Confession: Deaf to Gospel

I may burn at the stake for political incorrectness, but it’s the truth: I have an intense aversion to gospel music. My distaste dates to a haunting childhood vision in which an overwhelming Mahalia Jackson is routed by a malevolent clown.

As George Bernard Shaw wrote in 1894 (brought to my attention by colleague Francis Davis) “It is one of the inevitable evils of my profession [he was then reviewing music for a London daily] that I am asked to go to all manner of places; but hitherto I have drawn the line at going to church. Among the pious I am a scoffer: among the musical I am religious.”
My own story on the separation of church and taste, delving into a deep-seated suspicion of music used in the evangelical projection of religious faith and my embrace of the spirit of Pan via a 1959 Kraft Music Hall tv show of transcendent/subversive Harpo Marx is related in the “Epiphanies” column, the last-page of The Wire — Adventures in Modern Music(London) #285, November 2007.
Also in the issue: reports on Addis Ababa’s “Ethio-jazz” innovator Maluta Astatke, an interview with aging hardcore free-jazz saxophonist Sonny Simmons, and reviews of many sound sources and considerations — The Roots of Chicha: Psychedelic Cumbias from Peru, “Persian Electronic Music,” A Manifest For Silence: Confronting The Politics And Culture Of Noise — unlikely to get much notice elsewhere. On international newstands everywhere?

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  1. says

    I had a shock listening to Mahalia Jackson’s a capella rendition of “Come Sunday” in Duke Ellington’s “Black, Brown and Beige” released by Columbia Jazz (CK65566). It is magnificent and overpowering. No-one but Marian Anderson comes close. I never had warmed up much to Mahalia Jackson, and in many regards I still don’t, but this a capella rendering is about all what’s truly great with humanity. — Suzanne Fredericq
    Dear Ms. Fredericq: Thanks for your note. Yes, Mahalia sings “Come Sunday,” Mahalia’s at the march on Washington, at Dr. King’s funeral, ending the Newport Jazz Fest in Jazz on A Summer’s Day. Mahalia’s great, and not the problem — it’s the religion part.
    Here’s a great Mahalia Jackson performance, early and according to YouTube (or whoever posted it there) from Chicago. She generates a lot of rhythmic power. There’s a distortion about a minute in, but keep watching, she nails this bit.
    Here’s one where she strikes me as scary.
    Greg Tate, whose writings I admire, urged me to write the “Epiphany” for The Wire, saying it was the gospel itself (what’s that in German? ) that shook me. If he was right, as I suspect, my only defense is to laugh. So here’s one that’s got to be a spoof — say, YouTube, you really think that’s Mahalia swinging “Just A Close Walk With Thee” in her “last tv show” “? – HM

  2. says

    Funny. I’d just completely ignore the religious overtones and enjoy the voice and the feeling for the great pleasure that they convey. Just as I admire Louis Armstrong the moment he hits his horn, while being able to ignore his clowning antics later in life. Just as I admire the Coffee Cantata by Bach, one of the most glorious pieces ever written, while ignoring the subject matter – the new fad of coffee! Religion or coffee – the subject matter is not very important to me in music. Likewise, why do people fret over Mozart’s childlike behaviour in so many respects? I couldn’t care less — he created Don Giovanni and Cosi fan Tute. They were all geniuses, extra-ordinary, and through their art they continue to make our lives so much more enjoyable and meaningful, and that’s what’s important. We should give these artists some slack on the “ordinary” aspects of their personalities; it’s all secondary. Organized religion is the problem. Not the transcendental experience of beauty or poetry or love or longing that a Mahalia Jackson or Bach or Mozart or Louis Armstrong are experiencing and are conveying to us, mere mortals. — S. Fredericq
    HM: Transcendent experience: good (in moderation, with perspective). Organized religion: problematic. Certainty of faith: dangerous, organized or not?

  3. says

    HM: Organized religion: problematic.
    VERY problematic. However, there may be several definitions to “religion.” Doesn’t it basically mean “linking”, from the latin “religo”? In the broad sense then, “linkage” is no problem when it is cast in the tenet of André Breton’s 1929 Second Manifesto of Surrealism:
    “Everything leads to the belief that there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imaginary, the past and the future, the communicable and the incommunicable, the high and the low, are not perceived as contradictions.” Isn’t this the language of poetry, analogies, love, art?
    HM: Certainty of faith: dangerous, organized or not?
    Religious-wise, most often VERY, VERY dangerous if not perceived metaphorically. But artists need to have faith in THEMSELVES, don’t they, believe in their art and basically not care about what others think of their work?

  4. says

    >reports on Addis Ababa’s “Ethio-jazz” innovator Maluta Astatke
    Actually, his first name is Mulatu [moo-‘lah-too], not Maluta. Sorry for nitpicking.
    HM writes — thanks Cyril (editor of, if there are nits to be picked, someone’s got to do it — glad to publish correct info rather than mistakes.

  5. Khalil Canady says

    I read some of your comments regarding Mahalia Jackson. The religion part in most instances is problematic. However, It was the understanding of Jesus Christ that gives Mahalia’s singing “life” that has not been surpassed up to our present time. Mahalia came from poverty in a society that X’d the Black Female. Her only choice living in the segregated American south was the Gospel of Jesus Christ. She made much of this understanding and shared her discovery with the whole world!!!!
    HM: I’m glad it worked for her, and whoever else it works for — what helps get you through the night or out of poverty (of $ or spirit) shouldn’t be scorned. But not for me.