Heaven in a Nightclub

Inside the "invisible church" where spirituals—and jazz—were born

Appears in Spring 2009 Issue: Every square inch
March 1 st 2009

On a hot summer's day in 1845, enslaved Africans were on their way to the secret meeting place, far from the plantation. They carried with them buckets of water and several old sheets. After walking for miles, in small groups of two or three, the first in the party could see the humble dwelling in the distance. Known as the "hush house" or the "praise house," the structure was a simple log cabin. They entered, and proceeded to hang the sheets up on the walls, and then douse them with water. Before the last few slaves arrived, a preacher began to speak on Ezekiel and the dry bones. "They're going to live again," he exclaimed. He explained the new life in Jesus Christ to the gathering congregation. Soon the singing began. It followed the tones of the sermon, and went on to soar into heavenly heights. One woman was wearing her apron, with figures woven in depicting souls on their way to heaven or hell. She remembers the scene vividly. The music began slowly, thoughtfully. Soon there was a call and response pattern.

Now the group was not only singing but shouting the spiritual songs. (Indeed, the shout was a fixed form, coming from the Afro-Arabic word, saut, to dance around the Kabaa in Mecca. When this rite was carried into North America it took on both a subversive and a religious signification. It became a musical dance. Biblical precedents were often cited, as in occasions where the Israelites were known "to dance before the tabernacle." The word shout was associated with the biblical injunction of Psalm 47:1 to "clap your hands . . . and shout before the Lord." This kind of renewal is at the heart of African-American music.) As the preacher went on, this slave woman remembered experiencing wonderful revival. With the message, then the song, she knew the Lord was alive, despite her misery: "And, honey, the Lord would come a-shining through them pages and revive this old slave's heart, and I'd jump up there, and then holler and shout and sing and pat, and they would all catch the words . . . and they'd all take it up and keep at it, and keep adding to it, and then it would be . . . a spiritual" (Jeannette Robinson Murphy, "The Survival of African Music in America," in an 1899 issue of Popular Science).

O shout, O shout, O shout away,
And don't you mind,
And glory, glory, glory in my soul

And when 'twas night I thought 'twas day
I thought I'd pray my soul away,
And glory, glory, glory in my soul!

Jazz was born in the praise house. That is, the most significant antecedent of jazz, the Negro Spiritual, was generated in an atmosphere of newfound faith, lived out under duress. Many plantation owners were unsympathetic with the newfound faith of their slaves. Despite publications which outlined The Duties of Christian Masters to Their Servants, with specific instructions to "prove the necessity of giving religious instruction to our Negroes," many masters were worried about conversions on two fronts. First, they thought becoming Christians might lead to laziness. And second, even more sadly, they thought that if a slave became a believer, he would have to be considered a brother, and no longer chattel. So the slaves had to meet in secret. Not unlike the Huguenots, who met in caves during the persecutions, enslaved Africans met in the "invisible church," a place with secret preaching and singing, a place that could not easily be detected by oppressors.

Music became a deep source of hope for the slaves. Strange things occurred. When the slave owners did bring their liege to church, the only music they heard was the Psalter, sung a cappella and without harmony. The practice of "lining out" was developed, whereby the lead singer would sing the first line, and then the congregation would repeat it after him. The slaves loved it, partly because it resembled West African music, and partly because the slow meter allowed for improvisation. Combinations such as these produced fresh and poignant sounds. And the content was thoroughly biblical.

Spirituals were deeply comforting—but they also were about survival. Not only did they celebrate biblical characters and places, but they contained code words, instructing the slaves about strategy. For example, "Wade in the Water Children" was about Joshua putting his foot in the Jordan, by faith. But it was also a warning to take the river route, because the slave catcher was using bloodhounds to ferret out escapees. "I'm on My Way to Canaan Land" was about the hope of heaven. But it was also a signal to move North, far North up to Canada, where slavery was unlawful, and people lived free.

O brothers, don't get weary
O brothers, don't get weary
O brothers, don't get weary
We're waiting for the Lord
We'll land on Canaan's shore . . .
We'll meet forever more.

So much of life had to be led in secrecy. Often the words of both spirituals and blues were ironic, thinly veiling a critique of the lifestyle of the white oppressors. They could range from mockery to tragic lament.

Eventually the victory would go to the enslaved Africans. Their Christian commitment, the renewal of every area of life through the gospel, including dress, health, culinary arts, and, of course, fresh and vital music, would triumph over the horrors of oppression. Throughout the decades, their music would evolve step by step, through such genres as ragtime, the blues, marching bands, and eventually the sophisticated form known as jazz. This unique style, which came into its own in the 20th century, was more of a way of playing than a set of tunes. To give it a more technical description, among the ingredients, we may note the presence of four basic elements (see, for example, Hugues Panassié avec Madeleine Gauthier, Dictionnaire du jazz, nouvelle édition, Albin Michel, 1980):

  1. Swing, the rhythmic pulsation linking the dance to the music, often stressing the 2nd and 4th beats of the measure.


  2. The adaptation of black vocal technique to instrumental play, inflections, vibrato, strong contrasts, the attack, etc.


  3. Melodic style derived from the blues, including the bending of notes, using the major scale but with the modal qualifier of "blue notes," which add passion.


  4. Finally, live composition, collective playing, etc.

Music is always more than a series of technical traits. All music articulates a two-way relation to spirituality. On the one hand, the spiritual and theological background gives music its special shape. As Steven Feld put it, "songs are a map of people's experiences, and that's the way you connect to them." Or as John Coltrane put it, "music is a microcosm of life." But it works the other way around as well. Music can be the cause, the conduit that shapes the soul: says Charles Kingley, "Music soothes us, stirs us up; it puts noble feelings in us; it melts us to tears, we know not how: it is a language by itself . . . Music has been called the speech of angels; I will go further, and call it the speech of God himself." And as Jeremy Begbie loves to say, music is a guide for spiritual and theological understanding. For example, the mosaic and multi-layers of certain forms of music is an important clue to the meaning of the Book of Revelation in the New Testament. What is the heart of jazz's narrative? I believe it is to represent both the deep misery of suffering and the inextinguishable joy of emancipation.

No people group has exemplified the relation of music to a spiritual and cultural background better than African-Americans. Their music was born out of their unique experience. It is impossible to discount the church dimension from that experience, though no doubt, many other factors were involved. Thirty years ago, critics attempted a more secular understanding of jazz and the blues. The religious words and concepts were seen as simply overlays, masking a deeper subversion. Scholars are finally coming around to acknowledge the crucial importance of the Christian faith and the church in the life and culture of slaves, and then of newly emancipated black people. Subversion there was, but strongly characterized by the Christian faith. Without the support of the black church it could be argued that little would have changed. Here is how Sylvia Frey and Betty Wood (Come Shouting to Zion: African American Protestantism in the American South and British Caribbean to 1830, University of North Carolina Press, 1998) put it:

The passage from traditional religions to Christianity was arguably the single most significant event in African American history. It created a community of faith and provided a body of values and a religious commitment that became in time the principal solvent of ethnic differences and the primary source of cultural identity. It provided African-Americans with an ideology of resistance and the means to absorb the cultural norms that turned Africans into African Americans. The churches Afro-Christians founded formed the institutional bases for these developments and served as the main training ground for the men and women who were to lead the community out of slavery and into a new identity as free African American Christians.

New identity is what my own band, Renewal, strives to present in its concerts. We like to give our audience music, great music from the African-American tradition, interspersed with explanation. We like to go back to the roots and bring the music up to the present, in order to show how jazz evolved from the praise house into the nightclub and the concert hall. This work is a constant reminder of the God's hand in the lives of the oppressed, which resulted in a musical form that has brought joy to people around the world.

Topics: Culture
 

William Edgar was born in Wilmington, NC, in 1944. He grew up in Paris (France), Long Island (NY), and Geneva (Switzerland). He studied at St George's School (secondary), Harvard University (Honors B.A. in Music), Westminster Theological Seminary (M.Div.), and the University of Geneva, Switzerland (Dr. Théol). He has taught at the Brunswick School, in Greenwich, CT (1970-78), and at the Faculté Libre de Théologie Réformée, in Aix-en-Provence, France (1979-89), where he continues as Professeur Associé. He is currently Professor of Apologetics, Coordinator of the Apologetics Department, Director of the Gospel and Culture Project, and Moderator of the Faculty at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, where he has been since 1989.

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