Thursday, August 4, 2022

From My Notes: Religion and Music in America


Ann Taves, Fits, Trances, & Visions, Princeton UP, 1999.

Richard Crawford, America’s Musical Life, WW Norton, 2001.


FWIW, it seems that the first full-length book printed on American soil in the English-speaking colonies was a hymnal, in 1640, the so-called Bay Psalm Book (Crawford 2001, p. 23).

Note that European American hymnody established its own methods during the 17th and 18th centuries. While obviously drawing on European sources, these methods were nonetheless different in style, reflecting the reformist intent of the Puritans, etc.

Religious Experience

According to Taves, religious experience was a major concern to protestants, especially the Methodists. Some denigrated and discouraged the fits, trances, and visions that constituted such experience while others valued and even cultivated them. For my purposes, these experiences from the tertium quid between European and African cultures. It is thus on sacred ground that European and African cultures first met on more or less equal terms during the Second Awakening that straddled the turn of the 19th century in N. America.

The major locus of this awakening was the camp meeting. These meetings took place outside institutional religion, both physically – they were generally held in rural areas – and institutionally – they were not sponsored by any one domination, though ordained ministers preached at them. They generally lasted for several days of prayer, preaching, and song. Both blacks and whites attended the meetings, and they often attended the same meeting, though the camp grounds were often segregated – which segregation was often broken down on the final day of a meeting.

Judging from available accounts, the singing style owed more to African-American models than to European or even European-American models. The lyrics were rudimentary and repetitious and there was a great deal of call and response – which may own as much to New England “lining out” as to Africa. Often hymns were stitched together back to back in continuous performance. The style seems to have been joyful and unrestrained and the music would go on for hours at a time.

There were lots of these meetings, by one account, 1811 saw 400 of them. Often thousands of people attended a single meeting. The fact that they took place outside ordinary religious institutions is, of course, anthropologically significant. These meetings would seem to constitute a liminal zone (Victor Turner’s term) outside the institutions of the formal culture. Even though segregation was often maintained at these meetings, they constituted an arena in which blacks and whites interacted on a different basis from that of ordinary life. It may not have been equality, but it’s not clear that the difference maintained within the meeting was hierarchical either. It was simply difference. Of course, when folks left the meeting, hierarchy was restored to difference.

This then, forms the originating bond, the natal connection, between African and European cultures. This style died out in the North during the 19th century but persisted in the South, both black and white, and especially in the rural South. When blacks migrated from the South in the early 20th century they took their ecstatic religion with them (with a bit of help from the Pentecostals). But it wasn’t until the mid 1950s that this ecstatic style would surface in the mainstream of secular American culture.

Ecstasy in the 20th Century

Jazz and blues emerged during the early 20th century, with swing jazz becoming the dominant popular music during the 1930s. Jazz seems derived from mostly secular traditions (brass bands, minstrelsy, and so forth), though many of the musicians were raised in ecstatic churches. Swing disintegrated after WWII, but many of its devices persisted in the small group form that became rhythm and blues. During the mid 1950s this tradition linked up with its sacred cousins.

On the one hand, we have the music of Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard (Penniman), Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley; this became rock and roll. Penniman, Lewis, and Presley were all raised in ecstatic churches. On the other hand, we have Ray Charles taking gospel music and putting secular words to it, giving us the birth of soul music. These two styles then developed in parallel through the 1960s and into the 1970s, with Motown running down the middle.

At the same time, jazz gets “soul” during the middle and late 50s with Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Charles Mingus and others. And during the early 1960s Coltrane emerges as the avant-garde avatar of jazz spirituality. Henceforth, overtly spiritual music would become a fixture of the avant-garde, mixing freely with African and Indian influences and shading easily into furious “energy” music where anger was as on an equal footing with devotion as an emotional force.

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