Black Preaching Styles
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AN INTRODUCTION TO BLACK PREACHING STYLES

(Note: a cassette, with keyed examples of excerpts from sermons, accompanied the original text, and is referenced in this document.)

Geoff Alexander
December 10, 1986

INTRODUCTION

The art of oration may be one of the most underrated arts in the United States today, and one of the most under appreciated as well. Because most of our verbal information arrives through the medium of radio or television, with networks centered in New York or Los Angeles, much of our oratory has become homogeneous, containing the same inflections, colloquialisms, and dialect.


There is, however, one bastion of this art form which fights for survival on a weekly basis, and is pervasive enough that few people in this country live more than five or ten miles away from its auditorium: the Afro-American sermon. The black sermon is stated in the vernacular, with inflection and timing so musical that many have compared it in style to improvised jazz. Much of the sermon is improvised around a matrix both sacred and profane, and the style is cohesive enough that one can enter virtually any black Baptist, Methodist, or Pentecostal church from coast-to-coast and hear a sermon of similar form. This is assured in part by the congregation, which answers the preacher verbally at every opportunity, creating a call-and-response pattern, which often builds to a frightening intensity.


This paper is concerned with black preaching styles this particular form of call-and-response driven by the hemistichally rhythmic cadence of the preacher. I understand that in certain parts of Kentucky and Ohio there are white churches that practice this as well, but to my knowledge they have never been recorded on record, so I have little basis for  comparison. Realizing that sermons are essentially an aural form of art and not given easily to written transcription, I have included a cassette tape (now a CD, 2004) with examples keyed to text. These examples are from my own library, and several are from recordings off the radio. The radio, incidentally, is still a great vehicle for the hearing of sermons from the black church, as every major metropolitan area in the United States has at least one radio station dedicated to the "Sunday Night Prayer Meetin'."

My cassette, incidentally, contains fragments of sermons lying on the fringe of the classic black preaching style, such as those preached by the great tent and radio evangelist R.W. Schambach, who happens to be white. These examples are there for comparison, but also are included because they in themselves are wonderful examples of the art of oration. I would be remiss in not introducing them to the reader, for although they are not truly within the scope of this paper, they are nevertheless representations of speakers who are fighting to maintain the integrity within the art form.

My personal feeling is that the black sermon today is at the historical height of its form. More and more preachers are entering the ministry, schooled by radio evangelists and pastors, and using them as a springboard for their own personal improvisational technique. The congregation is the ultimate judge as to the effectiveness of the preacher, and the competition among ministers to get the "right" congregation probably has never been greater. Black preaching is a "hot" art form, and explosively vibrant. It is, however, off the mainstream; my hope is that this paper will serve as an introduction interesting enough that the reader may want to turn on the Sunday night radio, buy a recorded sermon, or visit a black church in order to get closer to what I consider to be the most beautifully constructed and powerfully performed example of oration in the United States today.

 

HISTORY

The history of the black preaching style can be carried back to the Second Great Awakening that occurred in the beginning of the nineteenth century, when dissident white Presbyterian ministers began holding camp meetings outdoors in Kentucky (2,52). Presbyterian church doctrine emphasized proper religious training for its ministers, and typical sermons preached in church often dealt with topics too abstract for the common man. As settlers spread south and west, they became geographically separated from their church, and were located over such a wide geographical area that building a centralized church was not financially feasible. Since Presbyterian church philosophy was such that it was considered improper for a minister to preach outside of the church, conflict arose when several ministers elected to hold camp meetings at remote locations.

Since Methodist and Baptist theology encouraged evangelism, early dissenting Presbyterians, such as James McGready were joined by ministers from those denominations during these meetings. Baptist and Methodist ministers were generally not trained in the seminary, and spoke in the vernacular, preaching fire, brimstone, and damnation to the Presbyterian's more intellectual, reserved style. Reports of early nineteenth century camp meetings told of exhibitions of "acrobatic Christianity" among the saved, including "jerks, falling, dancing, and barking" (2,53). As frontier Methodism gradually took hold of the camp meeting, the concept of "backsliding" became more of an

issue, and the showing of some degree of religious frenzy was usually recognized as a sign that the believer was once again "right with God" (2,118). I find it quite interesting that the idea of backsliding was accepted neither by Presbyterians nor Baptists, who believed that the glory of heaven was due to those persons who accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, a grace that thereafter could not be rescinded, as opposed to the Methodists, who held that a person's life always hung in the balance between heaven and hell, and where one errant step could mean certain spiritual doom.

Music was an essential part of the prayer meeting, and call-and-response singing soon became the only logical way for the faithful to participate, given the fact that in these revivals that many times counted thousands of participants, few could read the sparse number of hymnals available, and generally lighting conditions were so poor --- most meetings were held at night --- that the print would not have been legible anyway (2,85.) As a rule, the preacher would call out a lead verse, to be followed either by the congregation echoing the same verse, or one learned beforehand and known generally by all. I notice a similarity in the description of early call-and-response songs and work songs sung by blacks dating back from at least that time.

By 1801, the camp meeting had taken hold of the south, and slaves were some of the most consistent attendees (5,16). It seems to be a well-known fact that "field hollars" were an effective early way for slaves to communicate with each other, but my research has not been able to answer the chicken-and-egg dilemma of whether the old-fashioned black work song or the call-and-response hymn came first. I have included a song sung by a prisoner at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, and recorded by Alan Lomax in 1947 (cassette example #1) as a great example of a secular work song with all of the essential musical elements of a call-and-response hymn.

It should be noted that although the camp meeting itself was open to those of all races, it was far from being fully integrated. Blacks occupied the area to the rear of the grounds, and were even preached to separately by their own "exhorters", who carried them to a separate area adjacent to the main group for ultimate salvation (2,75). These black exhorters were men already known for their preaching ability within the black community, and were the true forerunners of today's preachers.

The topic of slavery and the black church would be a paper in itself, but I will bring up a couple of important points here that have been critical to the development of the black church, particularly as it applies to the Methodist and the Baptist faith. Dickson Bruce sites the official Methodist church policy in 1800 as being in favor of abolition of slavery, a position that the church had completely reversed by 1845(2,75). This led to northern Methodists breaking away from southern Methodists, an action paralleled by the Baptists. This regression in church doctrine can be explained by the fact that more and more poor southern whites were becoming landowners, and being the largest population group among these churches, they realized that emancipation would have a negative economic impact on their lives. Needless to say, Black southern Methodists and Baptists then further forged their own identity to become the churches they are today, with occasional splinter factions, such as the Church of God in Christ, a Black Holiness Pentecostal church founded in 1987(4,41).

The preacher, who Pete Welding (from his liner notes to cassette example #10) refers to as "orator, singer, theologian, spiritual leader, law-giver, scholar and administrator", is the most significant thread weaving through the long history of the black church in the United States, and is the focus of my next chapter.

THE PREACHER

One of the remarkable aspects of black preaching is that form, content, and dialect change little or not all throughout the entire United States. There are several reasons for this, chief of which is the fact that as blacks migrated north, east, and west, they took their religion with them (5,21). Also, since new-generation preachers are taught through the oral tradition of radio evangelism and direct contact with their own pastors, the style has remained relatively closed to outside influence. Eddie Swain, a Bay Area-based faith healer, tends to put black preaching into two different classes: upon seeing the Rev. Carl Andersen's Baptist sermon in Oakland, he remarked that he was "an old country preacher", whose slow and deliberate delivery was not as "modern" as some of the more forceful Church of God and Christ preachers.

While the word "preacher" itself is a general term, we can be more specific in defining the differences between preachers, pastors, evangelists, and healers. The pastors run the local churches and tend to organizational and administrative matters. Preachers do not run a church, although they may be members of one, and may preach anywhere(5,21). Evangelists are Itinerant preachers who either travel from church to church to assist in gaining members for various pastors, or travel with their own tent, gaining advance publicity either through their own nationally broadcast radio programs (e.g. the white evangelist, R.W. Schambach) or through the cooperation of local churches, who often share in the tent ministry as well as the offering. The expense of travelling with a tent and all its related odd-and-ends (chairs, amplification equipment, etc.) is a great one, and I find it unfortunate that this descendant of the old camp meeting may be slowly coming to the end of the line. There is no telling how many evangelists were permanently waylaid by the great gasoline shortage of several years ago, and the next one may ground them all. One great difference I have noted in evangelists compared to pastors: while it is quite acceptable for the evangelist to be a reformed backslider who can recite lurid tales of his sinful past, a pastor in many cases is expected to come from a home (or at least have a background) Christian in nature, and have a relatively pre (or discreetly hidden)past. The late white evangelist A.A. Allen, whose interracial, interdenominational tent ministry was once one of the more prolific on the evangelism circuit, loved to tell of his life of crime, time in jail, and his ultimate conversion to a better way of life(1,39). I might add that Schambach traveled with Allen, and has continued his interracial, fully integrated ministry, a policy that, when instituted by Allen in the early 1950's, was groundbreaking.

Pastors, preachers, and evangelists can also be Healers, and indeed most of the examples I have provided on the cassette contain some mention of the word (such as Rev. Louis Overstreet's supplication "Heal the sick!" in example #5 ). Healers unanimously declare their power as a gift from God, and most refuse offerings of any kind unless their healing is part of a larger service. For this reason, many of them work at jobs other than preaching, and do their religious work on Sunday, or when the spirit moves them.

A personal note: I will never forget the time that Eddie Swain, who at the time was selling electronic typewriters, came to visit me at my office in an industrial park near the San Jose Airport. You don't see many black workers in that area of town, so it surprised me when a lady walked up to our table at lunch, looked at Eddie and said; "You don't remember me, but two years ago my boy lay dying in the hospital and the church called you to come in and pray for him. You did, and one week later that boy walked home, thanks to you!" Eddie and I had been business friends, and we had been chatting about office equipment when the lady testified, to my astonishment. He had made casual references to his ministry before, but was so humble about it that I had no idea his ministry was this pervasive. It may interest the reader to know that office equipment did not work out for Eddie at that time, and the last I heard, he had returned to his native state of Arkansas to continue ministering to people in need. I have no doubt I'll run into him again in the future. (So far, I haven’t. 2004)

Because of the great number of shut-ins who cannot regularly attend church services, radio has been a favorite medium of the faith healer. In Example #2 of my cassette, radio evangelist Sister E.G. Jamerson relates how she was once healed by radio minister Utah Smith, who made demons "leap from my bedsprings."

An example of the type of radio ministry she might have listened to follows on the tape as example #3, in which Pastor J.E. Bobo of the Bethlehem Center Church of God In Christ in Oakland prays for the ill and disenfranchised on his weekly radio program "Prayer is the Key". I have included several prayers which indicate the use of standard phrases such as his opening "God now in the name of Jesus", "we'll give you [God] all the glory and the honor for it", and "bless you now, you've been cured". Every preacher uses phrases that in time become his trademark, and these are a significant portion of Bobo's program. Of special note are the requests for his "blessed oil". I have also included part of the closing of his program, in which he reminds listeners that he will continue taking prayer requests off the air, while his theme music, decidedly non-black and of the "easy listening" variety, drones wearily in the background.

Whether he be pastor, preacher, healer, or evangelist, the key to the success of the Black Christian orator will ultimately lie in his interaction with the congregation. Unlike many white congregations, the black membership will shout words of encouragement, affirmation, or repeat whole phrases as a way of interaction with the ministry. They are not preached to as much as they are preached with; this will be readily apparent upon listening to the accompanying tape. This rhythmically musical call-and-response is an essential part of the black sermon, and one of the main differences between it and the white Pentecostal service. Bruce Rosenberg describes the congregation as follows:

"Everyone is sweating all the time...cardboard hand fans with mortuary advertisements are swished back and forth, giving ...an undertone of humming...No real effort is made to stop children from giggling or...infants from crying... The women usually sit together in front with their young... The men, who are relaxed and jovial as they joke outside, come in at the last moment and sit near the back. At many services, one or two of them sleep through the sermon" (5,12).  Rosenberg also notes the ever-present handkerchief used by the preacher to wipe the sweat off his brow, his gyrations and wild gesticulations.

Although my next chapter investigates further the interaction between preacher and congregation, I would ask the reader at this point to listen to the congregational response to Bishop Rawls in Example #4 of the cassette.

 

THE SERMON

The Black Sermon is formulaic, but relies upon improvisation often inspired by the congregation to fill out the formula of the sermon. Of all the texts I have read on the subject, I find Gerald Davis' to be the most insightful as to the definition and categorization of the sermon itself, and therefore will use his findings extensively in this chapter. Davis defines the sermon as "a narrative system which incorporates rationalized sets of conventions and principles designed to support the articulation of existence, belief, and cosmologic considerations in the experiencing lives of African-American people." Davis then sets five formulaic boundaries that occur within the sermon itself, each of which must be performed in predefined order:

A. Preacher indicates that text was provided under divine inspiration.

B. Identification of the theme of the sermon, followed by appropriate quotation from the Bible.

C. Interprets, first literally, then broadly, the quoted Bible passage.

D. Independent, theme-related formulas, developing or retarding a sacred/secular tension and moving between abstract and concrete example. Each formula is an aspect of the "argument" of the sermon.

E. Closure as such is rarely found in the black sermon, but more commonly there will be a brief moment of testimony, or an affirmation of faith by the preacher. (3,67-82)


The sermon itself is usually prefaced by a prayer and music, which in itself is lively enough that the congregation will be moved by the spirit sufficiently to be an attentive and vocal audience for the sermon. Most preachers are good singers, but trust the music director of the church to provide the musical program. My next example on the tape (#5), however, is the formidable Rev. Louis Overstreet, who both preaches and performs the musical elements of his sermons. Accompanied by his guitar, his four sons, and the Congregation of the St. Luke Powerhouse Church of God in Christ of Phoenix, Arizona, he opens with a prayer followed by an inspired version of the spiritual "I'm a Soldier". Overstreet begins the prayer slowly, gradually adding runs on the guitar that build in intensity along with the prayer. He blesses the backsliders, repeats the supplication "Help us Lord!", and even breaks into a brief moment of speaking in tongues ("Um-um-um-um-yaah", or "HEP bubu-yayah!") before moving into the song, replete with congregational call-and-response, accompanied by his four sons.

Reverend Overstreet has an interesting and typical story relating to his introduction to the ministry. At the age of seventeen, while working in a turpentine factory, the Lord spoke to him in a vision, telling him to buy a guitar and take to the road preaching the gospel. Overstreet had never played guitar, but in faith bought one, and 45 days later the Lord "gifted me with music", and promised Overstreet that he would have four sons for his choir.

In order to discuss the five points already mentioned as well as some of the finer vocal and syntactical aspects of the art of Black preaching, I will request that the reader refer to cassette example #6, an excerpt of the Reverend W.C. Thomas. Jr.’s sermon, "I'm Into Something I Can't Shake Loose". Rev. Thomas makes use of many of the techniques I will discuss, in one of the greatest representative sermons of the genre I've yet to hear.

Thomas begins the sermon with the Bible verses upon which he bases the sermon, and follows them immediately by telling the congregation that the sermon will be drawn upon the title theme "I'm into something that I can't shake loose", which he repeats again after a pause for added dramatic effect. He then begins to broadly interpret the passage by admitting that "A lot of us" are involved in things we'd like to be rid of, but just can't, and are truly into something... we can't shake loose. Not only does he make the Bible actually speak to the congregation by involving them in the story themselves, but he begins a rhythmic pattern that will, among others, last for the rest of the sermon, the dramatic pause after the word "something".

Black preaching is built upon a hemistich system of rhythmic repetition, in which the pulses are felt rather than strictly metered. Five minutes into the sermon, Thomas formulaically discusses alcoholism:

An alcoholic
That once started by taking just
A little drink
Then he took three or four
Little drinks
And then the three or four little drinks developed
Into a bottle
And then that bottle developed into two and
Three bottles

The listener will notice how quickly the congregation keys into this hemistich rhythmic pulse, which is a basic part of contemporary Black preaching styles.

One of the foundations of the style is a constant push/pull between the sacred and the secular. Thomas' references to dope addicts, alcoholics, and prostitutes are typical of the Black sermon, and deal with issues and people that the congregation, particularly in large cities, find in their daily lives.

Thomas also uses certain phrases as refrains, which, although not cited as often as the theme itself, lend almost an ode-like quality to the piece. "He's (she's, we've) been doing it for so long..." is one of the key phrases in the sermon that Thomas consistently uses, as are the following phrases relating to the examples noted earlier:

(Dope addict) "Ah, he'd like to get rid of it..."

(Alcoholic) "He'd like to put the bottle down..."

(Prostitute) "They'd like to come in and be a housewife..."

This notion of parallelism, so consistent with the rhythm and poetry of the black sermon is probably best exemplified approximately nine minutes into the sermon as Thomas makes reference to people who have been "actin' phony...for so long":

Talkin' 'bout he's good,
But.
He's alright,
But.
He's everything that you would want...
But.
Anytime you turn around they got a
But.
I'd like to be a billy-goat sometime and give 'em a good
Butt!
But the problem is
They’re into something
And they can't shake loose from it

The mark of a brilliant preacher is the way he moves in and around themes and manages to eventually tie them all together, and Thomas' particular genius is confirmed by the fact that ten minutes into the sermon, with emotion rising in the congregation, he still has the poetic presence of mind to tie in the grand theme at the closing of the parallel "But" sequence.

Thomas is also a user of the "exemplum," a section of the sermon in which the preacher gives an example in story form which emphasizes the point of the sermon. The exemplum in this case is his illustration of what happens to someone who, after tying himself to the tail of a calf, doesn't know whether to let go or hold on once it "shakes loose" and starts to run away.

Approximately eleven minutes into the message, Thomas begins half-singing half-talking chant which will eventually evolves into full-fledged song. The song itself begins with the refrain "I found out..." and is answered by the congregation in responses such as "well..." or "yes..." These comments fall into the category known as sermonphones (3,99), and can fall into several classes, three of the most popular being one-word sermonphones ("well…"), phrase sermonphones ("thank you Jesus!"), and non-articulated sermonphones, which are so prevalent in the black sermon that I will have several examples further in the cassette, and generally consist of unintelligible grunts, whoops, groans and hums.

Example #7 on the tape, which begins part two of the cassette, is the final part of Reverend Thomas' sermon, which in its complete form is only twenty-six minutes long, although I have somewhat abbreviated it in the recorded example. Twenty-six minutes is not long as sermons go, but Thomas sacrifices no intensity in this time period, and his sense of dynamics is so strong that few would argue that this is a performance as much as a sermon. Thomas begins again after a secular portion by reminding us to "Ask Pilate about it!" and telling us of Pilate washing his hands, then finding he couldn’t wash his hands of Jesus, and having his "boss-man" finally tell him to flee. Earlier I mentioned the emphasis on idiomatic and colloquial expressions used in the black sermon to achieve maximum rapport and communication with the congregation. Words such as "boss-man," or Reverend Carl Anderson’s warning to members "Trying to run with the hare and ‘ho with the hound"(3,36), are idioms I doubt one would hear in a white church. Thomas and Anderson, incidentally, are pastors of Baptist, rather than Church of God in Christ congregations. Bishop E.E. Cleveland of the Ephesians Church of God in Christ in Berkeley, Ca., though, echoes the words of Reverend Thomas in addressing "phonies" in the following idiomatic passage:

You done fooled around and lost out with God
And now God done turned the whole thing over to fakes and phonies
Nobody can't believe nothing hardly nobody says
Everybody's a front and a put-on and a put-up
A make-up and a make-out
White-washed and not washed white
Glory to God
(3,125)

In ending his sermon, Reverend Thomas returns to parallelism, with the word "Evvvery...!" acting as the beginning to truncated sentences, and we can hear his voice fading in and out on the tape as he walks back and forth and side to aide from the pulpit. When he sings "I feel him!" the screams from the congregation begin and pandemonium results as the members fall into the spirit of God, and foot stomping and shouted sermonphones such as "Yes Lord" and "Yes sir!" threaten to drown out the animated Reverend. He closes his sermon with a recommendation to get right with God, followed by a closing hymn from the choir.

The Reverend Dr. William K. Hawkins, whose Baptist church hails from the same state, Ohio, as does Reverend Thomas', and whose example (#8) I now cite, has a wonderful example of a litany on the subject of "Time", using call-and-response, the one-word sermonphone, and parallelism. Differing from Thomas' sermon is Hawkins' use of the church organ to augment and punctuate points of emphasis in the sermon. Hawkins will also use the organ as an essential part of the closing of his sermon (called "Give Me Time") in example #9 on the tape. Amidst shouts of "Shout it out, Rev!" and screams of the congregation, Hawkins displays a powerful voice that is an essential component in the musical and dramatic finish.

Because this paper is devoted to the sermon itself rather than the music, I have said very little about musical accompaniment and singing preachers. While not mandatory, being a good singer is an asset, and can, as we have already seen with the Reverend Louis Overstreet, be an integral part of the sermon. Originally, black church music was composed of vocals accompanied by handclaps, and much later pianos and band instruments such as trombones were added. Example #10 on the tape is a recording made by Reverend Rimson of Detroit in the early 1950's, and includes many of the formulaic aspects of the sermon itself, such as parallelism and call-and-response. Following Rimson, example #11 features the Reverend C.C. Chapman from Los Angeles recorded at roughly the same time. Chapman, however, uses electric organ as well as a hard-driven set of drums (complete with bombastic punctuations on the high-hat cymbals) in contrast to Rimson's piece, which utilizes only piano and choir.


THE SECULAR SERMON

Gerald Davis notes that so heavily is the preacher involved in citing specific secular references, that his use of sacred reference points seems casual by comparison, and notes that the goal of the sermon itself often seems to be "an expressly political end, the spiritual and physical liberation of African-Americans"(3,62-63). This heavy shift in the sacred/secular polarity toward the secular is "a key concept in distinguishing the African-American sermon from the sermons of other groups"(3,64).

One of the elements I find so highly dramatic in the secular portion of the sermon is the humor, which none of my reference materials think is important enough to mention. I'll never forget hearing the Reverend Johnny L. "Hurricane" Jones' sermon of several years ago entitled "You Upset Me, Baby", in which, after describing a woman with 44-inch hips asks "Is there a man in here who wouldn't want a woman like that tonight?" The congregation then responds with a loud and lengthy approbation. A representative use of humor occurs throughout example #l2 on the tape, the sermonette "Burn, Baby, Burn" recorded by the late Congressman, Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. I call this a "secular sermon" because the emphasis is not on religion, but rather on political and social responsibility. The ending of the sermon is not a call for salvation, but a call to a better education, resulting in better jobs. It is a speech of quasi-political nature thinly disguised as a sermon. It is a ten minute speech, concise and formulaic within the strict yet improvisational Black Preaching style, and is poignant, funny, and inspirational.

After a brief hymn, Powell recites a cry familiar during the 1967 year in which this piece was recorded, noting that "Burn, Baby, Burn" originated with Nebuchadnezzar in the story of Shadrach, Mishak, and Abednego in the Old Testament. After beginning slowly and prosaically, he pops his fist on the lectern, emphasizing that the "Black man in the United States is... [pop!] THIRD CLASS", which provokes heated vocal responses within the congregation, who utter non-articulated sermonphones. He then relates how the act of burning only destroys black businesses amid calls of "Walk together, baby, walk together," and "Talk to ME!", and advocates instead a policy of "Learn, Baby, Learn" so one can "Earn, Baby, Earn", and "Get that green in your pocket, Baby!" The Burn-Learn-Earn string is that very parallelism that I discussed earlier, and the cries of "Get the bread, baby, get the bread," and "Green Power, Green Power" are phrase sermonphones pulled directly from the classic Black Sermon. After returning briefly to the Bible, Powell ends his sermonette with some familiar words from the 1960's, "Keep the Faith, Baby", and closes with a hymn musically based not on the Black church in the U.S., but rather on a form with Caribbean origins, the choir accompanied by conga drum in a harmony that is reminiscent of spirituals often heard in the Bahamas.

Finally, I must make mention of a preaching form I can only refer to as the "Secular Rant", which one can generally hear at one time or another on late Sunday night radio broadcasts. It takes the form of a tirade against a type of person, or institution, with the pendulum swinging rapidly back and forth between sacred and secular, faster, in fact, than in a traditional sermon, due to the lack of the presence a congregation to provide response. Example #13 contains a tirade against the Democratic party by Sister E.G. Jamerson, which I recorded in the election year of 1982. She invokes slavery, welfare, and the Bible in her hour long broadcast, which I have here truncated due to space limitations. Roughly one-half of each of Sister Jamerson's weekly programs involved taking telephone calls of testimony, and the evening’s broadcast from which the recorded example derived, resulted in a series of one-way political dialogues, in which Sister Jamerson hung up angrily on everyone who disagreed with her on the merits of the Republican Party. Between calls, Jamerson would repeat the litany "Thank Gawwwd for the Republican Party!"


CONCLUSION

I feel that this great, pure, ethnic art form known as the Black Sermon remains perhaps the best example of the American oral tradition alive today. Handed down from father to son, preacher to congregation, and radio evangelist to listener, it is pervasive to the extent that it can be heard today in many venues within each major U.S. city, in many smaller communities, and in many rural areas as well. It does not change materially in differing geographical areas, nor does it change radically from "conservative" Baptist and Methodist churches to more "modern" churches such as the Church of God in Christ. It has influenced American "pop" music through infusion of the black Spiritual into the mainstream (note the early music of Sam Cooke), and today remains a strong influence on Black jazz musicians, whose improvisation over a matrix of chord changes parallels that of the preacher chanting extemporaneously of secular matters over a guideline sacred in nature.

Even the call-and-response patterns so plentiful in post-bop jazz improvisations (e.g. "trading fours" in which musicians "talk’ to each other in four-bar sequences) seem to derive from the church. Jazzmen such as Cannonball Adderley and Lee Morgan loved to imitate the preacher in "vocalizing" many of their solos (those who are interested in this aspect of jazz as influenced by Spirituals may want to hear Adderley's "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" or Art Blakey's "Moanin’" recordings, the latter with Lee Morgan on trumpet).

Black Preaching has been largely homogeneous, but what about its chance for survival as a relatively pure oratory form? Literacy was once seen as a threat, some feeling that the colloquial speech so important to the "sound" of the sermon would disappear as the preacher himself became "better educated" (5,96). This has not been the case, as preachers today are educated at all levels, from college, to seminary, to hardly any formal education at all, and still preach in the prescribed manner. The hemistich, colloquial, secular/sacred sermon is insisted upon and enjoyed by the majority of black churchgoers in the U.S., and is probably in as little danger of dying as a unique vocal style as White Presbyterianism. It was once said that the Catholic Church was dying because only "a few little old ladies" bothered to attend anymore, and once they were gone there would be no one left. Every generation, however, produced a new generation of little old ladies; the death knell was quite premature.

The Black Church is still vibrant, with all generations represented. It remains a "home", and a real refuge from the storm, come what may. Its sense of the dramatic, colloquialisms, and emphasis on the secular side of the sacred have kept it away from the white mainstream; relentlessly rhythmic, it had forged itself an identity that will, in all probability, assure its survival for generations to come. Those who love the sermon, and expect the preacher and the congregation to engage in a dialogue often frighteningly powerful in its intensity, continue to find that they're into "something they can't shake loose."

- Geoff Alexander, December, 1986

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Recordings

Note: Entries correspond to order on accompanying cassette tape

Side One:

1. "Rosie" sung by unknown prisoner, Mississippi State Prison, Parchman, MS.
Recorded by Alan Lomax, Tradition Records TLP 1020

2. Jamerson, Sister E.G. Recorded live on KFAX radio, San Francisco, CA Nov. 7, 1982

3. Bobo, Pastor J.E. Recorded live on KFAX radio, Nov. 7, 1982

4. Rawls, Bishop Curtis Recorded from KFAX radio, Nov. 14, 1982

5. Overstreet, Reverend Louis. "An Evening With..." Arhoolie Records F1014;
Box 5073, Berkeley, CA

6. Thomas, Jr., Rev. W.C. "I'm Into Something I Can't Shake Loose"
Jewel Records LPS 0050; 778 Texas, Shreveport, LA 71101

Side Two:

7. Thomas: Ibid.

8. Hawkins, Dr. William K. "Give Me Time" Savoy MG.14153; Newark, NJ

9. Hawkins: Ibid.

10. Rimson, Rev. "Living Water", selection from the anthology "Singing Preachers and
Their Congregations" BCLP No. 19: America's Music Series Box 9195,
Berkeley, CA 94719

11. Powell, Jr., Adam Clayton. "Burn, Baby, Burn", from the LP "Keep The Faith,
Baby!" Jubilee Records 1790 Broadway, New York, NY 10019

12. Jamerson, Sister E.G. Recorded live on KFAX radio, San Francisco, CA
Nov. 7, 1982

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY; Books

1. Allen, A.A, "Born To Lose Bound To Win"
Doubleday & Co., Garden City, NY 1970

2. Bruce, Jr., Dickson D. "And They All Sang Hallelujah"
University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, TN 1974

3. Davis, Gerald L. "I Got The Word In Me And I Can Sing It, You Know"
University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, PA 1985

4. Mitchell, Henry H. "Black Preaching"
J.B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia and New York, 1970

5.  Rosenberg, Bruce A. "The Art of the American Folk Preacher"
Oxford University Press, New York, NY 1070

 

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