Down South I always went to church . . . those services were rich with music and emotion. I would sit caught up in the music and watch those people who had “got happy” or “got the spirit” jumping around all over the place . . . In the Black [church] . . . the air was charged. The music rocked and the preacher preached and sang at the same time. People felt free to do what they needed to do. If they felt like dancing, they danced; if they felt like praying, they prayed; if they felt like screaming, they screamed; and if they felt like crying, they cried. The church was there to give them strength and to get them through the long week ahead of them. (Assata Shakur)
In Hari Kunzru’s wonderful novel White Tears, an elderly record collector describes his mentor’s passion for collecting old blues 78s (the character of the mentor is based on the real-life collector Jim McKune, who single-handedly spearheaded the blues revival in the 1950s:
By any standards, I was a serious collector, but he seemed to have nothing else, no need [for anything else] . . . He was just a vehicle for his obsession, what the Haitians call a cheval, a mount for the spirits to ride.
In French, cheval means “horse.” In Haitian Kreyol, a French dialect, the word is chwal, and it means a person possessed, or “ridden,” by a spirit (lwa) summoned in a Vodou ceremony. Vodou, while derived from West African religion, is a distinctly Haitian practice:
Haiti, the saying goes, is “70% Catholic, 30% Protestant, and 100% Vodou”. Vodou is everywhere in the Caribbean nation, a spiritual system infusing everything from medicine and agriculture to cosmology and arts.
Read more about Vodou ceremony — of which music is an integral part — and watch video here.
While in the Vodou religion, only Haitians can be “ridden” as chwals by the spirits (lwas), Kunzru seems to be suggesting that this kind of possession is more than metaphorical, but possible in rational reality. What do you think?
In your reading, “Shared Possession(s),” Dr. Teresa Reed describes a similar practice in the black Pentecostal church of her childhood in Gary, Indiana, one of the northern industrial cities to which rural southern blacks moved en masse during the Great Migration:
There were many labels for this particular brand of the Lord’s work. The solitary dancer might be described as “getting the Holy Ghost,” “doing the holy dance,” “shouting,” “being filled,” “catching the Spirit,” “being purged,” or simply as someone “getting a blessing.” Whatever the descriptor, the phenomenon was familiar to all members of this religious culture. And it was understood that music –not just any music, but certain music — could facilitate such manifestations. . . [But]the parishioners at my urban, black-American church had no awareness of the many parallels between our Spirit-driven modes of worship and those common to our Afro-Caribbean counterparts.
Watch this, and notice the similarities, among other things, in dress between the church ladies and the Yoruban/Vodou/Santeria priestesses.
In Pentecostal church music, what are the elements that allow/inspire the Holy Spirit to take possession of the believer?
As Toni Morrison describes the funeral of Chicken Little in the novel Sula:
Then they left their pews. For with some emotions one has to stand. They spoke, for they were full and needed to say. They swayed, for the rivulets of grief or ecstasy must be rocked. And when they thought of all that life and death locked into that little closed coffin they danced and screamed, not to protest God’s will but to acknowledge it and confirm once more their conviction that the only way to avoid the Hand of God is to get in it.
A medley of “praise breaks”:
A church scene from an early Black film, the 1929 Hallelujah:
In her article “Unenslaveable Rapture: Afrxfuturism and Diasporic Vertigo in Beyoncé’s Lemonade” (optional reading on the syllabus), Valorie D. Thomas analyzes Beyoncé’s 2016 visual album in the context of Yoruba religion. In the video for “Denial,” for instance, Beyoncé jumps from a skyscraper and dives into the water, reemerging as a figure of Yemaya, the Yoruba orisha (deity) who rules the waters and fertility.
You may already know this famous gospel song, first performed in 1967. It is credited with creating the contemporary gospel genre:
In 1969, gospel singer Dorothy Combs taught it to white folk and rock singers Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, and performed it with them at the Big Sur Music Festival. Is its effect on the mostly-white audience similar to its effect on black worshippers?
The Arkansas-born Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973) was one of the first Pentecostal gospel artists to cross over into pop music. Her churchgoing fans were scandalized by her forays into secular music, but her passionate, shouting singing style and her use of distortion on the electric guitar were hugely influential on both black and white artists, and came to be known as the Godmother of Rock and Roll.
Other artists crossed over in the other direction, like the Reverend Al Green, who went from this:
The great Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, was herself a preacher’s daughter, and started her career as a young girl singing gospel. One of the unique features of her artistry was the way, as critic Albert Goldman suggested in 1968, she could make sex sound like salvation. Listen, for instance, to the gospel piano intro and the shouts of “Hallelujah” in the song “Son of a Preacher Man.”
What elements do soul and gospel share? What about rock and gospel?
Do you think that the audiences at rock festivals in the 1970s were experiencing a similar sensation of being ridden by the Spirit? How does music play a part in these experiences?
What about Kanye’s Sunday Service? Are the worshippers feeling it?
More on Kanye and gospel here:
Erica Campbell’s 2015 trap gospel hit “I Luh God”:
What about the “Beyoncé Mass”?
You can browse the first published gospel songbook, the 1921 Gospel Pearls, here. The publisher, the National Baptist Convention, was a major African-American denomination.
A timeline of gospel:
The Musical Geography Project of St. Olaf’s College has a narrative timeline of gospel, with audio, here: