Sunday, January 07, 2007

Say amen somebody

Tent revival
Tent revival

Memphis Flu - Elder Curry and His Congregation

I always sort of pity people who grew up without any kind of religious service-attending. Not just because they missed the benefits of fellowship and communal identity, but also because some of the music could be great. That's what I liked, anyway -- belting those hymns to a booming pipe organ. Granted, Charles Wesley's Easter standard "Christ the Lord is Risen Today" is about as passionate as the Congregational hymnal got, and vocal zealotry was (still is, I asume) rare at the polite, theologically progressive end of the Protestant spectrum.

It's been a long time since I've set foot in a church for any reason other than a wedding or neighborhood event. But I might be tempted if the music were anything like that of Elder Curry's 1930 Jackson, Mississippi assemblage. Curry, et al roll a tavern piano into a tent revival meeting, the player drunk and cigarette smoke-sooty, congregants still dolled up and duded out in Saturday night threads, stomping, clapping, hollering like rowdy sinners. I only wish "flu" referred to the infectious joy of music. Dogged barrelhouse piano and spontaneous shouts of praise don't quite obscure the song's vengeful spirit (He killed the rich and poor/And He's going to kill more/If you don't turn away from your shame) -- words that blame 1918's catastrophic influenza epidemic on the faithless. And there, I suppose, you have the us-and-themming downside of a lot of organized religion. Still, I'd like to believe that one of the gentlemen with a drooping carnation in his buttonhole delivers those lines with a wink and the leading lady with the generous voice swishes her skirt as she sings and maybe briefly flashes a red garter.

From How Can I Keep From Singing, Vol 2: Early American Religious Music and Song (Amazon, eMusic)


Blogger jon manyjars said...

As a person unchurched, I first realized I had missed out on an important part of our culture when I was in a class on 19th century art, and I didn't recognize many of the biblical figures and stories.

But yes, the music too. This past weekend I was at the hospital where I work, and I heard a group of black women singing to a patient who they were visiting. It was a spiritual that I recognized only from a Leadbelly record, in a slightly different version, and it gave me chills to realize that the song had been passed on orally from Leadbelly's generation to today's churchgoers.

11:07 AM  

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