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Thank You, Ella Jones: Churches, the Arts and Why They Matter

I nearly always prefer the hidden, obscure, local and unnoticed to the Big Stuff.  Celebrity…zzz…even small pond big fish I find relatively uninteresting.  It’s just all so predictable and often pompous.  When I opened today’s Birmingham News, the top of the front page, as usual, was about Alabama and Auburn football, which is as always.  You just have to understand that in Alabama, I would fully expect to see this on a front page:

TIDE LANDS FOUR FIVE STAR RECRUITS

AUBURN HOPES NEW DEFENSIVE COACH WILL “TURN THE TIDE”

NUCLEAR WAR PROBABLE IN NEXT FEW DAYS (Section B)

GOD SAYS ARMAGEDDON IS AT HAND

MARTIANS LAND ON EARTH

COACH SABAN COMMENTS ON NEW RECRUITS: “Next year looks bright,” Coach says at local Walmart.

CURE FOUND FOR CANCER (see G17)

As Bruce Hornsby says, just the way it is.  But one little hidden gem was on page one, nestled among the two stories on football on the masthead and grim news about our latest number one, being the largest county default in American history, was a story about a woman who played the organ in her church for seventy-five years.  Ella Jones has played since she was 12 years old, and still going strong at her church in a nearby town called Graysville.

Over the past year, while reading biographies of Elvis Presly, Sam Phillips, Hank Williams, and a host of other Alabamians, it was striking to see how powerful church music was in forming both their artistry and their musical imaginations.  It took me back to all the little churches of my childhood, some great and some very, very small, but they all had a couple things in common.   First, they were all Baptist churches, the Southern variety.  As I heard people

Birmingham News/picture by Jeff Roberts

say, “We were often more Southern than Baptist and more Baptist than Christian.”  Who else would move to Wisconsin and plant a Southern Baptist Church because they didn’t have one?  We did when I was in the sixth grade.  Two families, mine and another, with about eight kids between us, launched a little church that is still there today.

Churches, for a long time, offered graded choirs, the only choirs I ever sang in, most of the musical training I received, and gave me most of the opportunities to sing in front of people regularly.  Not to mention a vast collective memory of hymns.

If you knew how many of the great singers and performers in American entertainment began in the church and around gospel music, it would stagger the reader.  Aretha Franklin?  Started in church.  I could go on but why?  The entire early canon of country music was transmitted—and claimed for credit—by the Carter Family, but their musical teeth and a good bit of that canon came from the churches.

I am grateful for it all—anthems, quartets, homely sings around the piano on Sunday night.  A way of life is disappearing.  Church looks a lot like karaoke in too many places to me.  But old hymns still take me back to a different time when we sang and played a lot.  I am glad for it.

The German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred by Hitler for trying to overthrow the Nazis, came to New York and taught at Union Seminary before returning to die at Flossenburg.  While here, he attended the Abyssinian Baptist Church where Adam Clayton Powell was pastor.  He was mesmerized by the gospel singing and took albums back with him of the spirituals.  He said that there, for the first time, religion changed for him from “phraseology to reality.”  Don’t tell me the arts don’t matter.

It is a truism that when we need the arts the most we usually defund them, downsize them and de-emphasize them.  When do you need songs more than during a Dustbowl, a Depression or a Great Recession?  I know we need engineers and mathematicians and psychiatrists.  But Lord Help us if none of ‘em can sing.  Humorless and tone-deaf people create a lot of the misery in this world. So, a salute to the Ella Jones’ of the world for keeping us alive and giving yourselves to make us all better.

Some of those people who taught me how to sing, “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam” and “Jesus loves the little children” are long gone.  But somewhere down in us, it is remembered after most of the sermons have turned back into empty space.  It matters.