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.”
The contradiction is that, in some ways, Cooke’s crossover success was actually in line with the dreams of the old line Baptist churches, which had looked down their noses at gospel. Cooke achieved the kind of mainstream success and accolades that the Baptist worshippers hoped to snare with their classical training. And so, for that matter, did Mahalia Jackson, who shifted her repertoire from gospel towards pop spirituals like “Rusty Old Halo,” and appeared in 1958 on the Dinah Shore show — the first black guest on the program. Jackson even had her own television show in 1954, though it was cancelled in 1955, because or “sponsors feared offending southern white customers” according to Marovich. Despite such ongoing racism, at least some (though by no means all) other gospel performers also managed successful careers. Singer Sallie Martin, for example, established a hugely lucrative music publishing house, becoming one of Chicago’s leading African-American business women.
Gospel, then, had numerous cultural and social meanings. As a form of specifically African-American communal expression, it served as a way for people such as Roberta Martin to show their loyalty to their community and their faith. As a commercial endeavor, it served as a platform for at least some black people to break barriers and accumulate power and influence in the teeth of racism. And, of course, as Marovich details towards the end of the book, gospel became, during the civil rights movement, and even before, a vehicle for social protest and an expression of struggle. Jackson’s rendition of “I’ve Been Buked and I’ve Been Scorned” at the March on Washington was part of a tradition stretching back to the spirituals, in which black religious music was used to describe and protest against injustice. “Although only a handful of singers, such as Jackson, the Staples, Inez Andrews, and the Gospel Harmonettes’ Dorothy Love Coates, were Christian soldiers on active duty for the movement,” Marovich writes, “Most artists recognized the importance of lifting their voices in song to help the cause.” Many volunteered on gospel programs to raise funds for the civil rights movement.
Though here too, inevitably, numerous gospel musicians were accused of not doing enough, or of failing to commit sufficiently to the cause. Marovich’s book is in many ways a chronicle of gospel fans, performers, and devotees telling each other that they are in one way or another doing it wrong — performing too demonstratively, or in the wrong venue, or in the wrong way, for the wrong people. The criticism can seem excessive and narrow-minded at times, but it reflects, perhaps, how much has been at stake for gospel, as a music and a community. Gospel has, and has always had, a relatively small audience as American musical genres go, but in part because of that it’s born outsize hopes, dreams, and prayers. Keeping the faith — whether by refusing to appear at the Apollo or appearing with Dinah Shore — is a complicated process. A City Called Heaven honors those who devoted themselves to the gospel by showing how various, and how important, that devotion has been.