Slightly OT Bleg: Billy Graham Crusade Music
So last night, I watched Frontline’s biography of Richard Nixon (fascinating stuff, natch) and about half-way through, we get to the part where Nixon is bogged down in Vietnam. You may well remember this bit of history: In an effort to rally his core supporters, he goes to a Billy Graham Crusade and gives what would have probably been a forgettable speech except that it introduced “silent majority” into the sociopolitical lexicon. Blah blah blah. This is all preamble to my point, which is about the music that immediately precedes Nixon’s entrance. It’s the first 24 or so seconds of this clip:
I love the way the Frontline edits of this Crusade footage give the impression that Nixon gets to stride up the stairs of the platform riding the enormous upswelling energy created by the song, the choir of singers, and the songstress whose music is still in the air when when Nixon’s head pops into view. Like I say, that’s an illusion of the edits — it didn’t actually happen that way (you can see Nixon is greeted by Graham at the dais immediately, one presumes, after he has delivered his introduction of the president). But at first, I missed this sly splicing and in thinking about Nixon walking on to the fading notes of “Oh How I Love Jesus,” I started thinking about stagecraft of the Graham Crusades. And it occurred to me that the grace and dexterity of Nixon’s entrance (as created by Frontline’s edits) could arguably be said to capture the key to Graham’s success, which was always as much about the optical tones of his crusade events and the style of his pageantry as it was about the substance of his sermons.
Though he preached a conservative Christian gospel almost theologically identical to the likes of, say, Falwell, Graham never was the lightning rod the Falwells of the evangelical right were, not least because Graham’s crusades perfected the art of populist theater, of conveying evangelicalism as a community event that tapped and channeled the bedrock values of ordinary evangelical Christians … Nixon’s silent majority, given a voice - a glorious, wonderful, outsized George Beverly Shea voice - for a few hours each year when the Graham Crusade would come to town. And it was that wholesome, Christian populism that Nixon was hoping to tap into when he visited (also: it’s easy to forget or dismiss how politically gifted Nixon really was in many ways, right down the way he walks on stage … as gifted, you might say, as he was malevolent, petty, and bad). My initial read of the Frontline scene was wrong, but I think the larger point about Graham still stands, or is at least worth throwing out there for discussion.
And even if it isn’t, that’s not my primary point, so despair not: what I’m really curious about here is the music. First off, does anyone know the name of the woman leading the chorus of “Oh How I Love Jesus”? Her high notes lose their warmth in the crummy audio of the video clip, and the youtube visuals are all washed out at first so you can’t really see her that well early on when the camera angle shows her commanding the round with that massive choir behind. But last night when the screen cut to her in this scene, I positively snapped up off the couch, captivated by the easy, breezy gracefulness of her quietly charismatic manner, the way she manages to seem to be speaking to just me, across all this time and that sea of thousands … and I thought, now that’s a Jesus I can get on board with.
And finally, the piano. The Graham Crusades didn’t invent the type of accompaniment you hear here, full of arpeggiated runs and wide-armed fills that give the effect of acoustically encouraging each vocal phrase with an elaborate and filigreed flourish of piano commentary, but certainly Graham helped popularize this style. Does anyone know who’s playing the piano here? You can see him briefly, and at a not very helpful angle, about minute marker 1:50.
Update: Thanks to all who have responded to my blegs, even if blegging did reveal in this case my mildly embarassing ignorance of what Ethel Waters looked like.Email this Post