Robert Marovich’s latest book traces gospel music’s origins and honors those who devoted themselves to the gospel by showing how various, and how important, that devotion has been.
Today gospel performers, like Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples, are widely respected not only for their music, but for their association with the civil rights movement and the black liberation struggle. Jackson is even thought to have prodded Martin Luther King, Jr. to launch into his “I Have a Dream” speech. But gospel’s status, and respectability, was not always so secure. In fact, according to Robert M. Marovich’s new study of Chicago gospel, A City Called Heaven, there was a time when gospel was seen as decidedly unrespectable — as a scandal and a disgrace.
In 1920s Chicago, Marovich explains, religious worship was centered in mainline Protestant churches, and the music was decidedly refined. “The community’s preoccupation with classical music training and performance was prompted by not only middleclass upward mobility,” Marovich writes, “but also the expectation that the world would at last recognize that blacks could write, perform, and appreciate classical music.” The inrush of Southern migrants, with a more demonstrative form of worship linked to blues, jazz, and to West African traditions, was greeted with uncertainty. Marovich quotes one Cleveland resident declaring that God “doesn’t want us to be jazz band pilots or jazz babies and be filled with the devil’s spirits. He wants us to be clean and holy and be filled with the Holy ghost.”
The skeptics were eventually won over, of course, and gospel greats like writer Thomas Dorsey and singer and performer Roberta Martin became revered mainstays of Chicago’s African-American religious and musical life. But at the same time, the concern with a certain kind of cleanliness and respectability persisted. Mahalia Jackson, for example, had a number of offers to perform as a vocalist with jazz greats like Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines, but she refused, on the grounds that to sing secular music would be an abandonment of her calling. And yet, despite such precautions, Jackson did not avoid scandal. In 1944, she and gospel pioneer Rosetta Tharpe were photographed next to the Rhumboogie nightclub. An erroneous caption said the two had actually attended a show there — causing much consternation. “A significant mandate in the gospel music community,” Marovich says, “especially at that time, was not to ‘backslide,’ or cross over from a clean lifestyle to a sinful life” — and nightclubs were certainly part of the sinful life. As a result of the photo, Jackson was banned from some churches, though her career was already firmly enough established that she suffered no lasting harm.
Marovich’s book isn’t about gospel respectability per se; it’s a history of the music, focused on cataloguing and honoring the many groups and performers — from Jackson to relative unknowns — who contributed to the city’s gospel legacy. But still, the issue of respectability, or authenticity, runs through his narrative. Gospel was an expression of African-American religion and community. But it was also a commercial enterprise, and different artists negotiated those commercial and religious tensions in different ways. Roberta Martin, organizer of the famed Roberta Martin Singers, refused to play the Apollo theater in New York because she believed it would be a betrayal of the gospel. Sam Cooke, on the other hand, left the Soul Stirrers to become a massively successful pop star, boosting his earnings from some $400 a week to more than $100,000 a year. Gospel singer Betty Lester heard Cooke singing pop on the radio and said, “I was so hurt that he had switched over, but as I got older, I began thinking, well, he has a family to support.”
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