In early November, right after a horrific snowstorm that knocked out the electricity for five days, and snapped off or toppled over many white spruce trees in the nearby forest, I flew from Maine to Santa Fe for the annual conference of the American Folklore Society. I hadn't planned to give a paper this year, but I was asked to be on a panel called "Leaders in the Field," where a number of us older hands would be interviewed for posterity. The session was going to be videotaped and go into the Society’s archives. The irony struck that, having spent so much of my professional life documenting others, now I was to be a subject. Well, fair’s fair. Besides, professors are willing to talk about and share their research. To think and talk about its trajectory over the past forty years was an invitation I couldn't pass up, and didn't. So when it was my turn I told some stories about my interests in music and sound over the years and where that’s led. Here are a few of them.
I was asked how I first got interested in music, and replied with a story my mother told me. She said that my first words were sung, not spoken. Evidently my family were avid radio listeners, and what caught my ear came out in song (phonetically) as “Pepi coda hitta pot.” The melody, not the mispronounced words, made it clear to my mother that what I was singing was a Pepsi jingle (“Pepsi-Cola hits the spot”). I sang before I spoke.
I’ve told the story many times about the conversation my American studies program adviser had with me after I told her that I was going to write my dissertation on blues. “Has any scholar written on ‘that music’ before?,” she asked. “Not to my knowledge,” I replied. I didn’t know of any doctoral dissertations on blues, or any that analyzed the music. Books on blues were mainly artist biographies, written by fans, although some researchers like Paul Oliver had written well about themes in the lyrics and other subjects. (I was unaware at that time that Bill Ferris was then writing a dissertation on blues at Penn; I got to know him later when he taught at Yale.) I thought my program adviser was asking whether I’d be making an original contribution to knowledge by writing on this subject. “Have you thought seriously about the consequences of your decision?” Consequences? I thought that the consequences of making an original contribution, if it were any good, would be satisfaction for the author and the reward of the doctoral degree. “Yes, sure,” I said, somewhat mystified by this question. And that was the end of the discussion.
A few years later, when people began to ask me what I was doing teaching in an English department with a degree in American studies and a dissertation on blues, I would reply that in addition to writing about the music I was making a case for blues as African American cultural expression that resulted in worthy literature in and of itself. One didn’t have to go to the writings of Langston Hughes or Sterling Brown to find good blues poems; they were right there in the blues songs themselves, recorded from the 1920s onward.
But gradually it dawned on me that the reason they were asking, and the reason why my program adviser had questioned me about my choice of dissertation topic, was that my path already was quite unusual. My adviser was worried for the future of my academic career and was asking if I’d realized that the likely consequence of choosing to write about ‘that music’ was academic suicide—i.e., whoever was going to hire this misfit? Luckily, I was too naive to think that research wouldn’t be rewarded on merit rather than choice of subject and, luckily, I was hired in a tenure-track job at a good university when such jobs were a lot more plentiful than they are today. As a graduate student I didn't think very much about careers; I just assumed it would take care of itself if I did well enough as a teacher and scholar.
Fifteen years later, merit didn’t triumph over subject choice. Three of us were trying to raise money to make the Powerhouse for God documentary film about a powerful preacher-singer and his family in Appalachia’s northern Blue Ridge. Although we were successful with the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities turned us down three times. After our third grant proposal was unsuccessful, we found ourselves in DC—we’d started shooting the film, and we needed to get some equipment repaired—and while cooling our heels we got an appointment to meet with the NEH program officer. She told us she was very sorry we’d been denied funding so often, because it was obvious that we were fine film makers and that the scholarship behind the film was thorough. The problem, she said, was our subject. Appalachia was too obscure, and religious subjects could be controversial. “Couldn’t you make a film about the life of Lincoln? I’m sure you could get funding for that,” she wound up. We walked out without saying another word.
One more story. I’ve often been asked how I got interested in doing research on the musical sermons of Rev. C. L. Franklin. Most people think I came to it through listening to his daughter Aretha, and learning about her background. Franklin was the most highly regarded black Baptist preacher of his generation; as the head of the National Baptist Association observed, he had a “whoop that comes along once in a hundred years.” (Whooping is what black preachers—and others—call the traditional musical delivery, where the preacher comes to a climax, improvising the words and singing them to a melody that carries them.) But that wasn’t how I learned about Rev. Franklin.
Instead, it happened when I was a graduate student, and when in addition to my studies and teaching duties I was playing guitar in Lazy Bill Lucas’s blues band. One Saturday night we got back early in the morning around 2 a.m. from a gig and I crashed on Bill’s couch. The next day he shook me awake at 7 a.m. and said, “Come on, boy. we’re going to church!” I hadn’t known Bill played piano at a nearby church—St. Mark's Baptist Church—but he was there most Sunday mornings accompanying the gospel songs, and he thought it’d do me some good to hear another kind of music. I stumbled off the couch and we got to the church, and I did enjoy the songs. Of course, I’d heard black gospel music for years, but what I hadn’t heard was whooped preaching. Rev. George Trawick was the preacher, and I was transfixed by this sound that was new to me. Later, I asked Bill about it, and he said I ought to listen to Rev. Franklin’s sermons. He just happened to have some albums that were recorded in New Bethel, in Detroit, Rev. Franklin’s church. They were very popular, he said. Indeed, Rev. Franklin was a rock star among African Americans of his generation, though completely unknown outside of the black communities. As soon as I heard Bill's records of Rev. Franklin's sermons, I knew I had heard a rare and gifted orator and poet-preacher with a remarkable musical delivery in his sermons that were improvised at the moment of performance, without a printed manuscript.
And that was the start of my research on Rev. Franklin and the sound of the whoop. It was around 1969 that I heard Rev. Trawick. I already was working on my dissertation on blues, and I realized that I should complete that project before going on in earnest with this new one. So I did, and then in 1976 I met Rev. Franklin for the first time. I phoned him up, told him I wanted to visit, and asked him to suggest a weekend. He hemmed and hawed—I thought it was because this was an unusual request (coming from a professor of literature, at that)—and finally he offered a date, saying that on that weekend his daughter Aretha would be there. I said that would be fine, “but it’s you I want to see.” “Oh well then,” he told me, “come anytime!” I wonder what my American studies program adviser would have said about that research topic.
Researching blues turned out not to be the lonely pursuit my adviser thought it would be. In addition to Bill Ferris at Penn, David Evans was researching blues at UCLA, and later several other scholars took up the subject, notably Houston Baker and Henry Louis (“Skip”) Gates, Jr. Angela Davis, known to me as a radical feminist and advocate of black power in the 1960s, later wrote a superb book about the vaudeville blues singers of the 1920s, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith and others. But black preaching remained an obscure research area—and to some extent it still is, although that may be changing. In the 1970s I did visit with Rev. Franklin, and over the course of several months interviewed him more than a dozen times about his life and preaching, and videotaped seven of his sermons. In the 1980s I wrote an essay on him in a book published by the Library of Congress, and wrote a book about his life and sermons that was published by the University of Illinois Press. The book did not interest my fellow folklorists and ethnomusicologists very much, nor were my colleagues in American studies much more than curious. It did sell, slowly but steadily, to scholars in African American religious studies.
I’ve mentioned Rev. Franklin in this blog a few times before. For years I’ve been wanting to figure out a good way to publish the videotapes that I recorded of his preaching, so that they would reach what I came to realize was their target audience: the scholars of black preaching, the African American theologians, and the preachers themselves who wanted to see as well as hear this man whose whoop came along once in a hundred years. It wasn’t until the summer before last that, after I'd been looking for the target audience for many years, the target audience found me instead, and asked me to give a keynote at the first conference to celebrate the legacy of Rev. Franklin. Held in Detroit last April, “The Voice of a Prophet” (2014) attracted about 500 scholars and preachers and theologians and lay people. I showed the last two-thirds of one of my videos shot of Rev. Franklin in Detroit in the 1970s, and soon half the room was standing, cell phones in hand, copying the grainy, black-and-white video that was projected on the screen. (Some of that is on YouTube now.) There’s to be another conference this coming April, and I will show another video. I’m sure it won’t be too long before arrangements are made to publish these videotapes in a form that will enable them to take their place in this community after all these years of sequestration, or curation, or whatever one calls it.
And so those are just some of the stories I told at the folklore conference. Elders are expected to have them, and I do. But I wouldn’t want them to upstage the research itself on blues or the sound of black preaching. When asked what theme I thought had unified my research over the years, I didn’t hesitate: it was sound, I said, whether the timbre of blues, or the elaborate songs of Old Regular Baptists, or the whoop of the black preacher, or its white preaching sound counterpart (that can be heard in John Sherfey’s chanted sermons, from my Powerhouse for God project, or the even more musical chant of Old Regular Baptist preachers). I concluded by saying that my appeal for a sound commons for all creatures, and current studies of animal sound communication, are a continuation of this lifelong pursuit of sound.