Rediscovered: an occasional aria on some forgotten favorite

“What You Say is What you Get.” Christ Tabernacle Choir. Back in the day, Reba Rambo (Dottie’s daughter) wrote a song called “What You Say Is What You Get.” By the unmerited favor of some good friends, I recently discovered the tune as recorded by the Christ Tabernacle Choir (on their We Have Overcome album). It’s one of those songs I’ve become fixated on, listening to over and over so much that I’m simultaneously sick of it and unable to stop playing it, loudly, over and over. I have my hunch that there’s more than a little not-so-secret charismatic in Reba Rambo, which accounts (I think) for why the song was naturally adaptable to the urban choir arrangement of the recording I’m obsessing over at the moment. It’s got this greek-chorus kinda refrain to it that somehow manages to be both joyous and trenchant … “Let the weak say I. Am. Strong / Let the blind say I. Can. See.” And so on with different things that the downtrodden and dispirited are urged to say about their condition.The typical interpretation of this kind of song would be that is straightforwardly recapitualtes scripture about whatsoever is asked in the name of the Lord etc, but pretty soon the song makes it plain that this is (for gospel audiences of a certain staid and conservative stripe) a potentially radical reinterpretation of theology, which in a nutshell is, “what you say is what you get” from God. My first inclination was to dismiss all this as something like a theme song for the name-it-and-claim nonsense that came out of the church-o-tainment frightfest of the 70s and 80s in evangelicalism (Jim and Tammy Faye need a new Rolls Royce, for instance … what you say is what you get). But the more I listen (and listen and listen), the more intrigued I am by an alternative possibility the song implies: that Christian life is a series of psychospiritual goals and ambitions projected outward in the posture of prayer or supplication to God, the important idea here being that it’s the asking (or the saying, as the lyric goes) that’s at least as significant as (maybe more than?) the reciprocity of the divine: “with words of faith confess it / and it in the name of Jesus claim it / What you say is what you get.” The call-and-response style of the song artfully reinforces this, with the chorus belting out the possibilities: “let the blind say I can see / let the weary say I have rest” and then the soloist taking up the last bit of each line, only transforming it from a statement of possibility to a declaration of claimed promise: “I can see / I have rest” and so on. I could be wrong, of course. This could really just be a little ditty about the power of positive thinking, but like all good lyrics, this one resists such oversimplification and reminds us that within (and maybe because of) a theological tradition that valorizes self-denial and abnegation, people will always - because they must - find a way of commemorating what Michael McGiffert has wonderfully called (in a slightly different context), the “‘I’ that so claimantly asserts itself” in religious experience.

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