How gospel music helped me find my Catholic identity
On Sunday mornings when I was growing up in Mississippi, my father, Warren Eubanks, a slender man with skin the color of warm caramel, would take a black and gray Sears Silvertone record player and roll it into my parents’ bedroom. He owned many records, but on these mornings, it seemed he played only one: a 1960 Apollo Records vinyl called “In the Upper Room,” with Mahalia Jackson.
Jackson, who was known as the “queen of gospel,” was born in New Orleans in 1911. She began performing as a teenager in Chicago in the 1920s. In 1947 she signed with Apollo Records, and a year later, her career took off with her recording of the composer William Brewster’s “Move On Up a Little Higher.” The record sold eight million copies around the country and catapulted Jackson to stardom, first in the United States, then in Europe. She was Apollo Records’s top-selling and most-recorded artist and the first gospel singer to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
Before going to church, my father would allow the lyrics of “In the Upper Room” to center him in prayer.
In a 1963 interview with Studs Terkel, Jackson described her singing as a mystical experience: “I don’t seem to be myself. I am transformed from Mahalia Jackson into something divine.” This transformation allowed her listeners to feel a connection to something sacred and spiritual. She believed that she talked with the Lord when she sang and asked listeners, like my father, to do the same.
Before going to church, my father would allow the lyrics of “In the Upper Room” to center him in prayer. I remember him standing over the record player, watching its incantatory spin as he listened to the music flowing from the scratchy speakers. “Seeking help in loving prayers/ It is this how I feel the spirit/ And I sat with him and pray.” His head was always bowed as Jackson quietly sang with the gentle accompaniment of her longtime pianist, Mildred Falls. He would lift the phonograph needle with great care as he replayed the first part of the title track several times.
My relationship with gospel music was forged not just on those Sunday mornings at home with Jackson and in church with my family but also on late nights in the backseat of a 1962 Chevy Bel Air sedan. On Sunday mornings, we would often drive to visit my father’s mother in the red dirt hills of Alabama. During these drives, gospel music punctuated the long silences of the road with sounds of faith and joy. On dark stretches of two-lane blacktop, my three siblings and I nodded off to sleep accompanied by the soulful musical testimony of artists like Clara Ward, the Mighty Clouds of Joy, Shirley Caesar and The Blind Boys of Alabama on the Clear Channel radio station WLAC from Nashville.
My relationship with gospel music was forged not just on those Sunday mornings at home with Jackson and in church with my family but also on late nights in the backseat of a 1962 Chevy Bel Air sedan.
WLAC could be heard across 20 states. Many of its most devoted listeners were black families like mine, who were crossing lonely and seemingly forgotten highways with nowhere safe to stop in the then-segregated South. Even today, when listening to Ward’s “How I Got Over,” I am transported back to the safety of my childhood, now with the knowledge that the music gave my parents comfort as we traveled on dangerous roads. (The murders of three civil rights activists, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, occurred near our route home.) Like my father’s Sunday mornings with Mahalia, gospel on the radio those Sunday evenings served as a form of prayer, a petition to the Lord that we arrive home safe and unharmed.
I was raised in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, a historically black denomination founded by former slaves in the American South in the aftermath of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Up until the 1960s, C.M.E.s were known as the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church. But to our more refined brethen of the African Methodist Episcopal Church—founded in late 18th-century Philadelphia—we were known simply as the Country Methodist Episcopal Church because of our less staid and at times raucous liturgical music.
When it came to liturgy and music, C.M.E.s were unpretentious, echoing the spirituals sung by our founding members. Rather than singing “Amazing Grace” like a traditional hymn, we sang it as a call-and-response anthem. Like in the gospel music I heard growing up, we would shout and clap a little. Gospel improvisation was a part of the C.M.E. liturgy and music, in contrast to the more formalist and structured approach of the A.M.E. churches.
This divide in worship style speaks to a class tension within the black community at large in mid-century America, particularly as black Southerners moved north and took their music with them. Many black Northern churches—and even Southern ones—tried to emulate the formal hymns of white churches, using choirs to sing European classical songs and anthems. Moving away from black folk traditions in music became a way for blacks who had attained a higher socioeconomic status to display their new identity. The historian Carter G. Woodson observed that socially mobile blacks felt that “the old-time plaintive plantation hymns...should give place to music of a refined order.”
This divide in worship style speaks to a class tension within the black community at large in mid-century America, particularly as black Southerners moved north and took their music with them.
I left the C.M.E. Church in the mid-1970s when, at the age of 18, I converted to Catholicism. I was drawn to the church by its intellectual tradition, which I felt matched the person I was becoming. I was intellectually and spiritually curious, an interest which began in the writings of John Henry Newman on individual conscience and Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain. These Catholic thinkers—both converts—inspired me to embrace the idea of a quiet, contemplative faith. Merton made a journey from unbelief to faith, which was a different conversion experience from my own, yet one I embraced wholeheartedly while mourning the music I was leaving behind.
In The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. DuBois noted that “the Negro folk-song—the rhythmic cry of the slave—stands today not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas.” DuBois understood music as a way of shining a light on the idea of dual consciousness, his belief that black people have to learn to operate in two Americas, one that is black and one that is white. Dual consciousness is the awareness of the “two-ness” of being black and American and the largely unconscious, almost instinctive movement between these two identities.
But as Northern blacks in the 1940s and 1950s confronted DuBois’s idea of dual consciousness—one could argue that this duality was brought about by the pressures of the dominant white culture to assimilate—and merged their dual consciousness into “a better and truer self,” many sought to abandon or erase rather than embrace their pasts. Instead of seeing beauty in their spiritual origins, they sought to blend their way of musical worship into the manners of the dominant culture. The gospel music movement embraced DuBois’s idea that in this merging of selves and dual consciousness, the older selves would not be lost. Dual consciousness did not mean cultural erasure.
"The Negro folk-song—the rhythmic cry of the slave—stands today not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas.”
This same tension existed for black Catholics in the 1970s. Although the Catholic Church had more black converts and baptisms than ever before in the early 20th century, black church membership and attendance had begun to shrink by the mid-1970s. When I came into the church, being black and being Catholic were identities perceived to be at odds with each other in an era when black empowerment and cultural expression stood as the order of the day. Although I felt welcomed and embraced by members of my college parish in Oxford, Miss., there were times at Mass when I felt I had to check my blackness at the door.
Perhaps that is why when the pastor of my parish wanted to send a representative to a diocesan “Call to Action” conference in the spring of 1978, he asked me to attend. One of the topics was black Catholic spirituality and the need to make black cultural expression a more integral part of Mass, something my pastor knew was lacking for me. It was at that meeting that I first experienced gospel music as part of the Mass and realized that the music of my formative years could be a part of my adopted faith.
Other black Catholics in my diocese also wanted to strengthen the ties between black cultural expression and the Mass. Later that same year, the Diocese of Jackson welcomed a newcomer to the diocese by the name of Sister Thea Bowman to head an office of intercultural awareness. Sister Thea became a vocal advocate for the incorporation of African-American hymns into Catholic worship, not just locally but nationally. Sister Thea, who became a Catholic in 1940, said that we “had to leave behind us the music that was an expression of the spirituality of our home, community and upbringing.”
Yet during this time, there were many older black Catholics who saw gospel music as something they had to leave behind. In her introduction to Lead Me, Guide Me: The African American Catholic Hymnal, Sister Thea wrote African-American hymns were “shared by black American Christians across time, geographic, socioeconomic, and denominational lines.” Sister Thea sought to bridge the gap between older and younger black Catholics by framing gospel music in both its American-ness and its blackness.
Sister Thea became a vocal advocate for the incorporation of African-American hymns into Catholic worship.
Today at Saint Martin of Tours Catholic Church, my parish in Washington, D.C., the gospel music at Mass connects Catholics across racial and class lines in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods of Eckington and Bloomingdale. I am a relative newcomer, after years attending a much whiter and more traditional parish in another part of the city. The banner outside Saint Martin’s proclaims “Welcome All Sinners”—something I would have never seen at my previous parish—and the sound of the music flows out into the street. The soulful hymns seem to attract people from across the city, even some who are not Catholic and just come for the music. My favorite opening hymn has become the choir’s version of Hezekiah Walker’s “Every Praise,” which the choir performs to the rousing accompaniment of a small brass and percussion section. In the Kyrie Eleison and in other parts of the liturgy, I hear the jazz-inflected influence of Mary Lou Williams’s Mass, more polished than the down-home music I grew up hearing but still layered with the rhythm and bounce of gospel.
There is a long bright line that connects the gospel music of Saint Martin’s to my musical past, one that I am certain my father would enjoy and recognize. While he accepted my becoming a Catholic, my father wondered whether Catholicism would distance me from my culture. He need not have worried; he is the one who helped me to form an unbreakable connection with gospel music.
Listening to the music at my church today, sometimes it feels as if I have returned to my cultural roots. But the truth is, I never really left.
W. Ralph Eubanks is a visiting professor of English and Southern studies at the University of Mississippi. This essay is adapted from Can I Get a Witness? published by Eerdmann’s.