God’s Trombone Stirs Souls Around the World

Yet Another Benefaction from the Afro-American Church

Reverend Al Displays the Power of Charismatic Revivalists

The brilliant and insightful Afro-American novelist, essayist, memorist and cultural anthropologist Zora Neal Hurston once observed “A preacher must be a poet in order to survive in a Negro pulpit, because we are a people who love magnificence and can’t get too much of it!” In a letter to her fellow Floridian, the Afro-American polymath James Weldon Johnson – poet, songwriter, lawyer, diplomat, first black Executive Director of the NAACP, and author of the deeply moving lyrics to the Afro-American national anthem,“Lift Every Voice and Sing” – Hurston said:”James, it seems that only you and I recognize that the Negro folk sermon is epic poetry.”

This letter was in response to a New York Times review of her 1937 novel “Jonah’s Gourd Vine,” whose central character was a black southern preacher. Although the Times writer had given the novel a glowing review, he offered the caveat that she had “put a bit too much poetry in the mouth” of that unlettered Negro preacher.

Zora had brought the matter up with her brilliant Florida homeboy because Johnson had written a volume of poetry titled “God’s Trombones,” which were based on the sermons by unlettered southern black preachers he heard while growing up in Jacksonville Florida, just 38 miles from St. Augustine, where I grew up hearing these clerical bards conjure their powerful verbal magic.

What the German anthropologist Janhienz Jahn, described as the “magic power of the spoken word,” in his pioneering treatise on Pan-African cultural traits “Muntu,” was everywhere in the churches of northeastern Florida. And Zora was from the all black town of Eatonville, an incubator of Afro-American folk culture. James Weldon Johnson observes in the foreword of his canonical text in Afro-American literature, that despite their lack of seminary training:”The old time Negro preachers had all the devices of eloquence at their command.”

Watching Reverend Sharpton deliver the Eulogy at the Memorial for the martyred George Floyd, all the gifts of the Afro-American preacher and the poetry of the black sermon were on display in dramatic fashion. Although not formally trained, Reverend Al, who began his career as “The Wonder Boy Preacher” here in New York City, was an apprentice of and tutored by some of the most outstanding seminary trained Verbal artists of the tradition.

An ambitious youth, he sat at the feet of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Dr. Martian Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson, and he learned from the masters; who were arguably the greatest orators of the 20th century.  Surely the white church can offer no equal. Hence Reverend Al has combined the folk and the formal sermonic traditions of the black church in his style. And he has emerged a great master of his craft who can rock tha house with the word!

This was evidenced in the way he repeatedly brought the audience to it’s feet, bearing witness to the living truth he was telling, a truth that was verified by their life’s experience. This is because Reverend Al is preaching the social gospel that takes a biblical text and applies to the real problems his audience face, and offers a plan of action. And he has done it for decades now, in a thousand struggles all over America on behalf of the “least among us;” just as Jesus Christ hath commanded of us all. This is the essence of his powerful appeal, it is the secret of charisma; which is the ability of an orator to appear to embody the hopes, fears, anxieties, and aspirations of the audience to whom they are speaking.

It also explains what makes Reverend Sharpton such an effective leader of mass transformative socio/political secular movements outside of the pulpit, when he assumes the role of secular “Charismatic Revivalist.” To fully understand their role in the growth and development of a mass movement I continue to rely on the analysis of Dr. Luther P. Gerlach, the late professor of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, who introduced me to his theoretical model of the structure and function of mass movements when I spoke in Minneapolis after a riot over 50 years ago – an experience I will discuss at some length in my forthcoming essay “On Me and Muhammad Ali.” What I learned from my independent study of mass transformative movements with Professor Gerlach – who published his analysis in People, Power, Change – has served me well indeed.

Anyone interested in understanding what I mean should read my essays on the Occupy Wall Street Movement, written in real time as it was unfolding, and the mass uprising in the Islamic world know as “The Arab Spring.” These essays are posted at http://www.comentariesonthetimes.wordpress.com, and they now read like prophecy. And I also employed Gerlach’s model in an 8, 000 word cover story on Al Sharpton in the Village Voice. It was titled “Jive at Five: How Big Al and the Bully Boys Bogarted the Movement.”

Published in 1988, it was a critical analysis of how Al Sharpton and his legal advisors mishandled the explosive Tawana Brawley Case. It was nominated for the coveted Pulitzer Prize in the category of Feature Writing/Explanatory Journalism, and taught in Professor Martin Gottlieb’s seminar on long form journalism at the prestigious Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, from which my son recently took a degree. The nominating letter can be found in my bio at Commentaries On The Times.

Hence, I have a paper trail documenting my views of Reverend Sharpton; I have been been following his career for over 32 years. I watched him evolve from a crude conk wearing porcine jack leg preacher and borderline shyster, to an honorable man, movement leader and great preacher of the social gospel…a true friend and advocate for the poor and powerless. Furthermore, his services are and advice is sought after by the meek and the mighty, he is equally a home with the powerful and the powerless, he hob nobs with presidents yet retains the common touch.

Chillin at the Pinnacle of Power

Senator Obama Seeking Rev’s Support at the NAN Convention

Nowhere was Sharpton’s appeal across class lines better displayed than at the Memorial for George Floyd. That’s why the family asked him to deliver the eulogy. Hence some of the self-styled Facebook radicals, with no record of real struggle, who criticized the Floyd’s family’s choice, brings to mind the ancient Ibo proverb: “Beware of the stranger who comes to the funeral and cries louder than the owners of the corpse!”

Since professor Gerlach’s model treats mass movements as a class of phenomena, it is possible to look at movements across time and place and see clear rules that govern their development; critical factors that determine whether a movement will succeed or fail, and sometimes it is even possible to predict the ideological direction it will take.  It makes no difference if the movement is politically left or right leaning, sacred or secular.  The general rules of growth and dynamics still apply.

One of the critical elements in every movement is the Charismatic Revivalists. And if he has the gift of gab and a plan that can be skillfully expressed in powerful catchy slogans, he can move the masses on the wings of his soaring oratory. Professor Gerlach introduced this concept to me after watching me speak on television in Minneapolis.

He showed me his theoretical model, and although I had never heard of any of these concepts, his systematic manner of presentation made his hypothesis perfectly clear. When I watched Reverend Al deliver the Eulogy for George Floyd, I witnessed a master of the charismatic revivalist’s art, regardless of whether he understands what he is doing in scientific terms. Indeed few artists can explain their art in scientific terms. But Reverend Al has all the critical skills, honed from countless hours speaking before a wide variety of audiences. He is as home on the podium as a rabbit in the briar patch, or a shark in water.

This is readily apparent to the careful and thoughtful observer, yet he is able to move the listener with no knowledge about the mechanics of his oratory, nor ever give the matter a passing thought. Like the listener to music who, tho untutored in the technicalities of the art form, is nonetheless profoundly moved by it. Dr. WEB DuBois describes this phenomenon in his brilliant, deeply insightful essay, “Of the Sorrow Songs,” in which he recounts his reactions to hearing the “Negro Spirituals,” that majestic body of scared song composed by anonymous Afro-American slaves, in whose honor James Weldon Johnson wrote his epic poem “O Black and Unknown Bards.”

Dr. DuBois wrote:

“Little of beauty has America given the world save the rude grandeur God himself stamped on her bosom; the human spirit in this new world has expressed itself in vigor and ingenuity rather than in beauty. And so by fateful chance the Negro folk–song—the rhythmic cry of the slave—stands to–day not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas…What are these songs, and what do they mean?

I know little of music and can say nothing in technical phrase, but I know something of men, and knowing them, I know that these songs are the articulate message of the slave to the world. They tell us in these eager days that life was joyous to the black slave, careless and happy…But not all the past South, though it rose from the dead, can gainsay the heart–touching witness of these songs. They are the music of an unhappy people, of the children of disappointment; they tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways.”

Indeed, I have yet to encounter a technically trained musicologist who has provided a better description of the essence of this music.

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The first task of the charismatic revivalist is to choose the right theme for the occasion, one that will provide an opportunity to expand on the different dimensions of the question at hand without losing the central thought. For a preacher of the Gospels, this means selecting the right biblical text. On this occasion Reverend Al chose Ecclesiasties 3, which my friend the Reverend Susanne Sharon, an Anglican Priest in the Diocese of Toronto, who is learned in the interpretation of scripture, tells me is one of the “Wisdom Texts.” Which, like the Book of Solomon, was designed to provide wisdom to the Hebrew people. This is the text upon which Reverend Al preached:

Ecclesiastes 3

Everything Has Its Time

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;

a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;

a time to kill, and a time to heal;

a time to break down, and a time to build up;

a time to weep, and a time to laugh;

a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

The four essential elements of a great speech designed to inspire the audience to action is: Select the right theme and skillfully weave your broader message around it; then deliver it with passion and conviction. This is a matter of technique, like playing the Blues: it is not merely enough to feel the blues emotionally, one must also have technical command of one’s instrument in order to play the blues convincingly. That’s because it is artifice not simply raw emotion.

Reverend Al has great technical command of his vocal instrument. Since he was speaking extemporaneously presenting his eulogy, improvising on a theme, he was like a great Jazz musician playing an extended solo from a “head arrangement.” This is a musical arrangement that allows the greatest spontaneity; yet it is organized around a central theme – the opening melody – which is given coherence by adhering to the chord changes that provide structure to the composition. That is the function of the scriptural reference in Reverend Al’s Eulogy.

Watching him I thought of how the great John Coltrane aka “John the Prophet,” a deeply religious mystic with a horn, once told me that he felt what he was doing had much in common with what great black preachers do. And when you hear him on performances like “A Love Supreme,” “Out of this World,” “Equinox,” “Spiritual” and especially “Alabama,” you can feel it in your soul.  Unless, alas, you got a hole in yo soul.

The latter tune was composed by John Coltrane in honor of the four little black girls murdered by depraved white racist in a Birmingham church, while attending Sunday School. It was an event that so enraged me, if I were not already a confirmed atheist I would have cursed God and dared him to strike me down!

However Elvin Jones, the master drummer that fueled the powerful John Coltrane Quartet – which included the great virtuosi McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison on piano and bass – vividly described John Coltrane’s response to this unspeakable tragedy. In an interview with Gil Nobel – the late great television journalist,  host of the black public affairs show Like It Is, and documentary film maker – Elvin described how Trane was so devastated by the news of the slaughter of these innocent souls he sat down and composed “Alabama,” which they performed live that night.

Elvin said he had never heard Trane play like that before, although he had accompanied him in concerts around the world. Elvin says John played a solo that lasted an hour and a half, and the spiritual intensity of the music was such that he witnessed wings sprout from Trane’s shoulders and he became an avenging angel!

When I heard Elvin tell this tale I was dumbfounded, because Elvin was not a particularly spiritual person. In fact the bassist Jimmy Garrison, a buddy of mine from Philly, had previously told me that the one downside to playing with Trane was that he was regarded as a great spiritual master in many parts of the world, and that while the highly spiritual McCoy Tyner aka “Saud Suleiman” was cool with it, he an Elvin had a hard time because they wanted to drink, party, smoke wisdom weed and chase women. Hence the only explanation I can surmise is that Elvin was mesmerized and hypnotized by the power of John’s deeply spiritual musical incantation.

Listening to a recording of John performing Alabama live as I write, I can see clear parallels in his musical eulogy to the murdered little girls and Rev Al’s Eulogy to the murdered George Floyd. For both are forged in the crucible of painful racial memories of our ordeal living among the murderous white barbarians in the spiritual wilderness of North America. And both employ similar methods of presentation: A slow contemplative beginning that builds into a rousing crescendo!

Alas in the abbreviated performance of John the Prophet that I have appended to the bottom of this essay, we do not get the full grandeur of the performance described by Elvin Jones. But the complete Sermon of Reverend Al is captured on the video. Listen to both carefully, and you will see that there is a spiritual continuity between Afro-American religion and our music. While this connection is easily recognizable in Gospel music, for the careful listener it is equally present in our secular music such as traditional Blues and Rhythm and Blues, all of which prize the vocal tradition, but this connection is also manifested in the complexities of instrumental Jazz. Despite the fact that all of the secular genres have long been denounced by Afro-American religious fundamentalists as “The Devil’s music!” Yet the similarities between the performances of Trane and Reverend Al are striking.

A few days since the Memorial Service I encountered some young black radicals on Facebook, who are embarrassed by Rev. Al’s performance, which is to say the rituals of worship common to the religion of the black masses. Yet they have the unmitigated gall to think themselves truer representatives of our culture, alienated bourgeois that they are.  One of the things that embarrassed them most was the length of the Reverend Al’s Sermon, and the raw emotion he expressed.

But I am reminded of a tale told by Julian “Cannonball” Adderly, the brilliant alto-saxophonist in the Miles Davis Septet; arguably the greatest small ensemble playing complex instrumental music ever assembled in the modern era. And virtually all of these musically hip folks are fans of Trane, who was famous for his extended solos. According to Cannonball, one night Miles became annoyed and asked Trane: “Man why you always playing them long ass solos?” “I get involved in the music and just can’t figure out how to end them” Trane said. To wit an irritated and always candid Miles replied straight with no chaser: “Why don’t you just try takin tha fuckin horn outta yo mouth!”

Since Reverend Al’s instrument is his voice and he has no conductor…we will just have to hear him out. Like John, he becomes possessed by the spirit of his presentation and time stands still. And in the preacher’s art, as in our music, rhythmic repetition that creates a groove helps drive the point home. A classic example of which was Rev’s repetition of the phrase “You got your knee on our neck!”   Judging from the response of the audience in the room, and those around the world who witnessed the spectacle on television, it was very effective! They were deeply move by it…and so was I.

(Click on link to see Sharpton’s Eulogy)

Click to See John The Prophet Perform Alabama

 

Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York

June 7, 2020

Photo of Obama and Sharpton by: Lisa Dubois

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