Ride on, King Jesus: The blessing of ‘black’ music

by Mark Schultz

Having just gotten caught up with the back issues of this very interesting new journal, I find myself belatedly goaded into joining the debate over the sources and value of contemporary music.

Andy Minto has argued that “the misery and alienation of slavery” in America adversely influenced the moral quality of African American music, which became, ultimately, the poisoned field from which all modern music sprouted. I strongly suggest a closer reading of the rich literature on slave religion, which speaks vividly of the life-giving, hope-sustaining quality of their religious music. Indeed, I find in the slave spirituals a sense of wonder, solemnity, joy, and humility at being in the presence of God unmatched by the music of any other tradition. Remember, all they had to sustain them was God; and those of us who know God should not be at all surprised that a people reduced to utter brokenness cried out to God and found Him there. It has happened before. They themselves recognized their spiritual kinship with the children of Israel. Slave narratives and slave spirituals describe God in an intense, loving and personal way that I find deeply evocative of the writings of another captive, Isaiah.

Historians—an unusually contentious lot—are unanimous in their assessment of the community-building and life-sustaining character of slave religion in America. There is, however, some disagreement over the extent of the influence of the spirituals in African American culture after the abolition of slavery. My opinion is that the heritage of the spirituals still deeply influences black culture. This godly inheritance is direct and clear within the black churches, where the spirituals and their lively descendants, gospel songs, fill at least an hour of every Sunday service. Anyone who has not heard the triumphant gospel masterpiece “Ride On, King Jesus” sung in six part harmony by a full choir dressed in resplendent robes has simply missed one of the aesthetic wonders and great spiritual treasures of the world. I personally join African American communities in worship every chance I get. I believe that God is speaking a powerful and authentic word through them to all Americans.

The other music traditions that were strongly influenced by the culture of slavery—blues, jazz, rock, even modern country—descend a bit more from the slave work songs than from the spirituals. Yet even these secular music styles owe much to their family ties to the spirituals.

Over the past century, many artists who began in church music crossed over into these other styles, bringing along much they had learned before. I see the secular styles as a kind of gumbo; they are made up of many diverse strands and reflect many diverse experiences and philosophies—some wholesome, some less so. My approach is: if you don’t like the chicken bones, just pick them out. I love, and draw sustenance from, all kinds of music, but somehow, I have yet to find the need to purchase a Black Sabbath album. Although the blues do express a sense of isolation and alienation, within this style there was a great Christian music tradition: the gospel blues artist. His call—and he would describe it as such—was to break the hearts of men and women with song, and to help them repent and return to God. When you read Psalm 51, you know that that ol’ harp strummin’ hound dog King David would have understood these blues perfectly.

Ultimately, I would like to commend Mark Fisher for his thoughtful remarks in the February 27 issue of the Concourse. I join him in arguing that much of the historical source of contemporary music is life-affirming, although its present manifestation—like everything else—is eaten by the “acids of modernity.” (Anyone listened to modern classical music lately?) Consequently, it must be appraised song by song, artist by artist.

It may, additionally, be worthwhile to place these aesthetic debates within the context of the traditional commitment of the Church to the philosophy of catholicity. We are Catholics after all, neither fundamentalists nor provincialists.

The Church has tended through the millennia (more than any other missionary faith) to embrace, incorporate and redeem the vast and various indigenous expressions of art and music around the world. (I recommend, as a wonderful example, the Missa Luba, the Latin mass sung in Congolese style with log drums and gourds.) It is proper to our identity to value breadth and heterogeneity over narrowness and homogeneity. While Europe and classical European culture have contributed greatly to beauty in music, art, and architecture, we must remain open to recognizing the power of the Holy Spirit working through artists of other traditions. It is our way, as Catholics, to do so.

Yet, if any insist on judging, I suggest that one might plausibly judge the moral value of a style of music by evaluating the response that it evokes in human listeners. This might allow for a manner of criticism that cuts a surprising swath across different musical boundaries, calling equally into question the din blasting in the violent grunge pits and the Wagnerian music which Hitler and the Nazi regime found so inspiring on the road to genocide.

A final note. I am puzzled by Minto’s appeal to Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger as a politically neutral arbiter of musical values. Minto seems to think it difficult to characterize him as a “social conservative.” Whatever does he mean? Cardinal Ratzinger has long held exactly such a reputation among the many who admire him and the many who do not. His position as “a churchman, a theologian and a trusted teacher of the Church” does not exempt him from the human condition of having personal leanings. While many people’s political positions are diverse and difficult to classify, Cardinal Ratzinger’s are distinctly conservative, just as those of Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, another trusted teacher of the Church, are distinctly liberal. I thought we liberals were the only ones embarrassed over our political identity these days. When did you conservatives start getting shy?

Mark Schultz is an alumnus of the class of ‘87, and an Instructor of History at Lewis University in Illinois.