Last Sunday, I went to Newark to attend the evening services of a Negro congregation known as The Church of God in Christ, where Brother Utah Smith, a traveling evangelist of that denomination, was closing his engagement. Brother Smith is a stocky gentleman in the mid-forties, neither old nor young, whose musical accomplishments had been signaled to me by swing experts. He is known, in religious circles, as The One-Man Band, was so introduced, in fact, by the local pastor. His whole musical equipment is an electric guitar, his only vestment an ordinary sack suit of dark blue with a pair of white wings made of feathered paper attached to his shoulders like a knapsack by crossed bands of white tape.
His religious message is delivered more by music and dancing than by preaching. Only after the preliminary prayers, solos, and congregational hymns are over does he take charge of the meeting. Then, an open space is cleared between the chancel rail and the first congregational seats. These last are allowed to be wholly occupied, no mourners’ bench being reserved at all, since the nature of the service is one rather of general rejoicing than of personal penitence. The Brother makes a few remarks to the congregation, and then, without any formal address or other preface, goes straight into his number, if I may so refer, without irreverance, to his music-making.
He plays the guitar with a high pick-up that fills the auditorium with a rich and booming sonority. He does not sing. He only plays and, like all swingsters, pats his foot. His musical fancy is of the highest order. I have rarely heard such intricate and interesting swing. From time to time, he shouts: “I’ve got wings! Dust my feet!” Persons in the congregation reply with: “Dust my feet!” with “Praise the Lord!” and similar ceremonial phrases, as is customary among many colored religious groups. Practically everybody claps his hands in time to the music, claps on the off-beat, as is also customary in swing circles.
The music goes on for quite a long time, the Brother swinging chorus after chorus with ever-increasing fantasy and insistence. Various persons of the congregation who feel so inclined first edge timidly toward the edge of the open space and, then, one by one, start dancing. Each dances alone, some with raised and some with lowered head, all with eyes closed. Some jerk a little; others do rapid and complex footwork. The floor sways with their impact as if about to collapse. When the music stops, the dancers come out of their trancelike absorption and regain their seats as calmly as persons leaving any ballroom floor.
At no time, during my stay, did I observe any licentious behavior or other evidence that the ceremony was not a bona fide religious manifestation. Brother Smith, himself, though full of humor and jollity, and not without a certain naive showmanship, impressed me as sincere. And if I was not conscious, during my one brief visit to his services, of any extraordinary or commanding inspiration in them, neither was I aware of anything that might make me think them phony.
In any case, his musical gift is real and his musical imagination abundant. I am, consequently, taking occasion this Easter Sunday to make reference to what struck me as an interesting musical manifestation and to point an example, from contemporary life, of the truism that, in those societies or groups where religion is most vigorous, there is no difference whatever between the sacred and the secular music styles, the consideration of what is sacred and what is profane in music applying only to the moral prestige in society of the ceremonies that it accompanies. As a swing artist, Brother Smith is worthy to rank among the best. As a stimulator of choric transports, he incites the faithful to movements and behavior not very different from those of any true jitterbug. Myself, I found it distinctly pleasant to hear good swing and to observe its effects in surroundings imbued with the white magic of Protestant Christianity rather than among alcoholic stupidities and even more somber diabolisms of the nightclub world.
From: “Sacred Swing,” by Virgil Thomson, in Music Reviewed, 1940-1954 by Virgil Thomson (New York: Vintage Books, 1967), pp. 39-41. Originally published in the New York Herald Tribune on April 13, 1941.
Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) was an American composer, critic, and author. He was the classical music critic for the New York Herald Tribune from 1940 to 1954. Thomson was raised a Baptist in Kansas City, Missouri, and his being raised on Baptist hymns had a strong influence on his compositions. His upbringing also meant that, for a review such as this and the one which will appear in tomorrow’s post, he felt himself in familiar surroundings when reviewing religious music – unlike most modern composers.