The unsimple story of gospel and American Experience
Staying with my absorption in questions of race and culture in gospel, and speaking of Sister Rosetta, PBS’s American Experience series ran an episode this past Friday on the crossover (and back) guitar virtuoso of mid-century gospel who, as one of the film’s sources puts it, made music born of a love for gawd and nightclubs. It’s an engrossing hour that affectingly captures the unsimple relationship of gospel music to American culture and experience.
Watch Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll on PBS. See more from American Masters.
Of course a big part of the relationship between gospel and American culture has to do with the interconnections between black and white gospel religious and music traditions – and the broader musical forms these traditions shaped and were shaped by (among them, blues, jazz, R&B, country, pop, and of course rock).
The American Experience episode is both a great tribute to and account of Sister in her own right and a reminder of how complicated and unclearly demarcated the boundaries and borders and relationships between black and white music have always been, even and especially at the height of Jim Crow (at the most basic level, you see and hear this in Sister Rosetta’s singing many songs that white gospel has always sang and loved and in many cases considered virtually its own).
Watching all this renews my disappointment that so many – indeed most – of the great documentaries and films of American music’s relationship to sacred song approach the question of gospel’s place and role and legacy almost exclusively from the black gospel angle. This isn’t to say I don’t like these approaches or think they shouldn’t be produced (I do and they should). But we could all do with a more rightly calibrated understanding of things.
It’s harder than you’d think to accomplish, for a number of reasons that I touch on the book.
First there’s the problem of how the foundational narratives of American music developed. Here’s me in a footnote early on:
The conflation of “black” and “gospel” stretches as early as the nineteenth century (i.e. Mark Twain’s promotion of the Fisk Jubilee Singers). In the post-modern popular imagination, this conflation was powerfully reinforced by the introduction of black gospel characteristics into the American pop mainstream via the performances of Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, and others. Equating “gospel” with “black gospel” may well have been intensified when white chroniclers of popular music – usually northern or western urban white chroniclers – who had little or no knowledge of the rural white North American tradition of gospel music, adopted the same language as the black artists they were covering. Thus, black gospel became known as just “gospel” in American pop culture. In humanities scholarship, a commitment to recovering lost or underrepresented traditions may have added to the problem, focused as so much of humanist studies (justifiably) are on the multiplicity of lives masked by dominant culture and the range of experiences often excluded by normative histories. (182)
And then there’s the enormous problem and complexities of race history and racism in gospel, which is of course present in all forms of gospel but plays out very differently according to tradition and geography and genre.
The story of African American musical traditions tends to map onto a fairly graspable and certainly ennobling narrative of sacred song as a source of strength and mode of resistance for centuries to forces of white domination and oppression in the form of racist laws, and practices. Indeed, this is one of the main undercurrents and themes of the Sister Rosetta story, and this is a story - what we call a grand narrative in scholarship - that pretty much anyone can “get” and grab onto. This “gospel as the music of how they got over” story is both a true account of black gospel (even if it’s more complicated than that) and a way of reinforcing what most of us want to believe in our own time about the arc of history bending toward justice. It makes sense and feels right.
This alignment of history and feeling accounts, at least in part I think, for the proliferation of stories about black gospel (and this is what I’m getting at in the last sentence of the quote above … and incidentally, with respect to capturing the experience of oppression in music history, the Sister Rosetta film does an excellent job on this score: to take one example, Gordon Stokes of the Jordanaires tells a powerful story about taking food from whites-only restaurants back to Tharpe, an international gospel celebrity, who had to stay on the bus because of southern segregation and institutional racism).
It’s much, much harder to approach gospel’s place in American experience from the white side without getting bogged down in the quagmire of racism. I say quagmire because race and racism have to be confronted in any honest account of white gospel from the south, but it can also easily become an overly deterministic force that describes everything about the music as a function of bigotry or the attempt to redeem oneself or one’s community from a bigoted past (and a filmmaker or writer or scholar who tries to capture the greater complexity of this history from the white perspective risks - or fears being perceived as - endorsing the racist dimension of the music if your account isn’t sufficiently condemnatory).
I struggle with this in my research and writing about white gospel from the South. IN my book, I made a point to copiously document representative examples of southern gospel’s reliance on, participation in, and embrace of white supremancist attitudes, speech and action - the most sustained account and analysis of which I’m aware on this score - because there is very little ability or willingness in the music’s culture today to come to terms with or take responsibility for southern gospel’s very public racism, going at least as far back as the publishing bidness of the notional founder of southern gospel, James D. Vaughan, and continuing well into the fairly recent past (see Chapter 3 of Then Sings My Soul, 96-103).
This part of white gospel might make sense historically speaking, but in contrast to black gospel, it feels wrong, in the sense of being something you want to ignore (which accounts at least in part for whitewashing of today’s southern gospel when it comes to th music’s racist past) or to simply turn away from (there were several moments in the researching and writing of this part of the book that I literally stood up from the desk and walked away from it all in disgust and repulsion at the music’s legacy of serial bigotry).
Yes, it’s also true that there’s so much more and else to the story than this (which is why I may have walked away for a while but always returned and saw things through). Yet an image such as the one above (and the history it points to) – or some of the other outrageously offensive racist things southern gospel stars have said and done from the stage, and not that long ago, mind you – makes it hard to move past or prevent a certain amount of distortion and alineation from creeping in. Here’s how I conclude the book’s longest section on race and gospel, after ive tried to stare unblinkngly into the vile face of southern gospel’s racism and yet also contain its potentially distorting effects:
As Stephen Shearon has written, both white and black gospel have “liked aspects of what the other was doing” from the inception of modern gospel music, and both have freely “borrowed those aspects, reinterpreting them for their own cultures.” If there is an inevitable air of tokenism surrounding non-white performers in an overwhelmingly southern, white musical culture [in addition to the overt bigotry documented in the preceding pages], the commercial success and genuine following these black performers have achieved among white audiences suggest that overmuch emphasis on black-white polarities diminishes our understanding of cultural dynamics submerged beneath the surface of the music. (103)
Even rereading this, I can’t escape a nagging feeling that I might be mistaken for trying to excuse the bigots and the racist stupidity that’s been broadcast from the stage and by the voices of so many southern gospel stars whose music I’ve enjoyed. And I don’t have any simple answer or solution here about how to do anything more or else than what I do as a researcher and writer, except perhaps to wish that the talents and resources and access to large mainstream audiences that are available to outfits such as PBS and American Experience would do for white gospel what the Say Amen Somebody or this Sister Rosetta video does for our collective understanding gospel’s complex, complicated, indispensable place in American life.Email this Post