Monthly Archives: January 2012
A few years ago, I wrote a song as part of a sermon series on the Blues. I was inspired by a book by Stephen J. Nichols called, Getting the Blues: What Blues Music Teaches Us About Suffering and Salvation. We had a great time in church—using drama of great blues figures like Bessie Smith, Blind Lemon, Muddy Waters, Mississippi John Hurt and others, and blues songs to illuminate a lot of Bible stories.
Oddly, to listen to the sanitized Suburbianity of today, you’d think religion was all panacea and no sorrow. Nothing is more unbiblical than some of the nonsense that passes for Christianity, especially on the televised versions. Getting the victory is more about American optimism than biblical reality.
If you read the Psalms and listen to the blues, you get some balance in your soul. Throw in Job for good measure. The blues are about turning pain into prayer. One blues singer down in Mississippi said of his effort to teach the old blues to young boys, “I’m putting guitars in their hands instead of guns.” You can debate guns, but no debate about killing—killing breeds more killing. Despair leads to desperate things.
The blues is the choice to explore our pain rather than yield to it or collapse from it. It turns pain into prayer. One of the most familiar of all blues lines is a prayer found in the common Christian tradition in worship going all the way back to the first two centuries of Christianity, what the Catholics and Orthodox call the “Kyrie” for the word “Lord.” “Lord, have mercy.”
Lord, have mercy. You have to sing it right– Say it like this: “LO-rd HAAAAVE MER-cy
So I tried my hand at a blues song. I wrote “Widow of Zarephath Blues.” It was based on a simple little story in the Old Testament.
NRS 1 Kings 17:8 Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, 9 “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” 10 So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” 11 As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” 12 But she said, “As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” 13 Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. 14 For thus says the LORD the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the LORD sends rain on the earth.” 15 She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 16 The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by Elijah.
Here is this widow, in Zarephath—foreigner in that time. Elijah goes to her, because Israel is devastated by drought, but even worse, by spiritual compromise and failure. Think about what she might be singing those words Elijah comes up to ask for something to eat. So I tried my hand. The song below is what I came up with.
She could have lived in North Carolina in 1931 or certain parts of any city. Back in December our church helped a single Mom make her car payment. She got evicted on December 23 with two kids. That’s blues.
Since our politicians are arguing about the 1% and the middle class, and since nobody seems to have anything to say about poor people, evicted people, homeless folks and folks on hard times, I’ll send this song out to you. Real faith is feeding your neighbor where there isn’t enough to go around. Hope we get around to it eventually. But until then, while they argue about spending money we borrowed before we made it, I’ll send this one out to the hard-times widows and their kin.
Click here to listen to“Widow of Zarephath Blues”
I thought that title might get your attention.
I got word that a dear sweet woman who used to be a member passed away this weekend. Betty McGee was an incredibly nice soul. Her life had plenty of ups and downs. But she was one of those hidden jewels of Baptist churches in the South. All most non-Baptist people ever get to see are the preachers, and that’s a shame. That’s like judging a house by the septic tank, at least when you consider the Reverends that purport to “speak for” Baptist folks. If I was going to nominate anyone to represent Baptist people (which is against our polity–NO Baptist “speaks” for any other), it wouldn’t be any preacher. The Southern Baptists who pass all those resolutions, well, that’s just what one little group of people got together and said to one another. The press likes it, but it’s worth about the cost of the toner and paper as far as authority as far as real Baptists are concerned. The loonier it is, the more you can guess that it’s from some man that annointed himself.
No, I’d elect a woman who was at least 75. They’re about all the good that’s left in the Baptists today. Especially the widows and single women. In every church I’ve been part of, I’d go with the older ladies in a church fight any time. Their kindness, love for children, friendships and loyalty, well, you can talk to ladies in that age group and everything opposite of them is why we’re in a mess.
Betty was one of those folk. She took it on the chin more than once in life, and somehow managed to redouble her efforts to do good with what was left. Betty’s obituary told some pretty great things about her. “She helped pioneer teaching on Alabama Public Television. She taught American History at W.A. Berry High School for 23 years and was an educator in Alabama for 37 years. She was an avid volunteer in both Birmingham and Sylacauga. She was an active member for many years of Vestavia Hills Baptist Church. After moving to Sylacauga, she continued to volunteer her time and talents at First Baptist Church Sylacauga. ” But it doesn’t tell about a person’s goodness and character. That’s okay. People who knew her know. She fought the good fight, finished the race, kept the faith.
Rest in peace, Betty. Here’s my song of the day, in memory of you. “The Old Rugged Cross,” a funeral favorite for a great lady. (click the link to listen)
“Just a Little Talk With Jesus” is a famous old gospel song. Last night, our band, Shades Mountain Air, had a grand time at the American Gospel Quartet Convention in Birmingham and sang this crowd favorite. I knew that it was a song that black and white audiences in the South had shared since it was written. It’s been covered by just about everybody—Bill Gaither, Elvis Presley, the Stanley Brothers, and innumerable mass choirs, quartets and Sunday night gatherings around the piano in little country churches. (click this link to listen to the song by Shades Mountain Air)
It’s so heartfelt, so soulful—are you in trouble? Look in and up—just a little talk to Jesus will make it right. This song first found me in my seminary church, where I was minister of music and youth (a lofty, long title for a part-time staff member in a blue-collar white church). My church was southern, small-town North Carolina Southern Baptist folk, barely scratching to stay above the black folk in the town—marginal at best. Ever Sunday night we gathered around the piano and pulled out our “Number 8s” our name for the red songbooks we loved full of familiar gospel music. Anyone who wanted to be in the “kwarr” (choir) would gather with us, and people would call out a favorite. “My God is Real,” was the one Mr. Jernigan always requested. “They Tore the Old Country Church Down,” “Whisper a Prayer,” “Troublesome Times Are Here,” Mansion Over the Hilltop,” “If That Isn’t Love,” “Hide Me, Rock of Ages,” and, of course, “Just a Little Talk with Jesus,” because the bass singers got to show out.
I’ll never forget the day that a black family showed up at our church door and one of the men sent his little boy back to tell them they couldn’t come here. I tried to get the church to put up a basketball goal in our parking lot for the little black children who were always playing when we drove up for Sunday night church. But it was 1978, and our world was cracking but the walls hadn’t come down. I lost my first church vote of my career as one family who barely came to church brought their entire extended clan to vote my proposal down. It was a hard lesson for a 24 year old future preacher.
It was our little church, where we came for comfort. We didn’t want change, just the comfort of “a little talk with our
Jesus.” Lawd, we loved that song. What a trip to find out that this white gospel favorite was written by an African American composer named Cleavant Derricks.
The website “Southern Edition” has a fine biography about Rev. Cleavant Derricks. He was a wonderful musician who was born in Chattanooga in 1910 and had a stellar career as a minister, musician and pastor. A gentle, kind man, his songs were sung by tens of thousands. The website says that
The same songs that ministered to impoverished blacks enduring discrimination in the Jim Crow South spoke to the hearts of disadvantaged whites whose lot seemed similarly dismal due to hardships spurned on by the Great Depression and the World War II years. Like Dorsey, Tindley and Morris, Derricks would write songs that addressed daily hardships, praised a loving, sustaining God and spoke of the heavenly reward believers would gain following their labour on earth. Butler adds, “And, too, his songs were sung in the Pentecostal churches back in those days. Those people were considered the poor class—you know, the common man. They were struggling, and so his songs were accepted very rapidly because they did have that hope.”
Butler points out that “most people didn’t know [Derricks] was a black man when his songs first started being published by Stamps-Baxter.” James R. Goff Jr. concurs in his book, Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel, stating, “With an unmistakable influence from the shape-note convention arrangements and a style that often featured the bass part on the chorus, Derricks’s songs found their way into Southern shape-note hymnbooks, though few in the South would probably have guessed the author’s racial origins.”
The colossal stupidity and sinful ignorance that was racism kept us apart, but music and common suffering ignored what our systems and conscious minds erected to supposedly “protect our way of life.” We always were one and the same. Thank God we at least sang his songs. So today’s song, in honor of Rev. Derrick, is “Just a Little Talk With Jesus.” Thank God Almighty, we are further down the road to being “free at last.” Free to love one another and sing the songs of Zion.
Tonight our band is going to perform in one of the most prestigious gospel venues around our region—the American Gospel Quartet Convention, here in Birmingham. Here many of the great African American gospel groups gather to sing, worship and honor fellow performers each year. It’s meeting at the More Than Conquerors Church in Birmingham. I like the names a lot of the independent churches give themselves. It says something about “who we want to be.” I heard about a midwestern church that actually named itself “Christ Memorial Church.” What in the WORLD! Ain’t you people heard about Easter???!!!!
Anyway, many of the greats of gospel have played here over the years—the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Fairfield Four (remember the quartet singing in “O Brother Where Art Thou” when the boys are about to meet their maker at the end of a rope?) Gospel and Blues have often conflicted with each other. Some in the church even disapproved of the blues, feeling that it conflicted with the joy of the gospel. I read once that the magnificent Mahalia Jackson, who died in 1972, refused to sing the blues. “’Blues are the songs of despair,’ she declared. ‘Gospel songs are the songs of hope. When you sing gospel you have the feeling there is a cure for what’s wrong, but when you are through with the blues, you’ve got nothing to rest on.’”
Mahalia Jackson may be one of the greatest singers EVER. Her rendition of the song of the day I posted today, “Precious Lord,” plays at the Lorraine Motel while you stand at the spot where Martin Luther King died, at least it did when I visited, and the tearful experience I had there inspired my song “Lorraine.” I have to gently disagree, though. The blues, they are Bible songs, too, if we read the Psalms right. There is a whole section scholars call, “Psalms of Lament.” Over sixty of the psalms are considered “laments,” mingling despair and hope as a prayer calling on God for help. Somehow, to win victory by denial is a diminishment of the spiritual journey.
Still, the fork gospel music became offers a place of respite, joy, and at least a chance to voice the vision of victory. Thomas Dorsey, the author of “Precious Lord,” embodied this contradiction and conflict between blues and gospel. Son of a pastor, he rebelled against his raising early in life and went to Chicago in the early blues scene and gained some renown under the name “Georgia Tom,” but he struggled financially and spiritually.
“Precious Lord’ was born out of his own tragedy. The preacher’s kid who had the foundation, whose parents prayed for him, who drifted away, into the nightclub world and secular success, then, two mental breakdowns, and finally, surrender to the gospel ministry and a long, long career at the famous Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago nevertheless suffered terribly.
In 1932, in the midst of his transition back into gospel for good, his wife Nettie died during childbirth, along with their firstborn, Thomas Andrew, Jr., who died the next day. Thomas was away at a gospel meeting, and got the news. Out of the anguish of that song came “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” It was the end of his blues singing for good, oddly enough.
His gospel greatness came out of that crucible of suffering. There is no guarantee about life. If the Bible is any guide, the blues will be the way to Gospel Joy. They are different parts of the same journey. I hope you’ll enjoy a listen to a version of Dorsey’s song I recorded with my bandmate, Nancy Womble of Shades Mountain Air. We recorded it at my house, with me playing bass, guitar and mandolin and simply a lead vocal. It is spare, recalling the hallowed, bluesy, holy crucible of Tom Dorsey’s suffering. Ann Lamotte says there really are only two kinds of prayers: “Thank you, thank you, thank you” and “help me, help me, help me.” One is gospel, the other blues…
Fifty years ago this week, Martin Luther King’s life was frozen in time for the whole world. His words keep living, his story keeps being told, and the events of his life are examined again and again. It is not that time any more. The pain is more diffuse, spread into new struggles for equality and justice.
It is worth marking the remarkable changes that have happened in that fifty years. We can go to any restaurant and drink from the same fountains. A lot of things are better, much better. But the pain he saw is still in the world–the pain of something not finished, a hope not yet realized, a brokenness needing mending.
The deepest wounds heal from the inside out, and only with the greatest of care. There will be setbacks and infections and discouragements, but there is still much reason to hope and keep trying.
I once attended the Unity Breakfast on Martin Luther King day here in Birmingham and heard Diane McWhorter, whose book Carry Me Home recounts the impact of those momentous days of the Civil Rights struggle on the world. Whenever someone “remembers” how something was, it invites us to remember it from where we were at the time. I remember the civil rights era in the South, but it was not from the vantage point of an adult in the middle of Big Issues, but as a child growing up in the South.
I remember going on a hot Sunday afternoon with my father to the home of an employee. She happened to be African American. Her family member had been killed in a train accident, and my father believed that the proper and respectful thing to do was to go by to see the family.
I remember waiting in the car while he went in, a little boy watching out the window to see people who also lived in Clarksville, Tennessee, but a very different Clarksville than the one in which I lived. I had never noticed that their children didn’t go to school where I did, or that we never ate in the same restaurants, or that we barely came across one another. This separation made my trip all the more startling. It was as though I had stumbled onto a hidden cave where an entire civilization hitherto unknown to me had taken residence.
I watched people come and go, just like in my community, bringing food, dabbing their eyes, dressed in their finest. Men tugging at their collars in the hot summer air opened the door for their wives in hats to go in with the bowl or dish. It was impressive, this little world to which I did not belong. People laughing, people smiling, people crying, just like us. But not with us.
I took in the strangeness, but something stirred even deeper in me. I saw my father speaking to them, as he did to everyone, with respect and courtesy and manners. I hear people telling tales from the sixties about marching and protesting. I have no tales like those. I was young and oblivious to the invisible walls of separation. But I do remember my father treating everyone the same, kindly, decently. His employees seemed to think they all counted the same with him. He never lost his temper that I knew of, or swore or cursed at people. Just treated them alike.
My examples were different from those dramatic and provocative ones. My family mostly watched the struggle on nightly television with the rest of the world. We worried, shook our heads, weren’t too sure how it would go. We were not allowed, though, to use epithets and inflammatory words about other races.
It takes struggle and often conflict for change to begin. But there is also the task of taking change in and absorbing it, making it livable and practical and something that can happen every day without incident. It is one thing to change laws. It is another to elicit the consent of people to those laws. And quite another to live out their spirit every day. It means using words carefully, for the purpose of telling truth, not perpetuating our own version of it.
The whole world was changing before my eyes, in ways I did not understand and would not understand, but the example of my father’s kindness did sink deep in me. And I wonder about the eight year old boys and girls among us. What are they seeing? How are we doing? Is there something impressive enough in the way we are living life to sink deep in their souls and stay with them until they are adults?
In something as simple and apparently random as going by someone’s house to pay respects, in doing what is decent and right and good, you may be causing a quiet revolution in someone who is watching not only what you do, but how you do it. Someone is watching, always. So write the script you want remembered. It will live on after you for a long time, for good or for evil. I was one of those little white children that Martin Luther King dreamed about.
So I am going to do every little thing I can to not be afraid, to make friends, to pay my respects, and teach my children and grandchildren that there’s room for everyone at God’s table. Everyone.
I remember those times with a song I did on my first CD, “Lorraine.” It was inspired by my first visit to the Civil Rights Institute in Memphis, which ends at the balcony where Dr. King was murdered by fear and hate. But I like to remember what outlives fear and hate: hope and kindness and the hope of a better day.
Buy the song here
An unfinished cup of coffee
By an unmade bed
Near the concrete balcony
Where a man of God is dead
Looking through an old window
See the painful past
Forever frozen at the last
Down the corridors of time
Different town, same old sign
Still bearing all the pain
In the halls of the old Lorraine
The sound of women weeping
The trickle of my tears
Join the moan of gospel singing
Wailing hope amid the fears
Looking through new windows
In spite of everything we still believ
Down the corridors of time
Different town, same old sign
Still bearing all the pain
In the halls of the old Lorraine
Driving through the city
With memories of that place
In that part of town that’s really gone down
I lock the door just in case
Looking through my car window
At a man who looks back at me
After all we’ve been through, we still can’t see.
Down the corridors of time
Different town, same old sign
Still bearing all the pain
In the halls of the old Lorraine
How do you measure a life? Gene Bartow is a legend now, having passed long ago from active coaching to the place where no one else can reach you—retired success. But since he passed away, Birmingham, Memphis and the college basketball world have been filled with remembering. He is a college basketball Hall of Fame coach who coached 1000 games in his career. He finished with a 647-353 record over 34-seasons. He [i]was a success at Memphis State, leading the Tigers to a remarkable championship game appearance in 1973, where they lost to UCLA and John Wooden. He was national coach of the year that year. In all, his teams appeared in the NCAA tournament 14 times.[ii]
He is too often only remembered in the national press for one thing– for a time when he was successful but it wasn’t enough. He was chosen to succeed the legendary John Wooden at UCLA, the greatest coach of all time, who had a reign of ten titles in twelve seasons, the tenth in his retiring year, and seven in a row during that time.
So in 1975 Gene Bartow came to UCLA to replace the legendary Wooden when he retired. He stayed only two turbulent years. He was 52-9 record and took them to the NCAA tournament both years and was in the Final Four one of those. But it wasn’t good enough. The Washington Post quotes one of his players, Marques Johnson from that team. “He was a
sensitive person,” Johnson said in an interview. “He was used to being totally embraced as a coach and a person, and he was just not ready for the kind of vitriol thrown at him when he took Coach Wooden’s place. He never came to grips with it, and it bothered him more than anything. After two years, he was gaunt and pale, and he refused to read the Los Angeles newspapers or listen to the radio because there was so much negativity. But he was a wonderful human being, a super nice guy and a great coach.”[iii]
As a coach, Gene Bartow touched the edge of the big prize twice, but never won it all. He left the dream job that became a nightmare. He decided instead to come to Birmingham, Alabama and help build an athletic program and basketball team for a then-fledgling university at UAB. He did reach great success, including seven NCAA tournament appearances. But he never won the “big dance,” as they say.
But another event, the dramatic run to the edge of a championship with the Memphis Tigers in 1973, may have been his real greatest moment. “I don’t think this community ever had better race relations than when Gene coached at Memphis,” a friend said. “He had the way of bringing everybody together to support his team and the entire university.”[iv] It hadn’t been long since the painful memory of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Times were tense in the entire country. Then the city of Memphis was unified for a time around the glorious run of a Cinderella team that almost did it.
They lost, as I mentioned, in the championship game, to the juggernaut UCLA, coached by Wooden and led by future
NBA stars Bill Walton and Keith Wilkes. So his highest career points were two Final Fours, a lot of tournaments, being the sacrificial lamb at UCLA, and then to rebuilding himself as well as building UAB in Birmingham.
So how do you measure a life? While we’re measuring, it might also be worth mentioning that he ended his life with the nickname, “Clean Gene,” a moniker few carry in college sports these days of rogue fans, agents and corruption, for the way he ran things. He gave a race-divided city in Memphis something else to rally around and focus on in a painful historical moment. He started a great program in the city where we live that has had some really great moments. He battled stomach cancer to the very end with humor and grace.
I think it is fitting that Gene Bartow passed from this earth in the time in which one weekend carried the UAB-Memphis game and will be followed next weekend by Martin Luther King day. I’d say, all in all, he did the right things. The rest is just wins and losses.
It always matters how you play the game. John Wooden and Gene Bartow would agree, and maybe now they get to talk about it. All the rest is just wins and losses and what other people think. Rest in Peace, Coach. You went out on top.