By: Art McDonald
It often happens that the week (or more) following the choir singing at service I’m still singing the tune; it happened this whole week with the modern spiritual we learned: “Can’t Keep a That Glory In!” You remember the words: “Can’t stop a that shoutin, won’t hush a that praise, King Jesus is risen right out of a that grave. Can’t quench a my spirit, won’t let, let in end, Just got to tell it everywhere, can’t keep a that glory in…Just gotta sing praises to Jesus name! He shattered the darkness of sin and shame with a mighty resurrection light!…the angels shout and sing with JOY…Join in the anthem, come add your voice…everybody in the world rejoice.
It’s an amazing spiritual tradition out of the context of slavery and oppression and brutality and humiliation yet the spirit cannot be quenched; it’s time to make a lot of noise, shout out, sing praise, rejoice and be JOYFUL at the ultimate triumph as the story goes; what a paradox, creativity and joy in the midst of suffering and sorrow.
I was singing this to myself the other night as Melanie and I went down to Huntington Theatre to a play about the great African American playwright, who group up in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, named August Wilson. This particular play Wilson never got to see: it’s a play about his life, his early years growing up in a section of Pittsburgh that was 99% African American with three old white ladies. The play is entitled: “How I learned what I learned,” which he wrote in collaboration with another playwright and the sole actor in the play, Eugene Lee, who took on the character of August Wilson telling stories for 1 hour and 40 minutes.
A key theme in this autobiographical play is maintaining dignity, principle, respect, humor and, yes, JOY in the midst of discrimination, segregation and humiliation, i.e., in a word, racism. There were poignant moments for me in the play, one in which Wilson describes trying to cash a check earned for $750. The teller asked for identification with a photo which he produced. She looked upon him warily and asked: “Is this really you?” He wanted to say something laced with curses but he politely answered “Yes.” She remained unconvinced. She left the counter and got the manager who also looked warily upon Wilson. They looked him up in a book of records and everything seemed to match. The teller cashed the check with an attitude and when asked for an envelope, she responded that the bank did not have envelopes. On his next visit another teller cashed his check without incident and when he asked for an envelope, without hesitation she produced one, to which Wilson responded: last time I was told the bank didn’t carry envelopes. I can’t tell you what any other teller might have said, she replied. The actor went on to relate many other stories in Wilson’s words in which he quit jobs because of discrimination and poor treatment because of his ethnicity and skin color.
But the recollection that most stuck with me from the play and Wilson’s life was of a very different nature. Despite growing up in segregated Pittsburgh in the 40s and 50s, the all Black (except for 3 old white ladies) Hill District was a very thriving and tight-knit community with lots of black-owned business and deep relationships; Wilson had many mentors and people who cared about him, most especially his African-American mother. His German born father left when he was very young.
Among other things, the Hill District was the center of Jazz music, not only in Pittsburgh but across the country. All the great jazz musicians came to play in Pittsburgh, especially in the Hill District. Wilson describes a night when the great saxophonist, John Coltrane, was playing in the famous Crawford Grill. The well off Blacks paid to get in, mostly to eat and drink; Coltrane’s music was just background for them. However, there was a huge crowd outside the nightclub who couldn’t afford to get in; a young Wilson was part of that crowd and he concluded that Coltrane was actually playing for those outside; is inspired music floated above the inside crowd and filtered out the doors to those on the street and it filled their spirits with rhythm and JOY. There was no one like the great Coltrane – the “train” as many called him.
“Is it mere accident,” writes Black scholar Cornell West, “that ‘A Love Supreme’ (1964) – the masterpiece of the greatest musical artist of our time and the grand exemplar of twentieth-century black spirituality, John Coltrane – is cast in the form of a prayer? The slave authors of the spirituals (he names several, among them Coltrane) “…all engaged in (a Keatsian) soul-making in that they courageously confronted the darkness in and of modernity with artistic integrity and genuine spirituality…The African-American spiritual – with its motifs of homelessness, namelessness, and hope against hope – is the first modern artistic expression of this human outcry in the New World.”
But for Coltrane there is more. After struggling with alcohol and heroin addiction in his early years he had some kind of religious experience at age 31; it had something to do with what he called “the mystical language of music.” That’s, I think, what Wilson and the others who couldn’t afford to go inside were carried away with as they listened to Coltrane; they were his real audience. As to his purpose from then on in writing and performing music, Coltrane writes: “I would like to bring to people something like happiness (JOY?). I would like to discover a method so that if I want it to rain, it will start right away to rain. If one of my friends is ill, I’d like to play a certain song and he will be cured; when he’d be broke, I’d bring out a different song and immediately he’d receive all the money he needed.” Coltrane called this: Deliverance through DIVINE sound!”
Later, after writing his greatest work, “A Love Supreme,” Coltrane said: “My goal is to live the truly religious life, and express it in my music. If you live it, when you play there’s no problem because the music is part of the whole thing. To be a musician is really something. It goes very, very deep. My music is the spiritual expression of what I am – my faith, my knowledge, my being.” And Coltrane’s “religion,” based on this powerful experience while in the midst of a heroin high, then low, made him curious about all religions, especially from the East. He thought of himself as a Universalist, in the sense of appreciation for many spiritual and religious traditions.
Coltrane was clearly a key inspiration for Wilson to write his plays about the Black experience of segregation and humiliation in Pittsburgh in his early years. Like Coltrane’s music, the writing gave Wilson a sense of his worth, his dignity, his greatness, even if you don’t get the same sense of happiness and joy in the midst of struggle that marked Coltrane; or the spirituality, although Wilson did have a religious upbringing, went to Catholic Schools early on, and weaved some biblical references into this autobiographical play. But I had wished that Wilson had also taken from Coltrane some of his deep religiousness, happiness and joy expressed in his work. At times in the play Wilson seemed to hold on to a good deal of bitterness.
For me, though not a jazz aficionada, I have to now get my hands on some Coltrane and try to experience the power of his spirit and music. It’s a new adventure; a new sense of joy at what life keeps offering. Even in the midst of a fairly dark time in our history with growing inequalities, foreboding climate change, war and terrorism constantly on our minds, there is in the human spirit, I believe, a deep well of excitement at the adventure of creation and life, that all too easily gets lost in the shadow of our challenges and our conflicts as a people.
The great Rabbi Heschel reminds us despite indications to the contrary, JOY is an ancient Biblical theme. “This is indeed a peculiar, unheard – of fact. Normally, “he goes on,” the attitudes in accord with religious existence all over the world are humility, contrition, obedience, sorrow, remorse. Joy is not a theological category in the teachings of most religions and is never discussed in handbooks of theology…Even within Judaism the teaching that joy lies at the very heart of worship, that it is a prerequisite for piety, is a scandal to the dullards and a stumbling block to the bigots…when we speak of the need for joy…what we mean then is the banishment of sadness. A Jew who does not rejoice in his Jewishness is ungrateful toward heaven; it is a sign he has failed to grasp the meaning of being born a Jew…the fire of evil can better be fought with flames of ecstacy than through fasting and mortification.” And this from an Eastern European Jew who survived the Holocaust!!
And one of the key sources of a joyful spirituality or theology, if you will, I believe, is music. I am so grateful to have heard more about Coltrane through Wilson’s autobiographical play, “How I learned what I learned.” An I am so grateful that we take music seriously here at First UU Essex, with Eden’s Edge, and our Sorellanza sisters, and the choir and a singing congregation, Betsy and Julie’s recitals, and, today, the gift of our band yet to be named! MUSIC IS IN THE WALLS! Maybe like me who can’t stop a that shoutin, won’t hush that praise, can’t quench a my spirit, can’t keep a that glory in, and like the angels shouting and singing with JOY, maybe some of you will feel the same as you leave today as your spirit rises and you keep singing something you heard while we gathered. You might even feel the need to tell it everywhere; go for it! JUST GOT TO TELL IT EVERYWHERE, CAN”T KEEP A THAT GLORY IN!