Archive for African-American

Twelve gates to the city

Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues, and spoke to me, saying, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And in the Spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed; on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. 

Revelation 21: 9-13



I first learned about Clara Ward from Horace Clarence Boyer, who came to my church one Trinity Sunday for a workshop and concert. Ward composed what is probably my favorite of all gospel hymns, “How I Got Over.”


Speaking truth, shining light

I think as journalists, clearly we are professionals. Clearly, this is what we signed up to do, and we can’t let any of this fog our vision. We have to be clear-headed and sober in digesting this information, analyzing what’s going on. But I think as journalists who are also humans, I don’t think we do a good enough job identifying that there actually is a weight here, that this does take a toll in some way. I think we’re taught to be vigilant, and courageous, and speak the truth and shine light in very dark places, but that means you have to go to very dark places and shine light. That can take a lot out of you.

Trymaine Lee speaking with Gene Demby of NPR about the personal toll of covering the interactions between African-Americans and police in Ferguson, Mo. in the year after Michael Brown’s death.


The Lectionary has had me reading Acts this month, and it’s not a comforting read. Every day it’s preaching and beatings, imprisonment, court appearances, and so much posturing and conniving by various officials. I am following Paul from city to city, but no matter where the story goes, what I’m feeling is “no way out.”

So I was thinking about Paul when I read a passage in Mark. Speaking of coming persecutions Jesus says, “But take heed to yourselves; for they will deliver you up to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them.” (Mark 13:9)

And for the first time I saw the trials as a form of stealth–how else would you get an audience to witness to these people? You have to stand before the council. It’s the only way in, and we have to get in, but it’s a dark and dangerous path and it’s almost certainly a one way trip.

I believe that Christians, like journalists, are called to go to the dark places to speak truth and shine light. We cannot be content that there is darkness in the world or that we will always have the poor. But I feel the fear. And like the third servant in the Parable of the Talents, I know that God is demanding and the world is harsh, and I am tempted to bury my faith instead of trying to convince others to share it.

The lesson, I suppose, is that whether you act or fail to act, there is always a cost. There is no dodge. It’s what we signed on for, but we’re told the Spirit will give us words, so in the darkness we might proclaim light.



Couldn’t keep it to myself

Life of Christ Visualized: no.2053 1943 Photo: VCU Libraries

Life of Christ Visualized: no.2053 1943
Image: VCU Libraries


As he was now drawing near, at the descent of the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” And some of the Pharisees in the multitude said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”

 Luke 19:37-40


I said I wasn’t gonna tell nobody, but I couldn’t keep it to myself…
what the Lord has done for me.
You oughta been there when He saved my soul.
That Sunday morning when He put my name on the roll.
I started walking, started talking, started singing, started shouting
about what the Lord has done for me. 

–Professor Alex Bradford

My soul is a witness

Your life is shaped by by the songs your parents teach you. Mine was, at least. And among the many, many songs we sang in the kitchen, in the car, in the bathtub, (really, where didn’t we sing?) were spirituals. From as far back as I can remember, we sang “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “I Got Shoes.” They were just as familiar as the “Itsy Bitsy Spider” when I was growing up.

I will always have a special fondness for spirituals.  I love the tunes and the power of the imagery. I love the way the songs tell stories. So it’s a great pleasure when I discover a spiritual that’s new to me, or hear a new take on a familiar tune. This recording of “Witness” is one of those musical delights. It’s thrilling to hear singer Valentina Oriani and guitarist Marco Squicciarini weave in and out, around the tune and one another.  A terrific way to start the week.



Oh Lord, what manner of man is this?
All nations in him are blest,
all things are done by his will;
he spoke to the sea and the sea stood still.

Now, ain’t that a witness for my Lord?
Ain’t that a witness for my Lord? (2x)
My soul is a witness for my Lord.

Now there was a man of the Pharisees,
His name was Nicodemus and he didn’t believe.
The same came to Christ by night.
Wanted to be taught out of human sight.
Nicodemus was a man who desired to know
how a man can be born when he is old.
Christ told Nicodemus as a friend,
“Man you must be born again.”
Said, “Marvel not, man, if you wanna be wise,
Repent, believe and be baptized”.

Then you’ll be a witness for my Lord,
You’ll be a witness for my Lord (2x)

My soul is a witness for my Lord.

Now you read about Samson, from his birth
strongest man that ever lived on earth,
‘way back yonder in ancient times
he killed ten thousand Philistines.
Then old Samson went wandering about;
Samson’s strength was never found out
Till his wife sat upon his knee.
She said: “Tell me where your strength lies, if you
Now, Samson’s wife, she talk so fair,
Samson said: “Cut off my hair,
shave my head as you clean your hand
and my strength will become like a natural man”.

Old Samson was a witness for my Lord. (3x)
My soul is a witness for my Lord.

There’s another witness for my Lord. (3x)
My soul is a witness for my Lord.

Ecstatic Praise: the Sound of Sacred Steel

I Feel Like Pressing My Way, Ricky Fowler and Robert Randolph on Arhoolie Records’ Train Don’t Leave Me 


They say that confession is good for the soul, so I have a confession: I love the sound of slide guitar.  It’s pretty serious.  Son House, Elmore James, the Allman Brothers–they all thrill me. When I first heard Robert Randolph play and began to learn about Sacred Steel, it was a gift from heaven. Really? God and that sinuous sound? In church? Oh, just take me there.

The Sacred Steel tradition comes out of the House of God, Keith Dominion church, and the Church of the Living God (Jewell Dominion). It’s praise music, it’s loud, and you don’t just sit still and listen.  Like all the best church music, it’s about giving God your whole being. And like liturgy, it’s a way to reenact the drama of the Christian story in worship and experience God’s presence.

Robert Stone has written about the development of sacred steel and directed a documentary film, produced by Arhoolie and the Documentary Arts foundation. You can view the trailer here.

Fighting the urge to go on at length, I will only give you two recordings of Sacred Steel (today), both of which I came to through Robert Randolph–an amazing pedal steel guitarist who’s played with Eric Clapton, Dave Matthews, Santana, and many others.  Randolph brought together a group of House of God musicians for the recently released Slide Brothers. I’ve never heard anyone play “Wade in the Water” like they do. Think: Deep Purple fronted by Stevie Wonder and Jimi Hendrix.

Hope you enjoy!

The Electric Word – Gospel Funk from The Relatives


Today we hear of a musical resurrection: I first came across this story on NPR, then on the Brooklyn Vegan and Heavy Light Records website.

In 1970, the Revs. Gean and Tommie West started a gospel group called The Relatives. The Relatives were Texas legends in the ’70s, playing genre-bending gospel and psychedelic soul and sharing bills with The Staple Singers, The Mighty Clouds of Joy, and The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi.  By 1980 the group disbanded, but a few years ago a Texas DJ and record collector contacted the group about a reunion. Now they’ve released their first album of original work in 30 years: The Electric Word on Yep Roc Records, and they’re on tour.

If you can’t catch The Relatives live, Heavy Light Records has put out a compilation of their obscure 45s from the 1970s, and they have a YouTube channel –so you can listen while you’re waiting for the CD to arrive in the mail.



Ain’t no grave can hold my body down

The only time I ever got stopped for speeding was early one Sunday morning when I was driving to church listening to this song.  It was surely grace and mercy that kept me getting a ticket, for I do believe that, though I wasn’t going more than 10 miles over the speed limit I was in fact flying. Transported.

I love hearing Bozie Sturdivant sing this song.


But it wasn’t until years later I learned that, while Sturdivant was the first to record “Ain’t No Grave,” the song was actually written by a Pentecostal Holiness preacher named Brother Claude Ely. Listen to his version. It’s the same song, but what a difference! Sturdivant sings like a man pulling against heavy chains. Claude Ely is out to blind Death with a bright light and escape on wings of joy.


So where did this song come from? Claude Ely was born in Pucketts Creek, Virginia in 1922. As an adult he became a traveling revival preacher, driving from city to city. By one account, “He would drive a car, steering it with one hand, and with the other he would announce with a bullhorn, ‘Later tonight at 7:00, I’ll have a tent set up in the middle of town, please come out and experience the fire and Holy Ghost.'” Gladys Presley and her son Elvis went to one of those meetings.

Brother Ely’s ministry and influence spread. He become the first Pentecostal Holiness recording artist signed to a major label for strictly sacred music and songs.  “Ain’t No Grave” became so well-known that today it is sometimes credited simply as “traditional,” as it is on Johnny Cash’s posthumous release. Cash’s interpretation of “Ain’t No Grave” has since became the foundation of a global collective art work, The Johnny Cash Project.

“Ain’t No Grave” is one of those songs you can’t believe somebody wrote. There are so many versions and they are so different. Each one powerful, haunting, defiant, triumphant. How can one human creation become the vehicle for all these individual expressions of the collective hope? How can a person be open enough to let that much of the Spirit flow into the world? How can a three-minute song reveal the miracle of the Church–we, though many, are one. One body in Christ.

When the final trumpet sounds, I’ll be getting up, walking around. Ain’t no grave can hold my body down.

Faith is your steering wheel

You’re probably familiar with images of the Old Ship of Zion and the Gospel Train, but in 1957 the Dixie Hummingbirds updated the mode of transportation for the journey to heaven.  “Christian’s Automobile” features the incomparable Ira Tucker, who sang with the group for an astonishing 70 years.  Like many of the gospel train songs, this one is both serious and playful as the metaphor gets stretched further and further.  Tucker tells us

You gotta check on your tires
You got a rough road ahead
And when you are weary from your journey
God will put you to bed….

You’ve gotta check on your lights
And see your own faults
Stop while you can see them, children
Or your soul will be lost….

But my favorite image comes at the end, when Tucker sings:

And I’m not worried
About my parking space
I just want to see,
See my Savior face to face

What better way to express “I go to prepare a place for you” and the hope of the beatific vision at the time when Americans dreamed of seeing the U.S.A. in a Chevrolet.

Prayer is your driver’s license.

With sweet accord

Isaac Watts (1674-1748)
from: Project Gutenberg eText 18444


I’m constantly being surprised by the unlikely, peregrine paths of grace.

There was a time when English church singing was limited to settings of Biblical poetry and especially the Psalms. Isaac Watts (1674-1748), a prolific and popular writer of over 500 hymns, helped to change that.  His works (which include “Joy to the World” and “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”) are now sung worldwide by Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Pentecostals, and Episcopalians.



Here’s a well-known Watts hymn, “We’re Marching to Zion” (sometimes titled “Come Ye That Love the Lord”) from The Redemption Hymnal.



Most of us are familiar with this type of congregational singing. Another form of hymn singing is “lining out,” a form of call and response where the leader first sings a line which is then repeated by the congregation. Lining out was especially useful in churches with few hymnals and many people who could not read.  In African-American musical tradition, lining out is also known as “Dr. Watts hymn singing” though not all of the texts sung were written by Watts. This words to this hymn, “I Love the Lord, He Heard My Cry,” first appeared in Watts’ The Psalms of David


And if being a hymnist was not enough, Watts was also a logician.  His logic textbook Logic, or The Right Use of Reason in the Enquiry After Truth With a Variety of Rules to Guard Against Error in the Affairs of Religion and Human Life, as well as in the Sciences, went through 20 editions over the course of a hundred years. His writings for children were so well known that one of his poems was parodied by Lewis Carroll (himself a logician). But of all these many accomplishments, Isaac Watts is best remembered as the “Father of English Hymnody” who enriched Christians’ experience of worship in ways he could surely never have imagined.