“What Are They Doing In Heaven Today?”
By Rev. Billy C. Wirtz
Each week Rev. Billy C. Wirtz tells us about artists, albums, and music that we need to know about. Sometimes he writes about other things.
In the past year or so, I’ve become aware of my growing obsession with gospel music. Many mornings with the sun coming up, I’ve wondered why I’ve become so determined not only to record it’s enormous impact on music, but to follow its thread, weaving in and out of all our lives virtually unnoticed for the past century, and its influence on our very culture of today.
I think I might be finally getting some answers.
Monday, 6 p.m.
I’m listening to Al Sharpton on MSNBC while fixing dinner.
Although I couldn’t see the set from the kitchen, there was no mistaking the sheer pride and admiration in his voice as he reminded us of this day’s significance for black Americans.
Actually, there was something else, there was a tone of wonderment bordering on disbelief, that after all these years, on the very steps where a young minister from Alabama had first dared to express the collective dream of black America, it was finally coming true.
A couple of minutes later, his guest was congresswomen Fredrica Wilson.
Decked in an outfit that resembled something that James Brown might have worn on the cover of his “country” album, she quoted a line from the song “What Are They Doing In Heaven Today?” written in 1907 by Charles Tindley. The earliest version was sung by Washington Phillips, a Texas guitar evangelist and contemporary of blind piano player named Arizona Dranes.
Think about it:
1926 – Arizona Dranes records several sides for Okeh Records. They have a major impact on a young blues singer named Georgia Tom.
Georgia Tom experiences a spiritual conversion and becomes Rev. Thomas Dorsey.
1936 – Rev. Thomas Dorsey, having absorbed the styles and rhythms of the secular bluesmen, the guitar evangelists, and Ms. Dranes, introduces a new style of music to the black church.
- His prize pupil is a young woman he nicknames “Halie.”
Halie becomes better known as Mahalia Jackson.
Around this time, there’s something happening in the pulpit, too.
It’s in the sermons of ministers like A.W. Nix, who warn about “A Dead Cat On The Line,” and J.M. Gates, who admonishes his congregation to not do business with chain stores. It’s these same churches, given the task of keeping a lid on black despair and self-destruction during a crippling depression, that allowed a new music to be played. This new music, with it’s insistent beat and emotional gymnastics, gave pent-up anger and frustration an acceptable release to its listeners and a chance of success and celebrity to its performers.
Originally considered by the old-line denominations as harmful and degrading to the black race, after a couple of false starts, it spreads like wildfire, especially in the Church Of God In Christ (COGIC), to black communities across America.
1963 – The March On Washington
Jackson sings, and a noticeable change comes over the crowd as two hundred thousand people experience what the Holiness churches describe as “The Anointing.” Feeling the presence of the spirit, following her selections Mahalia suggests to Dr. Martin Luther King that he keep the spirit alive and change his sermon from a prepared text to the one she’d seen leave them in the aisles of black churches entitled “The Dream.”
“…I Have A Dream” becomes one of the Civil Rights Movement’s defining moments, and takes its place alongside the Gettysburg Address as America’s history.
With such songs as “We Shall Overcome,” “You’ve Got To Move,” and “This Train” providing a soundtrack of hope and inspiration for the Civil Rights Movement, Americans of all ages and races, from Hollywood celebrities and sports figures, to members of my own family, become willing to face every manner of adversity for the right of all men and women to live free and equal.
2013: We elect a black man to the office of President of The United States Of America.
For the second time.
When President Obama spoke yesterday, he spoke with a fire and passion associated with black ministers. Actually, he wasn’t speaking, he was preaching, preaching in much the same manner as Martin Luther King in 1963, who was preaching the way he’d heard done as a young boy at Cavalry Church in Atlanta by Rev. J.M. Gates. Along with his famous sermons, Gates is often credited as being the first to feature the music of a young songwriter from Villa Ricca, Georgia, named Thomas Dorsey.
This music, first known as “God’s Good News,” offered hope to the hopeless and the prospect of deliverance from bondage to the modern-day children of Israel.
Over the years, “God’s Good News” or Gospel, as it’s more commonly known, has become the soundtrack for a movement that began in black churches and ended up, less than one hundred years later, in the White House.
As Barack took the oath of office, I couldn’t help but notice the almost childlike smile on Michelle’s face. It was smile of pride and joy.
Much like the ones I’m sure they’re wearing in heaven today.
Rev. Billy C. Wirtz is a weekly columnist at BluesWax. Each week he finds artists, albums, and music that you should know about. He also plays piano. His radio show, Rev. Billy’s Rhythm Revival, is available in podcast. To hear the latest, go to Rev. Billy C. Wirtz’ page on Facebook and look for the link.
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