The Word Made Song

Gospel Music in Austin

by Christopher Gray

"Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands. Serve the Lord with gladness; come before His presence with singing. Know ye that the Lord is God: it is He that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are His people, and the sheep of His pasture."

-- Psalms 100:1-3

Sunday mornings usually dawn clear and bright in Austin, and in fewer places do they dawn as clear and bright as on the Eastside. As the sun rises over the gently sloping horizon, it brings the promise of a new day and a new week, and abandons the decadence of Saturday night to memory and, perhaps, regret.

As it nears its zenith in the Central Texas sky, the sun shines down on families diligently scrubbing the dirt of the world off their bodies, cleansing themselves physically as they prepare for another, internal cleansing to come. Maybe they eat breakfast together, visiting and catching up with each other over happenings since their last meal. Or maybe they're running late, and forego worldly nourishment altogether, because nourishment of a different sort awaits.

The parking lots of the churches fill with cars, their radios perhaps tuned to one of the Sunday morning AM gospel programs on KVET, KXIL, or KFIT. Church elders direct traffic as families, singles, and couples pour out of their cars and into more than two dozen sanctuaries. They have come to praise God, praise Him in fellowship, and in prayer, and in song. And praise Him they do. From just after sunrise to well after lunchtime, the churches of the Eastside resound with exuberant hands clapping, wild organ flourishes, and some of the most pure, joyful, and transcendent singing you're likely to hear this side of the Pearly Gates. Gospel music gives these churchgoers a place to lay down their worldly wants, cares, and troubles, and a chance to tell all to Jesus and have Him bear their burdens. For a few hours on Sunday, salvation is in sight, and all it takes is leaning on the everlasting arms, or maybe a walk down by the riverside.

Any other day of the week but Sunday, though, and it's like gospel music in Austin doesn't exist. Because it's so closely identified with the church, gospel music is often overlooked when discussions of Austin's musical assets arise. Take your pick of the reasons why: Churchgoers feel gospel music should stay right where it is -- the temple of God -- and that taking it out into the secular world strips it of its most important quality, its message; it's concentrated on the east side of town and news of that side of town rarely crosses the I-35 barrier; or because it's simply (and some would say sinfully) underpromoted.

But it does exist. Does it ever. Nearly every night of the week, something is happening in the gospel community, be it an anniversary concert, a church-related function, a festival, or even a night out at a club. Gospel music has gone in many different directions and continues to do so, but there are some very basic things still common anywhere --anywhere -- people gather to worship God.

Gospel music was born in the church, thrives in the church, and is safe in the church. In the church. Once the holy threshold is crossed, and the music leaves its natural haven, the ground becomes much shakier. Outside the churches is the world of crime, poverty, drugs, and sin -- the world that creates the troubles given to the Lord every Sunday. Gospel music is here too, but often as a voice crying out in the wilderness, not a rock of salvation. Once outside the church, the form and function of gospel music becomes blurry --about as blurry as interpreting the Word of God.

"By the rivers of Babylon, there sat we down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps on the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying `Sing us one of the songs of Zion.' But how shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?

-- Psalms 137:1-6

Strangers in a strange land. The roots of gospel music lie deep in this passage from Psalms, as the songs of African slaves were their only recourse from the cruel realities of serving two masters, one earthly and horrible, the other heavenly and wonderful. As Moses looked to God to deliver the Israelites from Egyptian captivity, and as others looked to Him later on to rescue them from Babylon, African-Americans have looked to the church for deliverance. Even after slavery was abolished, the theme of deliverance remained, and became dominant again during the Civil Rights movement, sparking renewed interest in gospel music among non-African-Americans. Even today, as most forms of popular music have derived from African-American styles, "They that carried us away captive required of us a song" carries nasty connotations that most people who go to Antone's would rather not think about.

Austin has never been the most racially harmonious city, and is unlikely to become so anytime soon. Interstate 35 cuts across the city like so many miles of barbed-wire fence, creating one distinct culture east of the highway and another one to the west. But that's something to pray over, and discuss at council meetings, and write letters about. If gospel music is about anything, it's about the idea that everyone is equal in the eyes of God. And yes, the specter of race relations does haunt the churches as well, but as far as gospel music (and this article) is concerned, the line between saved and not saved is far more important than the color line.

Through the efforts of people on both sides of I-35, the barriers of skin color may be breaking down, finally. They aren't gone yet -- some would argue it's not even close -- but KXIL-AM deejay and gospel promoter Bill "The Mailman" Martin, and Texas Folklife Resources director Pat Jasper are both trying (with success) to stimulate interest in Austin's gospel community.

Martin, a former subway driver and postal carrier (hence the nickname), who met his wife while stationed at Bergstrom AFB after serving in Korea, is constantly trying new things to increase attendance at and awareness of his gospel shows. He points to a recent two-day, multiple-group gospel extravaganza at the Capitol Marriott (co-sponsored by TFR) as a great success, but says he still doesn't understand why more people -- even those who clap, sing, shout, and holler in church all day Sunday -- won't come out and support gospel music.

"There are various church people who I know love gospel music that weren't there," he says. "I can't say they didn't want to go because they had to pay because the concert was free, so why they didn't go, I don't know. That's why I'm trying to introduce gospel music to Austin people the way I'm doing, so maybe I can start gathering those gospel people that I know love gospel music but just don't come out."

Martin says that some folks just don't think it's right to have to pay admission to a gospel concert, but, since he has to deal with everything secular promoters do, there's little he can do about the situation except shrug his shoulders. "I've had people ask me why I would do a concert and charge admission," he says. "But I tell them, `These people have to fly the same airlines as secular people do. They have to sleep in the same hotels that secular people do. So how are they going to meet their expenses if you don't charge?'

"I would like to bring more gospel artists here," he says. "But I'm leery for the simple reason that you just don't promote a program for free. I'm afraid that if I bring the type of gospel the people deserve and want, that the people would not come out and support it. The Mississippi Mass [Choir] wants to come here, and every choir in Austin is singing some of the Mississippi Mass' songs. They call me all the time saying they would like to come to Austin and do a concert, but I'm afraid if I bring a choir of that caliber here, I'm going to have to go to the poorhouse to try to pay them."

But Martin may have found a way to introduce gospel music to more people and, by doing so, keep himself out of dire financial straits. Texas Folklife Resources has been a strong supporter of Central Texas gospel music for many years, producing an award-winning series for public radio on the topic in 1989. "It's a very coherent, stable, situated scene," Jasper says. "What we've been able to do is play an important role in educating the general public in how important this scene is." Although TFR would like as many people to enjoy gospel music as is humanly possible, Jasper says it's also important that the music not forsake its heritage, which is deeply intertwined with the East Austin African-American community. She points to last spring's tribute to the Bells of Joy as an example. "If we did the Bells of Joy tribute on the Westside, we would have packed the house," she says. "But it would have been a white audience. We feel it's important to present the music to the audience that created it."

Martin and Jasper both have things the other needs -- Martin knows virtually everybody connected to Austin's gospel community, while Jasper's list of contacts at TFR is nearly as long. By working both sides of the highway -- as the recent sold-out nights at the Marriott, and their interracial audience, will attest -- the two are closer, maybe as close as anyone has ever been, to the following verse:

"Go ye therefore, and make disciples of
all nations, baptizing them in the name of the father, and of the son, and of the holy spirit."

-- Matthew 28:19

One of the most basic teachings of the gospel is that all men and women are welcome into the kingdom of Heaven; therefore, it's every Christian's responsibility to open the doors of salvation for those who have yet to experience it. And yet this, and not race relations, seems to be one of the gospel community's primary stumbling blocks. A recent concert at Reagan High School spelled this out in sharp relief. After the Bells of Joy, one of Austin's longest-running, most revered, and most successful gospel groups (in 1952, the Bells cut the only gospel record to sell more than a million copies, "Let's Talk About Jesus") completed their 35-minute set to loud "Amens" from the crowd of 500 or so people, group member A.C. Littlefield took the microphone to announce the Bells' next appearance.

"The Bells of Joy will be appearing tomorrow at the Waterloo Brewing Company at Fourth and Guadalupe," he said. The crowd grew silent and the whispers began. An air of concern and slight disapproval settled over the previously jubilant auditorium. Sensing this, Littlefield responded. "These are the people we need to be reaching," he reassured them. There were a few emphatic "Amens," and a few more tentative ones, but the air of doubt remained until San Antonio gospel deejay Jackie Ray Robinson introduced the next group, San Antonio's Resurrection Singers, and then it was on with the show.

"And be not drunk with wine; wherein is excess; but be filled with the spirit; speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord." -- Ephesians 5:18-19

Littlefield isn't the only one who's encountered resistance in trying to take the Word of God into the very secular world of bars and nightclubs. Like the Mighty Clouds of Joy playing the Armadillo World Headquarters in the Seventies, local gospel group Malachi has ventured the gap as well. "One reason we play in clubs is because there's a lot of people there that wouldn't come to church," says Wesley Bray, Malachi's lead vocalist. "To me, it just lines up with the Word of God where Jesus went out to places that his own people didn't like him going."

"We're doing what we feel the Lord wants us to do, and just because somebody else says that we shouldn't do it, that doesn't stop us," adds Cynthia Bray, Wesley's wife and fellow Malachi member. The couple agrees, though, that their performances have to be tailored to their surroundings. Wesley calls it "a more subtle way" of ministering, "where people don't feel like you're just trying to make them do something." Again, he looks to Jesus for a precedent.

"Jesus did the same thing in a way, through parables," Bray continues. "He knew that he had to talk to certain people in certain kinds of ways, so if you were a farmer, he talked to you about farming, but it was all leading to one thing, and that's the kingdom of God." Indeed, he says that Malachi has met with considerable resistance, even from among his fellow Christians, people whom he says are still "sitting in church every Sunday still living in the darkness."

"On the Christian side of the fence, there's a lot of people who don't understand what we do and why we do it," says Bray. "The only way they can understand is for the Lord to open their vision up to the point where they can see where we're coming from."

Even his own wife was once on the other side of the divide. "Before I was involved with Wesley and didn't know any of the things he was involved in, I thought the same way," Cynthia says. "It was like, `Why are these people going into clubs? Excuse me?' It's because I did not understand the reasoning of Christians going outside the church to minister, because I've always been in church, and it was like, that's where you're supposed to minister. It was like you have God in this little box and you can't go outside of it. But God is bigger than that. Once you've learned that God is more than in church, and he's anywhere and everywhere, that's when you understand."

"If you sing and minister around in just churches," Bray says, "And all the people there are supposed to be saved anyway, it's just like a doctor tending the people that don't need it."

"And lo, thou art unto them as a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument: for they hear thy words, but they do them not."

-- Ezekiel 33:32

They hear thy words, but they do them not. Or, as Chester Baldwin, music director for the Mt. Sinai Baptist Church, says, "There's a different type of music that you do in doing a concert versus what you do in worship. It's easier for the church music to cross over into concert music than it is for the concert to cross back into the church."

Baldwin says it's hard to consider some of the music he hears gospel; because it's been so influenced by things other than the Lord, and because it tries to broaden the audience for Christian music, its central message has become so watered down as to be almost unrecognizable.

"They use very vague terms," he says. "A lot of `He,' and you're supposed to assume that the `He' is Christ or the `He' is God, so that it can cross over and reach larger audiences. Because of my commitment to aiding people to have a better walk with Christ, a closer walk with Christ, I have an inability to sing songs that have just a vague, sentimental meaning. You really can't know the message is really about Christ or the message is God-centered. I have an inability to do a lot of that music in a church setting.

"What we're all about on Sunday mornings is reaching somebody, getting a message to someone," he continues. "The people who do contemporary music see themselves as reaching a broader audience by making what we call gospel music sound like what's popular to our younger generation, but [they've] sold them out, saying this is the only thing that can reach them, is to do what the world has done.

"I try to reach people to help their lives be better by reaching them with music that sticks to their soul," he says. "Which means that when they are faced with daily tasks or their daily difficulties or whatever, that that music becomes an integral part, that the song comes back to them that helps them make it through a particular obstacle in their life."

One thing that's not blurry, though -- it rings as clear and true as one of those great call-and-response choruses gospel music is so famous for -- is that, while all these people's methods and beliefs may differ, they each do what they do for the glory of God. They believe the methods they use will help others know Him. In the end, it's all about making a joyful noise, the kind of noise that makes people look forward to the sun peeking over the horizon on a bright and clear Austin Sunday morning. In their own way, each of them is trying to live out the words of Isaiah 35:10:

"And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs of everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away."

Amen. Merry Christmas. n

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