Setting The Intention
Why 'God's Music Is My Life' Is Here
God’s Music Is My Life. That’s quite a statement, isn’t it? It has stayed in the corner of my mind since I first heard the Benny Cummings and King’s Temple Choir album that had that title. I was beginning a research project for my undergraduate thesis when I finally found that hard-to-come-by album. But as a then-forty-year-old-undergraduate student, that title felt very much like it could be my autobiography.
I’d spent the front end of my life pursuing life as both a soul and gospel singer. Gospel grabbed me in my infancy and never let me go. The first fourteen years or so of my life were lived in my grandparents’ white evangelical church. I sang publicly for the first time at three, standing on a Folgers’ coffee tin so people could see me above the tall podium. My first solo, “We’re Blest” (yes, with a T), written by Margaret Douroux and popularized by Tammy Faye Bakker, is a huge indicator, only in retrospect, of the musical quest I would undertake.
It was, however, the sounds of Reba Rambo, Andrae Crouch & The Disciples, and The Hawkins Family that completely upended me. Together, they were a trinity of sorts: Reba, with her soulful Streisand-ish vocals and Laura Nyro-like lyrics set to an R&B-tinted landscape; Andrae and his Sly Stone-inspired take on gospel; and the Hawkins with their sophisticated arrangements, impeccable vocals, COGIC fire and Hollywood glamour.
I had no way of knowing when I first heard these groups in my first five years of life that they were interconnected, but finding those connections would become my obsession. While some kids took interest in deconstructing gadgets to understand how they worked, mine was taking the music apart. I wanted to find the threads that connected it all into one large fabric.
In my early teens I escaped my grandparents’ church in my first existential crisis. My grandparents modeled their ministry, theologically, off of the most extreme televangelists that could be found. Contemporary Christian Music was, in their minds, an evil that would certainly destroy the church. Movies were a mortal sin. I went to a Baptist elementary school that reinforced these values. Boys’ hair was measured for length. If it touched the top of our collar, we were punished. Girls’ skirt lengths were measured. If they rose a certain number of inches above their knees, they were also punished. Rigid. But, thankfully, a local gospel talent showcase had helped me find a world outside of my grandparents’ ministry--a world I did not imagine existed in St. Petersburg, Florida.
New Covenant Holiness Church, founded by Mother Belle Scott and pastored by Abraham Dancil, became my home. It was there that I was born again. The music was otherworldly. Testimony service could go on for two hours or more if the spirit was high. I was too young to join the adult choir, but the Senior Choir was quick to note that they had no age restrictions, so I was the only person under 60 in the group. What a gift that experience was. They took me back to the beginnings of gospel.
But my biggest, and most important lessons, were learned when services were over, when my relationships with the various families in the church took me into their homes, their lives and community. It was a crash course in critical race theory. Everything I’d ever been told by my grandparents and teachers in white evangelicalism was clearly wrong. Intentionally so, actually. New Covenant was a mecca of people who held a range of beliefs in every way. It was here, I understood for the first time, a phrase I would hear years later in feminist circles, the personal is political. Everything I’d seen as compartmentalized was all becoming a beautiful one.
My only contention was the same divide between the sacred and the secular remained rigidly in place. Secular music was forbidden. I quickly realized that I still needed to hide my non-gospel music. In my early days at the church, I naively told one of the mothers I was going to a blues concert. I never did that again. Ironically, we were called The Loose Church in our community. We came from a community of churches who forbade women to wear makeup, jewelry, or be ordained after a divorce. We’d broken from our denomination so that women could do those things. We were seen as the worldly ones. Which always kept me asking internally, why are we still making this distinction in regards to music? If we’re going to question some of it, let’s question all of it.
But my curiosity kept me unravelling the spool, determined to find the core, not just of the music, but of my theology, the core values I felt, but didn’t yet have words for.
By the time life took me from Florida to Nashville to New York, back to Nashville, then to Charlotte, and then back, again, to New York for college in my late thirties, I had actually already lived my life as a student of both music and theology. I’d recorded three albums, studied Buddhism (and failed miserably), lived in a pagan community, worked for an interfaith press, and maintained my roots in the holiness church. Seeking the larger picture never diminished the latter as my core. When I had a near-death experience in 2012, it was the New Life Singers, Aretha Franklin and James Cleveland whose music pulled me through.
It was during my recuperation from that experience that another world-melding form of music would, in a sense, complete the puzzle for me. While on bed rest, I came across Radical Harmonies, a documentary about the world of Women’s Music. Women’s Music emerged during the second wave of feminism in the early 1970’s, and became a massive force in the Women’s Movement. When I heard three guitar strums of Meg Christian’s “Valentine Song” in the documentary, I was dissolved. This was heart music. I went on an online hunt and the albums were nowhere to be found on the internet, shy of a song or two on YouTube. I began buying what I could find on eBay.
A few days after seeing Radical Harmonies, another documentary emerged, Raise Your Voice, which was the story of Sweet Honey in the Rock, a group led by Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon. They were the culmination of it all: they fused gospel, folk, blues, and protest music with Women’s Music. I bought what I could on iTunes and let myself soak in the realized vision: gospel with an intentional political and ideological consciousness.
Returning to college was, for me, all about connecting these dots. In my four years on the State University of New York’s New Paltz and Albany campuses, I completed two undergraduate theses and a dozen or so additional research papers delving deeply into the worlds of Gospel, Contemporary Christian and Women’s Music. I moved to Massachusetts after being accepted into a doctoral program, but was greeted by another existential crisis.
The same challenges and incongruences I’d found in the church met me in academia. I heard a lot of over-used lingo, but not a lot of connection with what was being said. They wanted to indoctrinate new believers and create disciples, but without any emotion. No soul. I thought about my godmother in New Covenant, refusing the platform, singing from her seat, typically without a microphone and captivating the entire building. Because, in those moments, it was all just real. That drew all of us. It became clear to me in the first weeks of that singular semester in graduate school (that I did not complete!) there would be no core shaking happening there. No. In that world, I would only write a lot of words and wait for critics to take them apart, find what they perceived to be wrong with them and attempt to have another “vigorous” discussion. I wanted to be more than a talking head. And talking heads were all that I was surrounded by. I wanted to take this music, much of which has been largely forgotten and laid to the wayside, to real people who were more likely to be moved, somehow changed by it.
I quit graduate school and my spouse and I returned home to Nashville with the intention of reigniting our lives as creatives. The pandemic shut the world down a week before we were scheduled to host our first house concert. But even pandemics can have purpose, so we began retooling. I began a web series called Have You Ever Heard…? as a starting place for those conversations. Challenges with the common social media sites, however, became hindrances for the visibility of threads and for communicating with people who do not utilize those common sites. And hence God’s Music Is My Life came to be.
God’s Music Is My Life is not exclusively about gospel music. It is about the Spirit force of all music. There is no disconnection, ever. There are only realms. Life in only one of those realms may be desired, but it is never, actually, possible. It should make, however, the ecstasy of that highest realm all the more special when we are there. Life in The Loose Church taught me that.
I hope that the music I raise here resonates with you. I want us to communicate about it. I’m always thrilled when people emerge and say “I hadn’t thought about that album in years!” or, even better, “I’ve never heard that album and now I’m in love with it!” Music has always been the place that my transformations began. Where would I have landed if Leslie “Sam” Phillips had never mustered the courage to record The Turning and burn the bridge between her and evangelicalism down? Or if the New York Community Choir hadn’t dared to bear the scorn of church folks by taking gospel into the discos with their universalist message? Maybe I’d be a follower, conforming, not knowing any better. But these artists awakened me and their work remains an active and activating force every time we dust off the albums and bear witness. That’s why this music really is my life. My hope is that the histories collected here aid you in hearing the music in a new way and that the artists’ themselves recognize just how much of an impact they’ve made in their listeners’ lives.
Be sure to read Part II to this post! Click here.