More Rediscoveries: Road to Emmaus
In my gospel music course this week, we spent a good deal of time covering the question of whether one has to share the values and vision of a performer in order for the performance to create genuine experiences - religious, spiritual, emotional - for an audience or an individual. Longtime readers of this site know that I’m firmly on the side of seeing artistic creation - including gospel music performance - as something that, to quote myself, “exceeds the limits of orthodox culture to control what it means or to put limits on the work it accomplishes.”
Later this week, and mostly by coincidence, work on my book included a passage in which I was discussing The Steele’s popular polemic, “We Want America Back,” which in turn led me to the clip below of “The Road to Emmaus.”
And gosh, I had forgotten how fond I am of this song … the trenchant rhythm, the fully voiced chords created by the fifth part doubling key elements of the harmonic structures, the way Troy Peach inflects the front-end of his phrases with that little melismatic ornament and sings for the life of him like he’s right there on the Emmaus Road himself … God, grant that I may walk with thee!
It was a useful convergence for me personally, having to live anew through the dynamic of enjoying - really feeling the affective force - of a song from a group that, in this case, cultivated a politicized persona and embraced cheap polemics that always left me cold.
It’s not that I don’t encounter some version of this on a fairly regular basis. Comes with the territory for the unorthodox and noncomforming gospel fan, and you get used to it after a while (or else you just go take a Hagee Refreshment Break). And I’m not asking for sympathy or complaining or anything. Quite the contrary actually. It’s a been a while since I have been brought up as a starkly as this against the paradoxical pull of loving a song and … the singers’ personae, on the other hand … not so much.
To be fair, it should be noted that Jeff Steele subsequently walked back his use in the song of what he himself called a “mean-spirited,” “heavy-handed,” and “rabble rousing” approach. He also claimed he still would have said “99 percent” of the same things if he it to do over again (I for one would love to know what the 1% is he’d leave out!). So it’s not clear, as this blog notes, how much his reconsideration reflects a change of heart or regret that the song created an enduring image of the Steeles as … well, mean-spirited, heavy-handed rabble rousers.
But no matter, and for my part, I appreciated the opportunity to confront this paradoxical experience, coming as it did so near the classroom encounter with this concept in the abstract. … at least for me. (My students, on other hand - most of whom are unfamiliar with southern gospel music and conservative evangelicalism - are already feeling and thinking and writing their way through this experience, thanks mostly to Peg and her preaching, and secondarily, to Hammil, who several students thought a crass bully and a showboat … and wildly entertaining and affecting.)
One of this blog’s core values has always been to take seriously the reality and legitimacy of gospel music and the gospel-music experience among those people whom I called early on in the site’s history “the rest of us.” And “Emmaus Road” helped reconnect me to one of the fundamental identifying dynamics of what it means to hail from that hearty remnant. Always a good thing, to have to live and feel, and not just rhetorically espouse, one’s values.
Update: Reader Janet boils things down a bit:
So…what you’re saying is that the songs are more about the message than the messengers? Wow - what a concept!
I get that she’s mostly having some fun with my …. erhm, prolixity here, and that’s well deserved, no doubt. And anyway, she’s right about message and messenger. But only so far as she goes. My point above is also that “the message” is not fixed, but shifts and morphs and changes as different individuals encounter the same song, even when “the messenger” intends only to be communicating what in his or her mind and belief is a single, static truth transmitted from singer A to audience B. In”Emmaus Road” terms, I’m pretty sure what I’m liking in that song is NOT what the author of “We Want America Back” (even after his reconsideration) thinks the song means or wants its audiences to take away from it. But in any event, it doesn’t matter what Steele or other writers or performers intend their music to mean. Once it’s out of their mouth, it’s also out of their control to determine or fix the meaning of most music (a song like “We Want America Back” is an exception for another discussion). In addition to being a very good thing, this dynamic of musical experience is also particularly overlooked in southern gospel.Email this Post