This podcast examines the prominent role of audio in the daily spiritual practice of Christian truck drivers. Using the lived examples of these drivers as an entry point, this segment explores the ways in which listening practices help to establish community and ground spirituality for individuals who spend long hours on the road.
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David B. Greenberg is a graduate of Oberlin College, where he studied religion, with an emphasis on Modern American Religious History. This podcast draws from his ethnographic research study, “Highway Religion: Truckstop Chapels, Evangelism, and Lived Religion on the Road.” David also performs and records as a singer-songwriter, and currently lives in New Jersey.
I grew up the Pentecostal Church of God in Christ in the Northeast. . .New Jersey, to be exact. And it was this particular religious and cultural world that gave me an appreciation for what music – and sound more generally – can do to move people, to have them inspired and changed. I’d like to expand on Regina Bradley’s recent post, OutKast and the Sounds of the Southern Black Church, and her theorizing of sound and space by remixing, spinning and scratching it, by grounding my reflection in a specific religious tradition in which I am most familiar. Thus, I want to use Black Pentecostalism in the United States and its performance of song and sound to better understand and critique the ideas of authenticity and voice we find in the performance of groups like OutKast.
Bradley’s piece traces Outkast’s borrowings from the Southern Black Church; I want to ask, what if borrowing from a common store is a way of theological life, not as theft, but as a means to producing a social world where sound and song are both gift and object of exchange? The concept of authenticity is a peculiar problem for music performance because implied within it are questions of who has the right to perform certain sounds and songs, or more pointedly, can any one group or even individual “own” a set of sounds and songs? I think that within the sound world of Black Pentecostalism (though not exclusively there) is the idea that music and sound exist in a public zone, a zone that is fugitive and insurrectionary. The public zone of music and sound experienced in Pentecostalism problematizes authenticity, ownership and the question of who can reproduce such musics.
The notion of the public zone helps us to understand the so-called authentic voice differently. Rather than it being the “ground zero” instance of purity or the discovery of some sort of truth or “essence,” I think of authentic voice as fundamentally a social experiment. The performance of song and sound from the public zone is a social experiment in that singing and sounding out are tentative, improvisational processes and they arise to the performance’s occasion. The social experient of utilizing song and sound produces inflection, accent, and most importantly, critical distance from other performances. Perhaps authenticity is not a reaching toward a foundational claim of origin/ality, but is a reaching outward, an extension, a centrifugal dance and play that seeks escape and refuge, creating sonic spaces in which one can inhabit that are, at the same time, the public zones in and through which contact occurs.
Consider, for example, the 1893 song “I Must Tell Jesus”
And the way in which Vernon Price approaches and touches on the traditional version of the song, especially by withdrawing from and touching off it.
Price’s play is most pronounced, I think, by the way she leaves the song undone, at a particular height, swell, spiritedness. Price left the song as it was – as a social experiment – available for others to enter into performance with her in the space of the refused lyrical end. Jesus can help us…Jesus (…) Refusing to sing the sounded word “alone” functions not merely as a placeholder, but as a reworking of the performance itself. In leaving the song undone, she leaves it critically open. At the end of Price’s incompletion, the organist’s chording changes tonal centers, from major mode to reflective minor with augmented and suspended chords or what Bradley might call, “takin’ em to chu[r]ch.”
But and also: Price could not contain the song to the lyrics. Words don’t go there. She screamed, she spoke in tongues, she used melisma, slurred speech, bent notes and exaggerated forms of vibrato. That is, the song itself functioned as a point of transition, as a vessel to be filled with voice as she was a vessel of outpouring. Giving, taking, in the same breath, the same sound. She did not, it seems to me, desire to sing the song “correctly” and her performance of authenticity was not about the reproducibility of the traditional or “original” version. Just as the organist changed tonal centers at the end of her undone performance, so too singing from this Black Pentecostal religious, cultural public zone shifts epistemological centers – knowledge – of what is and is not singing, acceptable, holy. Her sound broke down the structures that mark her notes as “bent” and her vibrato as “exaggerated.” A normative mode of “correct” or “proper” singing from within this public zone would be to stifle creativity, surprise, discovery.
As a vessel, we can think of sound, song and subject as conduits for the exchange of ecstasy and ecstatics. The sonic public zone becomes, for Vernon Price’s improvisation of “I Must Tell Jesus,” a point of departure, where the song and the sounds she makes in it socialize, network, change. Songs and sounds, from within this zone, are available for a public engagement; the song and singers are both capacities to be filled, emptied and filled again. And I think the theological imperative of modern Pentecostalism – that the Holy Spirit fills the individual is important for performance tradition [this difference is indexed by the divergent questions: “did you see so-and-so catch the spirit” versus “does so-and-so have the Holy Ghost” and “when did you get filled with the Holy Ghost?”]. One is filled with the capacity to be filled, with the fullness of the spirit that is made evident by giving it away through song.
As a vessel, we can think of sound, song and subject as conduits for the exchange of ecstasy and ecstatics. The sonic materiality of Price’s performance rubs up against and caresses, spins and spins off the performances that come previous to that moment in that church. This does not mean that she insouciantly called up the traditional in order to dismiss it. That would imply that Price was both lacking in attention and intentionality. What I think Price makes evident is how any performance of any song – the traditional “I Must Tell Jesus” included – occurs fundamentally within a social context. Any such performance – its “first” or the many that have come after it – are conduits, bridges. What we have then, by way of a sonic public zone, is a space that privileges the accrual of sound and song as a mode of sharing. The song was not created in order for Elisha Hoffman – writer of “I Must Tell Jesus” – to keep it. He got the song to share it and Price performed it to redouble such sharing. To be in a state of ecstasy is to be “beside oneself” and Price’s singing forced the song into ecstatic posture. Not only was she “beside herself” in praise to God, but she caused others to be beside as well, creating a new space for the beside of each self to celebrate and praise together.
Price riffed on the original, quickened herself to quicken others. She screamed because the heightened emotion moved her. And that heightened emotion moved others as well.
In 2006, I ventured into Hoosier Country. I found myself in the middle of…nowhere. And I was depressed. No, not because I decided to move to Indiana all by my lonesome on a huge leap of faith to pursue a graduate degree – I was too smooth for that – but because I found myself in a town where I couldn’t watch Outkast’s debut film Idlewild. Where they do that at? I am a Southern-bred, Southern-fed kinda girl. And Outkast was my muse. Hell, as a certified Down South Georgia Girl, all things Georgian were my muse. I planted my feet in red clay. My soundtrack was Organized Noise, the production team and heavy hitters that worked with OutKast, Goodie Mob, and a slew of other folks out of a rinky dink house basement that would later become known as the Dungeon (Family). I took pride in being from the Dungeon. And here I was, hundreds of miles away, frantically trying to find a theatre that would, if only for a brief 90 minutes, thrust me back into that familiarity of Southern life.
Of course, OutKast (comprised of members Andre Benjamin and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton) is hardly considered strictly Southern today. However, their 1994 release Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik shattered perceptions that Southern Rap was an oxymoron. In fact, OutKast’s initial sound updated tropes of southern black resistance and retaliation, fusing a lethal mastery of lyricism and flecks of a contemporary Southern culture too easily dismissed by non-Southerners. Calling upon and subverting the stereotypical traits of the Southern black voice – drawn out, slow, and heavy – OutKast sets up shop in hip hop by showcasing a rich history of Southern flair and homegrown sounds. The album made this intervention at the precise moment when hip hop became much more accessible to a mainstream white American market and the idea of being “post-Civil Rights” gained cultural traction. Combining narratives of being young, black, and frustrated with a sonic backdrop that includes an instrumental arsenal of horns, harmonicas, organs, drums, and bass, OutKast challenged and reconfigured how Southernness, Americanness, and contemporary black experience sounded at the turn of the millenium. Their initial releases seem to pick up the question of what it means to be displaced, Southern, and black after the South settled from its liberatory movements, pulling from the voices, images, and music of Southern protest like the Freedom Singers or Sweet Honey in the Rock and fusing these sounds with hip hop.
In order to discuss how they challenge and reconfigure notions of Southerness, Americanness, and contemporary black experiences, we should look at their musical nods to the black church. OutKast draws heavily on the Southern black church through sermon-esque flow, call and response, and snatches of “chuch” (lose the ‘r’) music. The black church is a staple in OutKast’s sound, reflecting what Guthrie Ramsey refers to in Race Music as community theatre, a site where “cultural, communal, and family memories associated with forms like music often become standards against which many explore and create alternative and highly personal identities for themselves” (33). The Southern black church provides such a site for communal and collective memory not only in Outkast’s music, but in African American history. Celebrated and upheld as a site of refuge from an abrasive and openly racist white supremacist environment, the black church provided a safe haven for freedom of cultural expression and social commentary unavailable in Southern white public space and discourse. OutKast challenges this older, static definition by updating its purpose to reflect the shifting social climate of the late-20th century American South. While they continue the resistance narrative tradition by bringing their marginalized experience to the forefront, they also sonically reorient mainstream views of contemporary Southern black life.
Instantly recognizable across OutKast’s recordings, their funky blend of sacred and secular musics–the blues, gospel, and hip hop–give sonic texture to something quiet-as-its-kept in black churches, how the so-called “bad” folks still come to church on Sunday, even if they were unholy on Saturday night. OutKast plays upon this unspoken understanding in songs like “Jazzybelle” from 1997’s ATLiens, “B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad)” from their 2000 release Stankonia, and the straightforward “Church” from SpeakerboXXX/The Love Below (2003).
A particularly striking instance is heard on “B.O.B.,” a song which brazenly discusses issues that are often reserved for closet prayer and silent suffering. As Andre weaves a lyrical assault on the poor conditions of living in the black working class:
One-Nine-Nine-Nine, Ano Domini, anything goes, be whatchu wanna be
Long as you know consequences are given for livin – the fence is
too high to jump in jail
Too low to dig, I might just touch hell – HOT!
Get a life, now they gon’ sell
Then I might cast you a spell, look at what came in the mail
A scale and some Arm and Hammer, slow grow grid and a baby mama
Black Cadillac and a pack of pampers
Stack of question with no answers
Cure for cancer, cure for AIDS
Make a nigga wanna stay on tour for days
Get back home, things are wrong
Well not really, it was bad all along
Andre rhymes across an instrumental blend of bass and the church organ, inundating his listener’s ear with agency and anger. The church organ is as angry and explosive as his flow, with riffs and keys banged out loudly, quite different from the soft accompaniment often heard in a church setting. By heavily utilizing the organ and church choir at the end of the track, chanting “Bible music electric revival” OutKast subverts and updates the celebrated Black Church Revival, a gathering of church folk and the lost, swinging church music to give a voice to the marginalized black working class. The hybrid, urban sound of “B.O.B.” provides a space for the reclamation of a disenfranchised southern African American narrative that blends the suffering trope mandating much of African American religion with current trends in cultural expression reflected in Hip Hop. In Idlewild (which I FINALLY saw a year later, by the way), Andre and Big Boi visually annotate their secularized black church by creating an imagined community in rural Georgia that revolved around the jukejoint Church. OutKast’s audio-visual syncretism paved the way for later acts like Pastor Troy, who secularizes tropes of black masculinity and leadership in the black church, likening them to the struggles of being at war with those who don’t understand the struggles of a young black south.
The black church provides OutKast with a blueprint for reconciling displacement and authenticity by creating a sound that maneuvered a Post-Civil Rights landscape of shifting markers of social-economic identities and race. By connecting the historical context of the Southern black church with Hip Hop, OutKast’s sound reflects not only the historical residue of a pre-Civil Rights Movement South but also the constant search for a space of expression in an era where a stagnant or nonexistent “modern South” is a popularly comfortable disbelief. Perhaps this is why I was so desperate to find a theatre showing Idlewild; I found myself a geographically displaced Southern black youth searching to situate and sustain a new layer of my own post-Civil Rights narrative.
With all the excitement over the new release of Mavis Staples’s You Are Not Alone (Anti-, produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy), I can’t help but be skeptical of the outpouring of Indie love for the album, even as I have been spinning (and enjoying) it myself. It isn’t the positive reaction to Staples’s talent that is surprising—at 70-plus years, Mavis has been exquisite for quite some time now—but rather the way in which critics have freighted her newest record with the “uplift” (AV Club) of a whole lot of souls that haven’t ever been to church (at least not in a good long while). Her voice is described as alternately “raw” (Paste) and full of a “depth, power, and warmth that seem increasingly rare in music today” (hear ya); Consequence of Sound, who cites Tweedy’s hand at the boards as the reason for all the current music blog attention, calls her voice “empathetic. . . powerful. . .soulful. . .touching” and “wise.” If the blogosphere is to be believed, Staples’s voice, “as authentic as it gets” (buzzine), could really save us all in these tough times. Come to think of it, the fervor of (white) faith in “authentic” black music shouldn’t be that surprising either, given the way in which race has always been entangled with popular music history in the United States.
Authenticity and the immediacy of experience it implies, have had a long history in the music industry—especially in reference to black artists—stemming back at least to the Fisk Jubilee Singers in the 1870s, an all-black acapella troupe celebrated for powerful live performances whose breakthrough concert also happened to be for a crowd of hipsters: the wealthy congregants of Henry Ward Beecher’s Brooklyn church in 1871. Beecher gave the band his enthusiastic support, namely because he felt their sound gave listeners direct access to “the inner lives of slave hearts expressed in music” even after slavery had formally ended.
While the sound of You are Not Alone differs greatly from the Jubilee Singers, the reviews of the record belie and inflame a similar desire for unmediated access to the emotive qualities (a)historically associated with black life and sound in the U.S.: namely suffering, faith, and catharsis. And Staples’s record is indeed not alone in this. Many of the sentences from the Staples reviews could easily have been lifted from those of another recent gospel record to capture the indie imagination, Daptone Records’s 2008 release Como Now. Starkly different from the breezier, countrified sounds of You Are Not Alone, Como Now is an acapella gospel recording made in a small town in Panola County, Mississippi. The record was a risky release for Daptone, a Brooklyn-based label that has consistently produced new funk and soul records since its inception in 2002 by the likes of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings and The Budos Band. Although old school sound has always been a part of the label’s ethos—its engineers use primarily analog equipment, for example, a major reason Amy Winehouse recorded her throwback Back in Black album at Daptone studios in 2006—marketing stripped-down gospel to its audience of predominately white hipsters would nonetheless prove a daunting task. Treating Como Now as a labor of love and a paying of dues, Daptone attempted to spark interest in the release by relying on the familiar marketing strategies of immediacy, authenticity, and nostalgia.
While Como Now’s tagline boldly proclaims that the music was “Recorded Live at Mt. Mariah Church on July 22, 2006”—and, thus, emphasizing the Now of the title—the cover’s vintage civil-rights era design evokes the Como of yesterday, or more accurately, encourages listeners to hear Como now and Como yesterday as one and the same through the vehicle of “raw gospel testimony.” Como Now’s depiction of the sounds of the past as echoes within the present is as ambiguous as it is uncanny, a sonic window thrown open to simpler times happening somewhere out there, “deep in the heart of Mississippi” right now.
The introductory promotional video from Como Now’s website (also uploaded on Youtube) represents the record as an aural time machine to a land and a people isolated from and largely unchanged by technology, modernity, and history.
Producer Michael Reilly’s voiceover locates rawness, emotional release, and “real religion” in the sound of black voices, in no small part because the video places his measured Yankee pacing in sonic tension with the song that accompanies it, Mary Moore singing “When the Gates Swing Open.” Over Moore’s impassioned singing, Reilly assures listeners in a muted deadpan that they will hear “no pretty piano playing or clever guitar picking, just voices. Pure soul stirring fire from the heart.” Reilly’s sentiments not only evoke the gushing Jubilee Singers’ press, but also the ethos of the infamous folklorist John Lomax, who made field recordings in Southern prisons in the 1930s because he sought “negro singers untainted by white musical conventions” (as he wrote in 1934’s “Sinful Songs of the Southern Negro”); singers in Como were actually recorded by John’s son Alan in the 1940s. Reilly’s voiceover goes on to frame the Como singers as practitioners of what the senior Lomax called “the real art of simplicity,” as stripped-down, natural singers who are artful mainly in their artlessness. While Reilly’s webcopy mentions how “children and grown folks alike have been living and breathing gospel for as long as they can remember,” for example, he fails to mention how the residents of Como have also been writing, rehearsing, and performing it.
Thus, Como Now’s marketing disavows the real artistry of the Como singers, even as it seeks to celebrate it. The simple, natural quality endowed to the singers of Como is visually accentuated by stark imagery representing the town as a down-at-the-heels, living museum of the black life of yesteryear. In the youtube clip, Moore’s soaring and spirited singing animates stills of blooming cotton fields, vintage RCA microphones, and splintering upright pianos. Save for the album cover and one blurry still of a child, there are no shots of the people of Como in the introductory promo, effectively isolating Moore’s voice from her corporeal and historical body. This isolation allows listeners to supply their own fantastic imagery and forces them to rely on historical stereotypes about the naturally sonic qualities of black people. By choosing to disembody Como’s voices, the promotional video represents the album’s music as emanating from, and even haunting, Panola County’s lush green fields and battered strip-malls rather than showing it to be a hard-fought creation of the residents themselves. To quote Lomax again: “[The Negro’s] songs burst from him, when in his own environment, as naturally as those of a bird amid its native trees.”
Although the impulse to make the album reflects a progressive desire to respectfully pay tribute to the black gospel tradition in American popular music—and to provide quality artists like The Como Mamas with critical renown and monetary compensation—Como Now relies on well-worn racial tropes to do so. It also points to the continued presence in American culture of an essentialized “black voice” that is naturalized as more emotive, truthful, and soulful than other voices. While this phenomena is socially constructed and the sounds thought of as “black” have shifted considerably—when I play early recordings of the Jubilee Singers my students consistently tell me that they sound “white” like a “glee club”—I find it fascinating that the language used to describe them has largely remained the same. While Como Now’s producer at least acknowledges that, in Como, “no one has to pick up cotton anymore, thankfully,” the marketing trades on the possibility that, while slavery and sharecropping have ended, its sonic labors have not only endured, but are readily available for download.