Revelations in Memphis: New encounters with Ol’ Time religious music

I recently traveled to Memphis, Tennessee one of America’s most musically significant cities. From W.C. Handy’s blues to the clubs on Beale Street to the pioneering labels Sun Records, Stax Records, and Hi Records, Memphis is a touchstone in the development of classic blues, proto-rock ‘n’ roll, and the “Southern soul” branch of R&B. Memphis is pivotal in the musical legacies of Al Green, B. B. King, Ann Peebles, Elvis Presley, Otis Redding, Dusty Springfield, and Carla Thomas among other notable artists.

The exterior of the historic Sun Records. Photo by Vincent L. Stephens.

The exterior of the historic Sun Records. Photo by Vincent L. Stephens.

An under recognized part of Memphis’s music heritage are the gospel sounds emanating from its nearly 2000 (mostly Protestant) places of worship. Though Tennessee is obviously part of the “Bible Belt” surveying a variety of sources revealed  more specific information on the high percentages of Tennesseans who identify as “very religious,” the state’s high concentration of megachurches (large Protestant congregations with 2000+ regular attendees ), and the high numbers of churches per capita. Both Memphis and its home state are among the more religiously oriented locales in the country.

My recent visit was my third trip to Memphis in four years as I travel professionally with a group of students studying the Civil Rights movement and Southern culture annually during spring break. Among our many stops is a trip to the Sunday worship service at Monumental Baptist Church, an inclusive church known as the “Friendly church on the Parkway.” Monumental is also famous for the long tenure of their pastor (now pastor emeritus) Reverend Samuel “Billy” Kyles. Kyles is a theologian and community activist who was one of the last people to interact with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. prior to his assassination in 1968. As a pastor and organizer Reverend Kyles has contributed to the fight for social justice well into the present. As the students and I perused the impressive walls of photos in his office featuring figures like Dr. King, Nelson Mandela, Harry Belafonte, Bill Clinton, and various other notables, one could see a continuum of social justice history unfolding before them in an abbreviated form.

Monumental is a predominantly black church characterized by “the preacher, the music, and the frenzy” W.E.B. DuBois described in 1903’s classic The Souls of Black Folk. It is the music that I turn to here. Though I have identified as a humanist-ethicist for years I was raised in a Christian household. For the first few years of my life my parents were Seventh-Day Adventists, and then they converted to Protestantism, particularly the Baptist tradition. As a child I found church boring and repetitive except for the music. Though most choirs are composed of untrained singers a lack of formal “classical” training differs greatly from a lack of skill.

Historic photo of Reverend Samuel "Billy" Kyles, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other luminaries featured in Rev. Kyles's office at Monumental Baptist Church in Memphis. Photo by Vincent L. Stephens.

Historic photo of Reverend Samuel "Billy" Kyles, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other luminaries featured in Rev. Kyles's office at Monumental Baptist Church in Memphis. Photo by Vincent L. Stephens.

Black Protestant churches are the source of training for many of our greatest singers (i.e. Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin) and the root of many signature techniques in popular music (i.e. melisma, call-and-response vocal arrangements). As a wonderful exhibit in the freshly renovated National Civil Rights Museum illustrates, churches were as much community centers as they were centers of worship for African-Americans who relied on churches, benevolent societies, and fraternal organizations to sustain themselves during and beyond Jim Crow era discrimination and apartheid.

As such many African-Americans, regardless of denomination, have some level of relationship to religious institutions. To return to my story, I recall having many positive developmental experiences in the churches of my childhood such as being a Cub Scout, and learning about religious history. But, as I developed more intellectually and politically during adolescence I began questioning many aspects of Christianity, as practiced in the Baptist context, ranging from attitudes about reproductive rights to negative characterizations of sexual and gender diversity. After being essentially forced to attend church as a teenager I was relieved by the spiritual autonomy offered in college; no more obligatory Sundays. Like many college students I adapted a “spiritual not religious” stance typical of college students. I still clung to the emotional safety of the Protestant belief structure and the amorphous beauty of “faith” but wrestled with its implications as practiced by many preachers and their followers.

Looking back, my stance was a rejection of childhood teachings and a subtler rebellion against social expectations. After all, I grew in up in a city where it was normal for people to ask you “And what is your church home?” without blinking. Gradually, as I matured into early adulthood I shifted from a reactionary approach to a more informed and deliberate embrace of an ethically based humanism with room for the intangibles of life. These beliefs surfaced the first time I attended Monumental’s service in 2012 when my co-chaperone and I reviewed the agenda of previous trips. We both viewed this stop with some antipathy. I was particularly concerned that a “fire and brimstone” approach would alienate students, and that I was compromising my beliefs by regressing to the naturalized “authority” of church, which was off-putting mentally.

Realizing there was no coffee shop or alternative spot to hang out at during the service before we arrived, I decided to approach the service open heartedly. Having not attended church formally in years I was surprised at the familiarity, and humbled by the warm and welcoming congregation. Reverend Kyles’s sermon was a stirring parable about authenticity. Building up to his sermon were numerous rituals (i.e. Bible recitations, announcements, tithes and offerings) including the highlight: multiple choral performances. Though I can’t recall the exact songs from 2012 the soloists (female and male) were dynamic, bending notes purposefully, and the choir exemplified the antiphonal (call and response) tradition with its perfect timing, led ably by the musical director and band. This tradition continued during my visit in 2013 and 2015.

The interesting musical quandary this evoked for me is the odd emotional placement of the formal and performative qualities of spiritual music in our lives. Though the Christian philosophy intrinsic to gospel music differs from my chosen life philosophy I enjoy much of the music. When a student once remarked “That’s the best music I’ve ever heard in my life! Do they sing like that every Sunday?” I remember nodding my head and saying “Yes. And sometimes on Wednesdays too!”

Surveying my personal musical collection I have a surprisingly large number of gospel albums for a humanist including Aretha Franklin’s classic 1972 album Amazing Grace, collections by gospel legends Mahalia Jackson and Marion Williams, and more recent recordings by jazz vocalist Bobby McFerrin, country singer Ronnie Milsap, and a group of female singers paying tribute to the great Rosetta Tharpe. Gospel repertoire also routinely informs the discographies of many of my favorite singers including Maria Muldaur and Aaron Neville. The best gospel, like any genre, often transcends its original context and appeals to the senses of listeners purely as music.

Understanding the innovations of classic blues composer W.C. Handy, master musician B.B. King, and other Memphis music legends is incomplete without understanding the ways gospel has factored into the musical foundations of so many benchmark performers with Memphis roots. Various Memphis museums including the Civil Rights Museum, the Rock and Soul Museum, and Stax acknowledge the gospel roots of R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, and soul. But I fear that audiences view its impact in cursory fashion as a mere ingredient in a stew. My most recent Memphis trip reminded me of the raw appeal of traditional melodic gospel music and its inescapable influence on the shape of 20th and 21st century “pop” music across genre. Like many “former believers” I have an abject relationship to Christianity. The music, more than anything, ties me to the tradition, and that’s not such a bad thing.