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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Welcome back to From Mercury to Mars, our series of posts (in conjunction with Antenna) that reflect on Orson Welles’s radio career, and the upcoming anniversary of its highlight, “The War of the Worlds.”
When scholars discuss the effect of that play on people, they often fall into reveries about its most serious dimensions — what the Martian Panic says about human susceptibility, about the power of the media, about sound and the unknown. But it’s important to realize that, besides being terribly humorless, this approach also isn’t historically just. Although Welles was — like some of his listeners — spooked the night of the event, in the days that followed he and many others came to recognize some humor in the the whole thing, too. Later in life, Welles focused on that dimension of his memory, repeatedly recalling with laughter that when the actor John Barrymore (something of a “grand old man” of the American stage in 1938), heard the Martian invasion broadcast he tearfully decided to free his beloved dogs, so they could taste freedom before meeting the inexorable doom.
Such tall tales aren’t trivial. Actually, we misunderstand the WOTW escapade if we don’t recognize that immediately adjacent to modern America’s propensity for panic stood its equally fascinating capacity to laugh at itself. Both tendencies do cultural work, often in concert with one another. With that in mind, this week our Mercury to Mars series moves from the macabre (see Debra Rae Cohen’s piece on Welles and Dracula) to the ridiculous, focusing on the relationship between Welles’s puffed-up fame and how it was lampooned by Fred Allen, one of the great absurdist comics in modern entertainment, and perhaps the most creative radio comedian of his era.
To introduce this crucial entertainer and to explain why his relationship to Welles matters so much, we are lucky to have one of the most important voices in radio studies today: Kathleen Battles, Associate Professor of Communication at Oakland University, author of a paradigm-shifting study of the relationship between radio and policing, Calling All Cars: Radio Dragnets and the Technology of Policing (Minnesota, 2010). Battles is also one of the co-editors of a book you should all be reading, assigning, and handing out like Halloween candy — War of the Worlds to Social Media: Mediated Communication in Times of Crisis (Peter Lang, 2013).
Here’s a taste, just to get you started.
Contemporary public memory of Orson Welles seems bent on remembering him as mercurial, imperious, haughty genius, driven in equal parts by ambition and artistic vision. It is hard to remember that this image of the auteur – not Welles but “Welles” – was one crafted not by the man alone, but by a host of actors and other performers, all with their own interest in attaching themselves to such a “genius.” As Welles’s reputation grew in the wake of the “War of the Worlds” broadcast, furthering his transformation into “Welles,” it was simply a matter of time before he became a fodder for another kind of auteur, the radio comedian. One of the most popular was Fred Allen, who made a career archly satirizing the cultural conventions of the day, with the radio industry itself being one of his favorite targets. “Welles” was too rich a subject to forego.
This post explores two key moments of Allen’s satire. The first came on November 9, 1939, when Allen’s show featured a comic skit, entitled “The Soundman’s Revenge, or, He Only Pulled the Trigger a Little, Because the Leading Man was Half Shot Anyway,” a radio skit that deftly mimes the Mercury/Campbell style to comic effect. The second is from three years later, October 18, 1942, when Welles himself appeared on Allen’s show, joining in the fun as the pair rehearse Les Miserables, with Welles gamely mocking “Welles.” In these two short skits, Allen and his team of writers and performers quickly dismantle what had become the more recognizable elements of the Mercury/Campbell style–as exemplified in Welles’s version of A Tale of Two Cities–including the elevation of Welles to the genius “author” of the plays, its narrative and performance techniques, and the use of sound effects.
Mercury Theater was strongly marked with the authorial imprint of the real Welles, but the legend of “Orson Welles” was also crafted quite deliberately by CBS, and then later by show sponsor Campbell’s Soup, for their own aims at cultural legitimacy. As Michele Hilmes argued, such moves were key to legitimizing the medium as operating in the “public interest” (183-88). Here is a clip from just after Campbell Soup began sponsoring the Welles program:
As other writers have pointed out, such as Debra Rae Cohen in her entry to this series, Neil Verma, and Paul Heyer, the show was among the best in emphasizing the sonic properties of radio to maximum effect in storytelling. The quality acting of members of the Mercury Theater, the music of Bernard Herrmann, the ambitious use of sound effects, and some stellar examples of adapting literary tales make the show worthy of praise.
The emotional and narrative power of Welles himself is evident in the Mercury Theater dramatization of A Tale of Two Cities. Taking on Dickens’ sprawling classic in one hour certainly demanded some creative choices. One was to open with Dr. Mannette’s letter from the Bastille prison, with Welles as Mannette emotionally dictating the words that would later serve to betray his own family.
This is contrasted against the later reading of the same letter in a courtroom scene, where the emotional poignancy of Welles’s performance is counterpointed against its dry reading as a piece of evidence.
Dynamic use of sound effects was another key element of the Mercury/Campbell style. From his work in March of Time and The Shadow, which both used sound effects to enact key narrative devices (Time varied times and locations, the Shadow’s invisibility), Welles used his own radio program to push the boundaries of what such effects could achieve. In A Tale of Two Cities, sound effects are used to punctuate key moments, none to greater effect than the final scene in which the sound of the guillotine serves as the morbid backdrop to Carton’s final, famous speech of self sacrifice:
All of these tendencies are key to Allen’s “Soundman’s Revenge,” in which Orson Welles and the Campbell’s Playhouse become “Dorson Belles” and “Finnegan’s Playhouse,” with the evening’s entertainment an adaptation of Jack and Jill fetching a pail of water.
Belles, acted by Fred Allen, tells his listeners that “My program is famous, and rightly so, for my sound effects, conceived in solitude by me.” The skit reaches ridiculous heights during a dramatization of “Jack’s” first meeting with “Jill.” As Jack and Jill wax enthusiastically at each other merely by repeating each others’ names, the host breaks in to tell listeners that “This dialogue, ladies and gentleman, is not to be found in the original Mother Goose version. It has been interprellated by Dorson Belles. We return you now to the play.”
The always potential high culture pretentiousness of Mercury/Campbell aesthetic choices are brought to the fore by the ridiculous choice of a Mother Goose nursery rhyme as the “play” within the skit. But other things do as well. The skit opens in typical Mercury first person narrative style, where Jack tells the tale from his own perspective in a ponderous, overwrought dramatic fashion. Jack does not live in postcard ready New England, he lives in a “land of penury and misery.” He does not merely make a mess while preparing his dinner, but “licks the albumen of owl’s egg off his fingers.”’
In its most pointed reference to Mercury style, the skit directly plays off a memorable moment in War of the Worlds when, as Professor Pierson narrates his travels in New Jersey, he states that “I saw something crouching in a doorway, and it rose up and became a man. A man armed with a large knife.” Here is the clip:
In similar dramatic style, Jack narrates his journey up the hill, hauling his “heavy oaken pail” and asks “What was that huddled form crouching in my path? Was it a girl? It was!”
The comic tour-de-force, however, comes with its satire of sound effects. Allen’s team goes for broke as listeners laugh along to the gradual undoing of the hapless Theodore Slade, Welles’s sound effects engineer in the skit, who is driven to madness by the excessive number of effects. Slade makes many mistakes throughout, but his errors really add up when Jack kills his father and he describes the “long arm of the law” reaching out, coming from the north on horseback, the east by train, the west by “aeroplane,” and the north by sleigh. Each description is punctuated by its appropriate sound; hooves, whistles, engines, and of course, sleigh bells.
It works the first time, but when Jack dramatically asks if he and Jill can escape each of these modes of capture, Slade plays the wrong effects. When Jack tells us he stabbed the Sherriff, Slade plays a gunshot. This time, when Belles chastises him, Slade lets loose, telling Belles that he is going “nuts,” then trying to rectify the mistake by killing the Sherriff again. Belles yells out that “this is confusing!” to which Slade retorts, “you’re telling me!” As Jill tries to continue the scene, telling us she is shooting herself, Slade plays the train whistle. Finally Jack narrates that Jill, the Sherriff, and his father are dead, and that “I alone live.” Slade replies, “yeah, but not for long,” and after listing off years worth of complaints, shoots Belles. Belles, in a pitch perfect rendition of Welles’s weekly closing of his radio show, says “This is Dorson Belles, signing off permanently. Pending rigor mortis, I remain, obediently yours.”
Perhaps Welles was offended, or perhaps he yearned to be in on the joke. He certainly seemed to relish the chance for that opportunity, when he appeared as a guest on Allen’s show, 3 years later on October 18, 1942. Here he plays along in the skewering of his own genius image, tied to his authorial control over all his projects. As the cast nervously awaits the arrival of the great “Welles,” Allen tries to calm them. Once “Welles” enters the studio, Allen himself comes in for his own ribbing. “Welles” tells him that they will be performing a new version of one of Welles’s early radio dramatizations, Les Miserables. Here Welles successfully mocks both “Welles” and Allen, insisting on sole authorship, giving an overwrought performance, using the first person singular mode of delivery, and most humorously by reducing Allen’s contribution to a few sound effects.
In those few moments where Welles himself cannot help from laughing along with the mockery, “Welles” becomes Welles, and we in the audience get to laugh with, not at, the man.
While CBS, Campbell Soup, and the press turned Welles into “Welles,” Allen undermined that move, puncturing the grandiose myth, a project in which Welles himself was only too willing to participate. By breaking it down to its constituent elements, the “Soundman” and Les Miserables skits celebrate the unique style of the Mercury/Campbell radio productions. Yet, they also pierce its cultured veneer by pointing to the unsung efforts of the always-necessary team to make radio performances work, and skewering the pretentiousness of the program’s extra-textual discourses. In the process Welles and Allen mutually constructed and deflated each other’s reputation as radio geniuses.
Featured Image: Orson Welles and Anthony Perkins sharing a laugh on the set of The Trial.
Kathleen Battles is Associate Professor and Graduate Director in the Department of Communication and Journalism at Oakland University (MI not CA). She is recently co-editor (with Joy Hayes and Wendy Hilton-Morrow) of War of the Worlds to Social Media: Mediated Communication in Times of Crisis (Peter Lang, 2013), a volume that seeks to draw connections between the War of the Worlds broadcast event and contemporary issues surrounding new media. She is also the author Calling All Cars: Radio Dragnets and the Technology of Policing (University of Minnesota Press, 2010). Her research interests include Depression era radio cultures, the interrelationship between radio, telephones, and automobiles, media and space/time, the historical continuities between “old” and “new” media, and contemporary issues surrounding sexuality and the media.
Want to catch up on the Mercury to Mars series?
Click here to read Tom McEnaney’s thoughts on the place of Latin America in Welles’s radio work.
Click here to read Eleanor Patterson’s reflections on recorded re-releases of the “War of the Worlds” broadcast.
Click here to read Debra Rae Cohen’s thoughts on vampire media in Orson Welles’s “Dracula.”
And click here to read Cynthia B. Meyers on the challenges and rewards of teaching WOTW in the classroom.
While I’ve still got you here … be sure to join our WOTW anniversary Facebook group. Next month we’re planning exciting events around the anniversary of the Martian Panic on October 30, 2013 from 7-10 EST, and hoping to get as many of you as we can to liveTweet the Invasion broadcast. Sign up to join in!