Crossing the Separating Line

Meditations on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sunny California in the early 1960s seemed like a peaceful planet. My best friend in North Hollywood lived up the block and had dark skin from his Hawaiian father. A nearby cafeteria employed a Black counter cook whose grilled cheese sandwiches were the first tastes I ever relished. Otherwise, far and wide, everyone was White, although some folks, like my father and aunts, spoke in an accented English that gave me the idea of being an outsider.

North Hollywood Family, 1956

The first view of the outside world of Black Culture during this period of segregation came via the parable of a naive boy led astray by curiosity and boredom of social obligations, finding him cutting out of a Sunday church service. The mythic 1930’s Spanky is accompanied by Porky and Buckwheat, the first Black boy in our lives, who seemed more genuine in thought and action than the kids at school, young as we were, as they already were thoughtlessly veering into adult conformism.

Spanky, in Little Sinner,  makes a desperate flight away from a Sunday church service, admonished by all his friends to stay put, and stumbles upon an eclipse, accompanied by moaning sounds. He, and viewers like me, espy our first river baptismal rite by a Black community (beginning in the video at 11:35)

Spanky’s contact with a vital religious practice, one unlike the dogmatic and cosy routine of his imposed creed, shocks him and instills fear of the unknown. He narrowly escapes this Jungian threshold of spirits, infiltrating himself amongst parishioners just in the nick of time to hypocritically get off the hook by feigning that his spiritual needs had been met by his community’s reverend: exemplary training for a future in business and diplomacy!

This child’s entertainment feature left a mark on me that would be followed up a few years later. The music contained in that celluloid was among the forms documented by a Wisconsin furniture company that set up Paramount Records in the early 1920s. This was America’s first glimpse of Black culture through sound. The execs who marveled at their sales somehow noticed that their clients in the South had no recordings of their music, so a label was organized and talent scouts of varied abilities sought bluesmen, popular singers, gospel groups, raging reverends, and captured the cross section of a vibrant culture as it buried old styles and gave birth to new Jazz, Ragtime, and individual artistry.

One unusual example is an enigmatic recording entitled: Antebellum Sermon, alluding to the Civil War, long ago, perhaps the earliest sounds we may ever hear of the prayer style from that age.

Antebellum sermon pt. 1

The music remained in the community. Rarely were there White customers for these Race Records. Colin McPhee, an avant garde composer, discovered many of them and bought quite a haul in the early 1930s. He also reacted to Balinese gamelan on 1928 discs and gave up being a virtuoso pianist and classical composer to head for the isle and write a masterpiece on its music, becoming a composer who influenced all the Westerns who ditched Schoenberg.

White collectors in the 1960s also happened upon these discs and began searching the South for any surviving musician, going door-to-door asking families if they still had any old records. Their publications resurrected lost giants and changed the role of Rock music while opening up new light on a lost transformed culture. So many marvels came back.

One recording session reveals an unknown reverend, Frank Cotton, who entered a Parampount studio in 1927 with a few congregants to recreate his fiery sermon on The Pool of Siloam:

By the Pool of Siloam, Rev. Frank Cotton

The message of Rev. Cotton’s sermon gains in intensity to the point that his speech morphs into song and becomes ecstatic shouting, words no longer sufficient to express the spirit and content of his message, provoking shocked interactions from his flock.

Early sacred songs were in the reservoir of Rev. Gary Davis, who described Children of Zion as being hundreds of years old. In this video, he is hootnannied by Pete Seeger who joins in after awhile. Davis’s stark expression gets a bit watered down in company but Seeger captured one of the few extant films of this master.

The effect these ancient melodies and traditions of transcendence through sermonizing was not lost on the geniuses of Jazz, who created what is termed “Free Jazz” in the early 1960’s, a harsh dissonant style disturbing to many ears. While the extreme playing sounds like a flight from melody or what Jazz is believed to be, the culmination of the sermon is merely applied to a speaking and shouting instrument. Albert Ayler  developed this as a pathbreaking language, taking a sacred march tune and expanding its meaning through musical glossolalia (Truth is Marching In):

Black culture has been the avant garde destiny of American music, always posing a challenge, one that Spanky failed to take, and cross a separating line, leading to. . .

Rev. J. M. Gates: The Separating Line

Life is full of surprises. I became Rev. Gary Davis’ last pupil, his widow our son’s godmother, and that summer after Davis passed on, I encountered Buckwheat himself: he was working in a summer camp’s kitchen where I was a waiter. At our last supper, all the directors stood up anticipating applause from the campers but we all screamed our lungs out for Buckwheat, who came forth smiling to a joyous standing ovation.