“Death Gospel,” Art and Life

The website “Sightings” put out an interesting piece this week.  Thanks to my good friend and blog reader Lamon Brown for forwarding this to me.  It is a piece on the music of Adam Arcuragi.  I was unfamiliar with Arcuragi, but immediately was drawn to go read the piece and the NPR interview of Arcuragi.  His album Like a Fire that Consumes All Before It, writes M. Cooper Harriss

has raised interest in the popular-musical category of “Death Gospel,” a metaphysically attuned variety of the Americana genre named by Arcuragi. Death Gospel is not sonically related to “Death Metal” (a heavier

Adam Arcuragi

Heavy Metal music); nor is it overtly “gospel” music. Arcuragi describes it in a recent Huffington Post interview as “anything that sees the inevitability of death as a reason to celebrate the special wonder that is being alive and sentient. That’s the hope with the songs. . . . It is exciting that we can reflect upon it as intelligent life and do something to make that wonder manifest.” Arcuragi’s interview attributes little theological import to the gospel portion of his category, noting instead his love of 2/2 time and pointing to a number of historical antecedents such as Claude Ely and Johnny Cash, and more recent–and some might say more “secular”–acts including Neko Case and the Flaming Lips.

I was immediately drawn to this for a couple of reasons.  First, because in my work as a minister, I am around death and dying on almost a weekly basis.  I’m guessing my funerals are now in the hundreds over 32 years of work.  I have buried old people, babies and everyone in between.  Suicides, cancer, tragedies, fires, drowning, car wrecks, sweet release from Alzheimers, folks whose loved ones and friends were all gone, and those who left too soon.  On only a few occasions did I bury people no one was sad to see go.   One funeral prompted a member to come, “Just to see what you were going to say about him, Preacher.”

Yet in a recent gathering of ministers when I asked the question, “If you quit your job now, what would you miss most?” children and funerals were at the top of everyone’s list.  Way ahead of committees, raising money, and listening to people comment on our appearance every Sunday.  We all understood—there is something holy about death and the grave.  It takes us to an edge of life that paradoxically renders it precious and intoxicating.  All the people in one’s life, gathered together, all the stories and sadness, food and laughter in one place.  Everything stops for a few days, no matter how “busy” we are, it’s not too busy for this.

Second, it is intriguing because I have, oddly, found myself writing about death a lot in songs.  I have one about a man remembering the love of his life just after she has died, another about a man named “Michael” who faces death from cancer, a song I wrote in college, but added a bittersweet fourth verse years later.  I have one called, “Hole in the Ground” that is so morbid I have never performed it, and another called, “Farewell,  Baby Girl,” about an anonymous newborn found floating in the Chattahoochie River when I pastored in South Georgia.  While some of it is fictitious, the basic story is real—a tiny infant, drowned by her parents, shortly after birth.  I donated my services to bury the child in a pauper’s area where babies were buried in our local cemetery called, “Babyland.”  What resulted was a song so somber that my wife never likes to hear it performed.  I’ve only done it once.

Don Wendorf and I last night at the Moonlight photo by Keith Harrelson

I had a great time in concert last night at the Moonlight on the Mountain venue, appearing with Lynn Adler and Lindy Hearne.  Afterwards I found myself engaged into two intriguing conversations. One was with a fellow musician who is a Christian and an English teacher, and we had a fairly substantial conversation about suffering .

I did a little more milling around and found myself standing at the car talking with another new friend about science, evolution and the possibility of real faith.  My acquaintance commented that the unreality of his childhood religion, its failure to look at its own shortcomings, made faith quite hard.

Acoustic music fans are serious about their music.  I continually find the most profound conversations that happen in that place, where artists write gritty, funny and sometimes raw takes on life.  That all of this happened at the end of a musical performance in which I did not do any overtly Christian songs is rather remarkable.  It does make me wonder if the guaranteed happy praise and triumphalism of too much Christian music is rooted in a shallow theology underneath that cannot paint life with much reality because it renders death as unreal.

We are actually more comfortable with the denial of death. After all, when one of the most powerful commendations of many so-called “different kind of churches” is their claim that they make church fun, what in the world is that? And then we go and hear far more difficult truths from our secular songwriters, who often are actually taking all these things seriously.  Strange.

I started singing in the Jesus movement in one of the early youth choirs.  I remember one song in a musical called, “Life,” by Otis Skillings, when early contemporary Christian writers were cranking out material for a hungry marketplace of churches.  I remember very little about the musical.  I loved singing.  I only remember one line, though:  “LIFE, pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa.”  It sounded musically like elevator music.  Even then I thought, “This is pretty shabby.”  True art tells truth, it doesn’t gloss over it or make it more palatable with shortcuts through the hard places.  Tell the truth—onto every cheek some tears must fall.  And then…REAL life can break through.   I have another song that puts it this way, “Life is for real.”  Without death, you never know.

CLICK HERE to listen to “Farewell, Baby Girl”

“Precious Lord,” Georgia Tom and the War with the Blues

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…

                                                         

Lessons From the Waiting Room

In all the uproar of 9-11, a lot of personal history got pushed out of view.  A month later, ten years ago, whatever was going on was dwarfed by a morning that changed the world forever.  So it is surprising to me to reconnect to anniversaries that I thought were some other time.

Ten years ago, on August 13, 2001, my sister underwent surgery for breast cancer.  Her situation was serious, she was young—in her thirties—for such a thing.  Our family was, like all families in such a moment, devastated and anxious.

As a minister, Wednesdays are usually the busiest day of the week for me—surpassing even Sundays.  That week, though, I was on the other side, sitting in a waiting room in an Atlanta hospital with my parents, brother-in-law, and a parade of friends and church folks coming by to check on us. This week she marked her tenth anniversary without a recurrence and we rejoice even as we encourage all those who fight against breast cancer.

I wrote about that day in the waiting room, ten years ago.  And since it got lost in what happened a month later, I went back to read it again.  As we rejoice today, I share these words again.  Maybe they will help someone who isn’t so far down the road as we are right now.  These were my “Lessons from the Waiting Room.”

  • The greatest enemy in the waiting room is boredom.  You talk, laugh, tell stories, and every now and then find yourselves staring at each other, waiting for something else to say.  Long periods of blanking it out interspersed with imagining “in there.”
  • There are so many feelings for just one day.  Fear stops by in the morning and pops back in when you least expect him.  Hope, love, frustration, weariness, impatience and irritation.  They all pass through.  All you can do is sit while they fly through your brain.
  • People have truly different ideas of what the phrase “Dress appropriately” means.
  • Family, friends and church members are a comfort.  You don’t have to say much.  Just seeing a face and knowing a connection does something for you.  All day long people came by and said, over and over in a dozen ways, “We care about you.”  It was truly humbling.  Many friends came by, and two graciously gave us over an hour of their busy lives to sit and help us laugh the time away.  Three church staff came to comfort us, and they did.
  • It is neat to just be “her brother from out of town.”
  • Hospital food must come from a single warehouse.  I had the same thing I ate the last time I had a hospital meal.  Some of the vegetables seemed to be prepared to drum up extra business for the gastro unit.
  • Time is timeless in a hospital.  That explains why nothing starts when it is scheduled and why things go on longer than you were told (reminded me of the little Catholic boy who visited a Baptist church with his buddy for the first time.  “What does it mean when the preacher takes off his watch and lays it on the pulpit?” he asked.  “Don’t mean anything at all,” sniffed the Baptist boy.)  It is why surgery feels like eternity when you are waiting on it.
  • You overhear some really interesting conversations.  Over in the corner a man from Jamaica recited the entire genealogy of his family to two kinswomen, loud enough for us to hear intermittently.  “No, no, no, your Uncle Elias, see, he was my brother’s cousin…”  That went on for two hours, forming a Caribbean Book of Chronicles until they finally, I think, got back to the present day.  I believe the conversation only started with a single question about a nephew.  “Sorry I asked,” I imagined them saying as night fell.
  • There is plenty of time to think about important things—how much you love the important people in your life, how wonderful the church can be when the chips are down, what really matters in life, and how connected we all are.
  • There are a lot of people in trouble in this world.  People from everywhere.  People who wouldn’t say hello to each other on the street smile and ask each other how it’s going.
  • Thinking about my friends back home praying for us helped.  God truly is with us, even in the waiting room.

    My wonderful sister ten years later