuck we want to!
In my performance video, I attempt to create a Muñoz-inspired utopian sensibility through the enactment of a new modality of an everyday action. I use a Female Urination Device—which enables me to stand up and urinate—to take a Yellow Adventure around my neighborhood. I piss freely in places where my penis-having brethren piss. I piss in a urinal next to which “Piss on me Bitch” is crudely scrawled. I piss into the river Spree, symbolically owning it with my liquid gold. Finally, I write my name in piss, a macho action turned feminine, the power and privilege of said action redirected towards my vagina.
In “Standing Up,” three different sounds are mixed together to create the soundscape of the performance: ambient noise, music, and sound clips of urination. The ambient noise serves to locate the scene in space/time. The music by Khrom Ju was selected to give the performance an eerie, strange, and repetitive undertone. The sound of urination was recorded live and is the sound of female urination. We use this sound both as a cue and as comic relief. Piss is funny, piss is strange, and piss happens all around us.
Urination and the female struggle around it is a real struggle that really happens and really matters. Exceptionally long lines for the ladies’ room, the inability to publically urinate at festivals due to feeling exposed and shamed, being charged money to use toilet facilities when males can piss outdoors for free, getting forced to use a ladies’ room when your sexuality sways towards using the men’s room, the list of complaints goes on and on. So I say: pee where you want, not where others want you to. Pee on administrators, police, politicians, and oppressors of all kinds while you’re at it!
I refuse to adhere to these rules anymore, and I beg you to follow my lead.
Piss is Power.
Featured Image adapted from “Pee” by Flickr User Melissa Eleftherion Carr
Mandie O’Connell (yo) aka “Knuckle Cartel, is a former big cheese and intellectual powerhouse behind the wildly successful Seattle-based experimental theater company Implied Violence. I, Mandie, have experienced the same “conservatism” and capitalistic partnership between Money and Art in the performance/theater scene. Witnessing firsthand the immense power that cash-wielding creeps hold over creatives is sickening, sad, and sordid. I’ve had enough, and so have you…right? Let’s fix a broken system. If we can’t fix it, let’s circumvent it.
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LMGM’s “Lost: Choirboy” & El Jefe’s “Muñoz & La Mission: A Sermon. . .” (in memoriam José Esteban Muñoz)
Come, let us sing of great men. Well, just one man, not men—and masculine gender is not essential for our purposes. Come to think of it, his greatness isn’t nearly as important as his fierceness, his queer significance, his brown sensibility. But we’re still committed to singing—or at least to music—well, to sound and noise, in any case. José Esteban Muñoz often wrote about queer scenes where music and sound were central to participants’ world-making activities. His archives buzzed with the sounds of West Coast punk, vogue-ball house, cruisy toilets, genderqueer burlesque, and salsa echoing down the barrio streets. And so, for this Round Circle of Resonance, we at La Mission are here to make some noise about a badass thinker who deeply impacted the way we dance/sing/talk/write/sweat about dance music, identity, and politics.
And this is just the beginning of our cacophonous, four-part response to Muñoz’s intellectual holler. The first installment, written by La Mission’s resident essayist / deranged propagandist LMGM (Luis-Manuel Garcia) provides a brief introduction to our collective, some reflections on Muñoz’s relevance to our activities, and a frame for the next three missives from our fellow cultists. It is backed with a rousing sermon-cum-manifesto from our charismatic cult-leader/prophet, El Jefe (Pablo Roman-Alcalá). In the coming weeks, our Naked Mennonite/randy dramaturge (Mandie O’Connell) will prepare and film a urinary performance piece; and our saucy Choir Boy/Linguist (Johannes Brandis) will compose a dirge to our dearly departed José (August 9, 1967- December, 4, 2013).
LMGM a.k.a. Luis-Manuel Garcia
Lost: Choirboy (in memoriam José Esteban Muñoz)
Named after San Francisco’s Latino barrio, La Mission is a satirical utopian doomsday cult, a music label, a queer situationist art-gang, a magazine, and a group of dancers with a very dirty sense of humor. We release music on vinyl, publish DIY ‘zines, and make performance art, aiming to re-politicize genres of dance music that have been important to queer people of color. La Mission’s identity is perhaps best summed up by cult-leader El Jefe’s manifesto-sermon, “The Sermon for the Steps of the Ziggurat in our Hearts,” published in our first La Mission magazine:
La Mission is a Community. La Mission is a Collective. La Mission is a Cult. La Mission is a Situationist Art Gang. La Mission is a Anarcho-Syndicalist terror cell. La Mission is a Family. La Mission is You. La Mission is Us. La Mission is gonna strip you butt nekkid, gonna check all your body cavities, gonna give you a shower, gonna give you a goodie bag, gonna give you a clean sheet and a towel. You at home with us now children, you understand me? You home with us now.
La Mission was first formed in 2012, in a small café in the Neukölln district of Berlin. The collective initially began with just three of us—Pablo Roman-Alcalá, Mandie O’Connell and Luis-Manuel Garcia—but like any good charismatic doomsday cult, it quickly expanded to include a broad network of lovers and collaborators, led by a core of four instigators (Johannes Brandis joined us later in the year). After a fundraising run in the fall of 2012 (witness our surrealist fundraising video here), we held our first two performances in the winter and spring of 2013, which involved experimental performance art pieces held in unusual spaces. The performances incorporated music and text from our vinyl EPs and their corresponding ‘zines, which were released at around the same time. These multi-channel productions were also conceptually coherent, with (kunst/WORK)001 introducing La Mission’s “mission” and (kunst/WORK)002 focusing on the relevance of utopianism to dance music. After a “quiet spell” where we released an out-of-series vinyl record of “lost remixes,” 2014 has been dedicated to preparing the next volume in the series (due in February 2015), which examines the depredations of capitalism, forced austerity, and false scarcity on music.
La Mission has no idols, but we do have influences—and José Esteban Muñoz is foremost among them. We share with Muñoz a focus on queer nightlife-worlds, a non-classical take on utopianism, a commitment to intellectual interventions outside of academic channels, and a certain brassy tone of voice. His revival of Ernst Bloch’s notion of a utopia based in real-life struggles was crucial in helping us reconcile revolutionary politics with dancefloor utopianism; or, put differently, Muñoz helped us find the critical politics latent in the queer, brown, sweaty gatherings that form the core of our scene of commitment. As “EDM” continues to blow up into a primarily white, hetero, cis, mainstream phenomenon, his insights have helped us maintain clarity and critical focus.
From the outset, we have also been profoundly influenced by Muñoz’s lifelong theorizations of brownness, affect, and (dis)identification. Since three of our four core members are Latina/os in varying states of stripped identity, we have been especially interested in Muñoz’s notion of the “brown commons,” as he was developing the concept in the last years of his life. In promotional texts that circulated ahead of his speaking engagements on the topic, he described brownness as “an expansive sense of the world, a feeling and being in common that surpasses the limits of the individual and the subject.” Notably, he understands brownness and the brown commons as being shaped not only by suffering and struggle, but also by thriving, providing a pool of resources for a better, more vibrant kind of life.
The significance for La Mission’s project in dance music culture should be clear already, but we also take great inspiration in how Muñoz developed an expansive view of brownness and the brown commons, using Latina/o experience as an entry-point for “a vaster consideration of the ways in which people and things suffer and experience harm under the duress of local and global forces that attempt to diminish their vitality and degrade their value.” We here at La Mission are committed to exploring brownness for its potentials for lateral solidarities among people of color, who may have diverse cultural backgrounds but nonetheless share post-migrant experiences of struggle, devaluation, displacement, and inauthenticity. In fact, Muñoz’s work was a direct inspiration for the “Brown Corner” in our La Mission ‘zine (a parody of the “ladies’ corner” and “kid’s corner” of American mid-century lifestyle magazines). Published bilingually and featuring post-migrant authors, the Brown Corner reflects on aspects of brownness, as both specific to their contexts and generalizable to a wider “commons” of brown experience. In the process, we hope to highlight shared feelings, narratives, and resources for brown survival in a world of white supremacy.
Singing into the Horizon
Brother Muñoz, what are we supposed to do with the vinyl records, the zines, the performance videos we had been accumulating for you? We’re trying to sing our way into a queer utopian horizon, and we had been counting on your voice. We know you’re not coming back. As a radical lefty utopian doomsday cult, we’re not so invested in the afterlife, anyway. But it still sucks for us and everyone else you left behind, left in the “here and now” that we struggle to turn into something less suffocating. The party was just getting started, dammit. Besides, we had such a kickass choirboy outfit picked out for you.
LUIS-MANUEL GARCIA aka “LMGM”: LMGM/Luis-ManuelLMGM/Luis-Manuel is a Canadian of Peruvian-Colombian origins, currently an Assistant Professor in Popular Music at the University of Groningen (NL), after migrating between Toronto, Berlin, Chicago, and Paris. He has managed to turn his love of electronic dance music into a PhD in Ethnomusicology at the University of Chicago, and into post-doctoral fellowships at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and the Freie Universität Berlin. On the side, he writes about food and dances every chance he gets.
Muñoz & La Mission: A Sermon for the Imagined Sanctuary We Built Together
Welcome. La Mission is a family. A family of chosen comrades, chosen brethren, chosen hermanos, chosen сестры, chosen lovers, chosen students, chosen teachers, and chosen arms. Arms, linked and brandished through common thought, common feeling, common goals. It is with a heavy heart that we find ourselves here, remembering one of our family who (though never officially an acolyte or collaborator) was one who contributed to the ecstasy that we have felt and will feel for many years. José Esteban Muñoz was said to be a believer. Ernst Bloch and the New Revolutionary Epoch. Our utopias were described and imagined and realized and experienced. Rise up, my brown brethren, and let us celebrate Brother Muñoz’s legacy!
The words and deeds of this fellow freedom-fighter, who infiltrated the bourgeois güero academy and infected it with a polylateral program for de- and reprogramming, has been our parallel and our inspiration. Colleague and comrade. A representative of our struggle. Not quite a patron saint—that honor we’ve reserved for communarde Louise Michel—but no less a visionary. As queers, as minorities stripped of identity, as angry and happy children in revolt for something better, we must all learn from each other as equals.
Brother Muñoz made utopia political again and located that utopianism in performance. La Mission’s performances bring forth utopias from our queer future through fleeting mindfuck happenings in the present. Through the work of Sister O’Connell and her band of terrorizing miscreants, we present a non-narrative and non-paternalistic path towards redemption, one of our own making. Can I get a “Fuck, yeah!”?
Brother Muñoz loved music and dancing and life-worlds connected by the beat and said, “Take Ecstasy with Me.” He revealed to us the connections between collective dancing and feeling utopian. In his spirit, La Mission’s music strives to bring forth utopia through that ever-lasting beat. Through disassociation and reassociation, through transcendental repetition, and through getting the fuck down! Can I get a “Fuck, yeah!”?
Brother Muñoz believed in learning and critical thinking. Analysis and the great revolutionary trek through the jungle of our critically thinking minds. La Mission’s tracts enact utopia through a constant vomiting out of our recently digested learnings into the baby-bird mouths of those who read them. The brother was also a hilarious motherfucker, and from this we realize that it is not through the shrill screams of egoism disguised as activism that we will prevail. It is through the joy of laughter combined with thought that we will win our bread. Can I get a “Fuck, yeah!”?
Brother Muñoz loved fucking. La Mission’s fucking creates utopias through the ecstatic act in and of itself. If you aint fucking to make yourself a Temporary Autonomous Zone of happiness, then you aint doing it right. Can I get a copulatory “Fuck, yeah!”?
It is not all loss, though. The ideas live on. Caminamos juntos. On the dancefloor. In the reclaimed Torre David skyscraper and the Taller Tupac Amaru collective; in the informal classrooms and the sweaty bedrooms. Our hearts must burst after sagging, our heads must fill after hanging low, and our linked arms will raise! Oh honey, please don’t give your heart to a world system based on exploitation of the luckless, give your heart to US!
All images courtesy of La Mission
PABLO ROMAN-ALCALA: Yo. I am Pablo aka “Beaner” aka “Skirtchaser” aka “El Frijolero” etc. I am an internationally working musician and dj who has enjoyed a modicum of success, but who doesn’t like what has happened to the musical landscape vis-a-vis “conservatism” in respect to both Money and Art. I mean the relationship of the two, okay? It sucks. And I want to change it.
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