The discussion on the necessity of belief to sing gospel music is really interesting. A lot of people have put real though thought into their posts and the rest of us appreciate it, I think. One of the reasons why this is so interesting is that much is based on experience. I'd like to know more about the experience of singing gospel, the effect it has had on the singer and on the audience. I am going to start it off with a story about what happened when I was singing in a bar in the Texas Panhandle. I'd be real curious about the effect that singing gospel music has had, especially on "unbelievers" and on audiences in a non church setting. It is a long story but it is, I think, pretty much to the point.
The only reason I was in Dumas, Texas was because I had seen the name on a map and remembering the song, "I'm a Ding Dong Daddy From Dumas", had somewhat impulsively decided to visit there. I was on one of my motorcycle trips across the US. I am always looking for ways to encourage myself to get off the Big-I's and onto the back roads. Going to Dumas would do that. Even though it was pretty close to the summer solstice, the weather had turned bad. By the time I reached Dumas, there was a cold raw wind and the sun was setting. As soon as I passed under a big street banner proclaiming that I was "Welcome to Dumas, Home of The Ding Dong Daddy", I started looking for a motel.
The Green Lantern looked good and I rolled n there. Luther Jeter was behind the desk and the warmth of his greeting started to reduce the chill I was feeling from the weather. He was interested in how somebody from Massachusetts happened to be in Dumas on a motorcycle and we talked for a bit. Then we got down to business, Soon we had agreed on a price, I'd filled out the forms and had the room key in my hand. Luther had one more question, "Have you had supper yet?" I told him no but I was going to be looking for a place to eat.
"I've got a supper club next door but the kitchen closes at 9:00, in five minutes." I told him that it sounded good but there was no way I could unload my bike and clean up in five minutes.
"How about fifteen minutes?"
I agreed that was doable. "Okay, I'll tell them to keep the kitchen open for you. They'll be expecting you."
I carried the saddlebags and the pack from the luggage rack into my home-for-the-night and did a quick washup because I was hungry and I appreciated Luther's thoughtfulness.. When I walked into the Green Lantern Bar and Supper Club I took a place at the bar.. I could have sat at one of the tables with the green checked tablecloths. There were probably thirty of them and only half had people sitting at them but they were couples and larger groups. I felt more comfortable on a stool. The bartender walked over, smiled pleasantly and drawled, "You the motorcycle guy from Massachusetts?" Luther had kept his world, they were expecting me. I said that was who I was and he handed me a menu. I ordered a Pearl beer while I read through it.
OI have always had a habit of ordering, almost reflexively, anything on a menu that looks or sounds unusual, exotic or seems to be something I have never tried. Since I had no idea what "calf fries" were, I ordered them.
A few moments later, Luther came in, sat on the stool next to me and signaled to the bartender that he wanted a Pearl too. "They taking good care of you?"
"Yup, I'm all set."
"What did you order?"
I told Luther that I had ordered the calf fries. I was a bit taken aback by the look of surprise that flitted across his face. Then he asked, somewhat cautiously I thought, "Do you know what calf fries are?" I admitted that I didn't and explained by habit of ordering exactly those things that were unfamiliar.
"Hmmm. I better not tell you, then or else you won't eat them."
I thought for a moment and said, "Okay, Luther, I think I just figured out what calf fries are." And I had. They were calf testicles, in this case soaked in milk, dredged in bread crumbs and sauteed. And they turned out to be good. In fact they reminded me of calves brains which I had eaten several times in French restaurants. (I think that also will give you some insight into the intellectual capacity of a bull calves.)
Luther gave me some privacy in which to eat my dinner but when I was nearly done, he came back and asked me how I had enjoyed it. I complimented his cook and learned that the calves testicles come in five gallon cans and are pretty popular at The Green Lantern Supper Club. Luther and I continued talking about one thing and another for a few minutes and then I mentioned that it looked as though he sometimes had live music at his club. There was a stage, microphones, a drum set, and a bass as well as a guitar in a stand. ""Just on weekends, "he said. This was a Wednesday. "But you wouldn't like t, it's all country and western.
I was mildly offended by that and decided to change Luther's mind. "Hey, not only do I like it, I even play it."
"Not real country and western, you're from Massachusetts, right?"
"Maybe, but I grew up in New Hampshire and there was plenty of country music there. I grew up listening to Grand Ole Opry." I was on a roll.
"And you play?"
Without any further ado, Luther stood up and in a booming voice announced to the room, "We got a special guest here, all the way from Massachusetts and he's offered to play for us". I was more than surprised.
"No, Luther, I'm tired and I'm cold from riding on the bike."
Luther urned away from me towards the tables and went on, "Let's get him up there on stage, whaddya say?" Of course, they cheered, whistled and stomped their feet. There was no other entertainment that night. One way or another, my appearance would make their evening a bit more interesting.
I knew for sure was that my guitar skills were not going to impress this group of Texans, most of whom were refinery workers from Shamrock on the other side of town. My Carter Family style would probably not find a terribly receptive audience but in desperation I came up with a sort of solution. I agreed to play but on my own terms.
"I've got an instrument in my room. I'll get it and be right back." What I had was a mountain dulcimer that I carry o my bike. I figured that probably nobody in this group had ever even seen one. The novelty might help to distract them from my playing.
The dulcimer was wrapped for the motorcycle trip in a calico bag with a waterproof liner. When I walked back into the bar carrying this long bag, I could feel a tenseness run through the room. It grew as I started to unwrap the dulcimer. In a flash of insight, I realized it was the same size as a sawed off shotgun. I think there was a little bit of Panhandle paranoia showing there for a moment but when I drew the pinch-waisted instrument from the bag, everyone relaxed. Some leaned forward to get a better look.
As I tuned, I explained what this odd looking instrument was and the audience waited expectantly. Now I was ready to play.
I may know the lyrics and chords for several hundred songs but at that particular moment in Dumas, Texas, I could not think of one. I forced myself to concentrate. Finally, I locked on to something. Relieved, and without stopping to consider its appropriateness, I started singing, "I'll Fly Away". Somewhere around, "Like a bird whose prison walls has flown", I saw the absurdity of the situation. I was singing Gospel in a Texas bar. But then the people at the tables started joining in the chorus: "I'll fly away to Glory, I'll fly away". When it was over, they started clapping, they wanted more.
It turned out to be the beginning of a night of gospel singing in the Green Lantern Supper Club. Luther's wife came on stage, picked up the bass and joined in with a beautifully mellow and clear soprano voice, singing harmonies that lifted me to what felt like a whole new level of ability and consciousness. A friend of Luther's came on stage and started playing backup guitar. One gospel song after another, "Shall We Gather at the River", "Will the Circle be Unbroken", "I Shall Not Be Moved", "Angel Band", on and on. It was a wonderful evening, twenty years later, it remains one of my favorite musical memories.
Am I a "believer", no. I am not even Christian and the little exposure I had to Christianity was as an Episcopalian, somewhat distant on the spectrum of Christianity from the traditions I had drawn on. Was the audience in the Green Lantern Bar and Supper Club particularly religious? I don't think so yet for an hour and a half or so we sang with a fervor that moved us. We sang songs about total forgiveness, an end of pain and sorrow, the chance to start over, the promise of living eternally surrounded by beauty, the opportunity to see loved ones again, and we sang about unconditional love. You would have to be made of pretty stern stuff not to respond to these kinds of promises. I don't think you need to believe that these songs are about Truth but perhaps a part of you needs to wish, at least for a moment, that the are.