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.
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.”
The world is full of a number of things, and too many of them, I fear, have found their way into my possession. Some of them cause me to wonder “Why did I buy this?” and “Why am I keeping this?” but in this great world of things there are also a very few others that I wish I had picked up and didn’t. The item above is one of the latter.
I found it on a shelf of “miscellaneous stuff” in the Goodwill store in a small community in Southwest Virginia. At the time, I only knew it was quirky, and I didn’t have a use for it, so I took a picture and left it behind. To my surprise, this curious object kept visiting my mind, and in the years since I snapped that picture, I’ve pondered its significance and charm. Now I think I finally understand what it means.
The treasure I found that day is a handmade, plastic-canvas phone book cover. As I recall, plastic canvas needlepoint was particularly popular during the late 1970s and early ’80s, though it doesn’t appear to have ever really gone away. I can’t date this cover with great specificity, but the plastic canvas, the redesign of the Bell logo in 1969, and the breakup of the Bell System in 1984 suggest a time between the mid-’70s and mid ’80s.
What struck me first about this piece was the juxtaposition of symbols–Jesus and Ma Bell side by side–the sacred and the secular. That’s unusual of course, but as I thought about it more, I also realized how much time and love went into creating this cover. Who would take such care and why?
When this cover was first created, phone books mattered. Back in the day, phone books described and connected communities–particularly small communities. We all had each others’ numbers–it was rare that one should be unlisted. Our phones were attached to the wall, and a telephone directory was always near by. We used them daily–white pages and yellow pages, looking up names, addresses, and phone numbers–the cheap paper becoming dog-eared and torn with heavy use. A phone book might actually wear out! and so a cover like this would protect and personalize year after year, as each new book was slipped inside to replace the old.
But even if we can understand why someone would labor to make a telephone book cover, why would they put a cross on the back? What does Jesus have to do with telephones? What were they thinking?
It was the needlepoint that gave me a clue. Plastic canvas, often used for making tissue box and even iPod cozies, is surely a descendant of the punched paper mottos loved by the Victorians. You’ve probably seen examples of perforated card-board work made possible by new printing technologies. At the turn of the century, framed samplers proclaiming “God Bless This House” and “Give us this Day our Daily Bread” were displayed in many parlors. Perhaps the creator of the needlepoint cover had seen such samplers too, and so need and materials and tradition came together one person’s imagination and a plastic canvas phone book cover was created. A variation, perhaps, on the Bible cover. Probably unique.
I wish I had rescued that homemade cover from the Goodwill. It’s really rather extraordinary if you think about it. Someone once cared about their community, and the book that kept them connected. They wanted to protect the book and probably their neighbors. Someone wanted to make a statement, and they wanted to do it artfully. And this thing is evidence of that desire. I hate to see such things pass, though I know they often must.
Jesus and Ma Bell, wrapping their arms around this small community. Blessed be the ties.
US 501 North of Durham, NC Photo credit: Jim Saintsing
A friend of mine took this picture and it reminded me of a gospel favorite by Thomas A. Dorsey and Mary Gardner, performed here with Alex Bradford. If you don’t know about Thomas A. Dorsey, you should. He’s the composer of Take My Hand Precious Lord, Peace in the Valley, When the Gates Swing Open, and many, many more. This is just a taste.
On May 13, 1970 Johnny Cash and his mother, Carrie Rivers Cash, performed “The Unclouded Day” on The Johnny Cash Show. She accompanied him on piano just as she did when he sang this hymn for his first public performance at the age of 12. Cash clearly enjoyed their duet and if you listen closely as the audience applauds, you can hear him tell his mother, “That was perfect.”
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.
If you haven’t yet heard the Soweto Gospel Choir, then you owe it to yourself to listen to their Tiny Desk Concert on NPR. Their music is so joyful and infectious, it’s difficult to hear without moving. A good way to start the new year with sounds of praise!
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.