A Blues Ecology Gospel of Black American History?–Chapter 6: A Blues Matrix Summer?

I have labeled the clouds position of the figure below as a “blues matrix” of sacred community expression from African oral tradition. The term blues matrix comes from a critical theory for Blackamerican literature (Baker 1984: 6-14). The blues emerge toward the end of the Civil War among Blackamericans who begin to escape: 1) from the confinement on plantations that tended to focus community religious expression around an often clandestine ring shout; 2) from antebellum prohibitions against education in linguistic, musical, and other arts of European culture in the Americas; and 3) from violent persecution and sharecropper poverty in agricultural river deltas of the Jim Crow south–via what has been called the Great Migration–to a potential for economic opportunity in industrial port cities usually in the somewhat more liberal racial climates of northern states.

The heart of this exodus that literally gave birth to the gospel that went global during this period was the movement of the full incorporation of this blues matrix into a Blackamerican church that had already made it to the port cities and assimilated into institutional American life. The church provided the body, the blues provided the soul. The groundwork for Gospel Blues was laid by people like Charles Albert Tindley.

Tindley came to be known both as the “prince of preachers” and the “progenitor” of gospel blues. He was a child of emancipated slaves in Maryland, and had to be hired out as a youth to help support the family. Tindley taught himself to read and although musically illiterate became widely known as a singing preacher in the Philadelphia church he eventually took over in 1902 that grew to massive proportions (Boyer 1983).

He married his readings in modern Western culture and religion with a passion for community service immersed in the ring values Blackamerican musical tradition. This drew standing room only crowds of “black” and “white” worshippers to his sermons, that were also often held in stadiums. Tindley’s songs were transcribed by musicians who were listed on the scores as arrangers.

Tindley and his contemporaries also established some of the first Blackamerican companies for publishing music. Tindley’s first hymnal also included one song by Thomas A. Dorsey (later known as the “father” of gospel blues). Dorsey along with his contemporaries in the next generation set out, in Dorsey’s words, “to continue what Tindley started” (Boyer 1983).

In the case of gospel music, Dorsey’s title as “father” must also be complemented with names of several “mothers” who played equally if not more important roles in various aspects. They included Arizona Dranes, a classically trained pianist, and blind church musician and preacher, who actually made the first gospel blues recordings in Chicago (Johnson 2009). They also included Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a guitarist, who crossed over into secular music. She has been called the mother of Rock and Roll, since Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Jimmy Hendrix noted her as a primary influence (Jackson 1995). I’ve embedded a link from a YouTube video below, focused Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s massive influence on the birth of Rock and Roll.

Embedded from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FKK_EQ4pj9A

Another classically trained pianist, Roberta Martin, was a Dorsey protege who further developed many of his ideas, formed the Roberta Martin Singers (Kalil 1993).

Each of these people managed their own ways to master the modern Western language that commodified them, well enough to express the ring values of their own humanity through it. Dorsey biographer, Michael Harris described this process as a struggle for Blackamericans in general, which he characterized in three steps: exposure, conflict, and resolution. His biography of Dorsey focused on the central period, “conflict,” as mediator of change, or connective tissue, between the other two (Harris 1994).

Gospel blues emerged with a spirit of hope during the Great Depression that also seems reflected in the federal New Deal at that time. This was a decade before the “soul” music that would eventually come from Blackamerican musicians both sacred and secular, who by and large got their musical training and experience in the Blackamerican Church.

It also literally took a couple of decades before even the music departments in historically Black colleges began to recognize and even permit, much less teach, the type of gospel music that came out of Blackamerican churches. Walker quotes none other than Mahalia Jackson as remarking, “All this mess you hear calling itself soul ain’t nothing but warmed over gospel” (Walker 1979: 155).

I’ve embedded a YouTube video below that powerfully illustrates how the blues matrix we hear in popular arises through gospel blues. For those who are unaware, it might appear as if gospel is borrowing from popular music. But chronologically speaking it really is the other way around.

Dorsey’s composition “The Lord Will Make a Way Somehow” provides a perfect example of the workings of the “blues matrix.” It brought forward and embellished Blackamerican Church tropes that Tindley had focused on in several different compositions to sound a note of faith and hope in the midst of World War II. In the video above, minister and jazz gospel vocalist Kim Burrell leads what might be called a 21st century ring shout “Concert of Hope” in New York’s Radio City Music Hall, with Hezekiah Walker’s updated revision of Dorsey’s composition for a new generation dealing with an entirely new generation of issues and crises. (Embedded from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LH0_HgnkWmQ)

The underlying blues matrix gave birth to Blackamerican soul music and crossed over into rock and roll. The blues matrix was also evidenced in a migration northward from central and south America in the 1940s to create what James Noel called a salsa/jazz/blues idiom that literally brought the sacred river ecology of Iemana in Bahia and Yemaya in Cuba into a global explosion of musical expression (Noel 2009: 171-200). It was also in the soul of “jazz” that moved up from New Orleans and traveled to Europe with the Harlem Hellfighters in World War I (Nelson 2009).

It still remained racially segregated, however, because the recording industry that spread the music began in furniture stores that were still trying to market their record playing equipment into an entertainment market that had been created by blackface minstrelsy (Esther 2018 and Roy 2004). Following the link to Esther’s blog at the end of the previous sentence will lead to an essay that references the musical roots of the folk song “This Land is Your Land.” The YouTube link embedded below brings that discussion alive with a moving presentation of those roots by Rhiannon Giddens’ “Carolina Chocolate Drops.”

The music for Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” which came from the music of a Carter Family hit song “Little Darling Pal of Mine” originally comes from a Blackamerican Church song “When the World’s on Fire”, performed above by the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
(Embedded from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Qzj2u6_A9I)

Perhaps most powerful of all in this sense was the connections made by Blackamerican jazz musicians directly back with Africans in Mali playing essentially the same river delta blues but with lyrics about healthy human ecology rather than human commodification (el Hamel 2013: Kindle locations 6857-7543, Stewart 2006 and Weston 2010). I’ve included a presentation of the late Randy Weston playing with Gnawa “musicians” from Morocco, because it also illustrates their dance movements. In watching them, I am reminded of the ring shout. I suggest comparing what you see here with ring shout videos you may have observed through the links in chapter 4.

Embedded from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nXDsj9CqGRk

The ecology spacetime of the blues matrix seemed to connect with people all over the world of all different religions in one way or another, including to the profoundly sacred ecology spacetime of nada Brahma in India (Simpkins 1975 and Farrell 1997). It has also been credited with birthing popular musicoreligious movements among young people in the US (Sylvan 2002). This appears to illustrate Samuel Floyd’s concept of a ring shout call-and-response that eventually becomes a “Call/Response” of global music and culture (Floyd 2017: xxiv-xxvi).

All of this also led up to a time when black codes got overturned, and movements for all types of human freedoms came alive, including movements to halt the commodification of global ecology. The American summer season ended abruptly after about 100 years, as did the two previous ones, this time with a backlash of human commodification. Black codes were disguised as law and order codes that still produced a similar commodifying effect, most noticeably with the rise of massive, for-profit, incarceration–fed by a multi-national corporate globalization that exported the industrial economies of American port cities overseas. Multi-national corporate ascendancy exerted a profound effect on American Civil Religion as well (Kruse 2015).

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