Oddenda & Such – 5

There are few things that are universal in the many behaviors of homo sapiens, but that of some belief system in (a) higher power(s), which is often labeled “religion” by Western Europeans, is one such realm. Peoples’ beliefs vary in context, content, and intent, but there is something present in all cultures, even if not always apparent or denied. Equally variable is how belief(s) is/are expressed publicly and privately within a culture. Such “religious” behavior often seems to be outlandish to an outsider, but that is the outsider’s problem and not the participants’. If the behavior strays too far from the observer’s personal experience, it may be looked upon as silly, bizarre, or even pathological. One need be very careful when responding to the “strange” and not over-react to unfamiliarities. And, often, there are behaviors we may think of as, or assume to be, familiar, but in actuality they are not so at all. African American churches are essentially Christian in their basic dogma, etc., but they are quite different from Roman Catholicism, Church of England/Episcopalian, or any of the other of the obviously “White” mainstream denominations in their religious execution or “performance”. The religious expressive behaviors seen and heard often in Black churches is different… it is essentially a type of religious creolization that has grown over time throughout the New World.

I am writing as a reaction to a part of Keith Briggs’ review (in issue 120) of Alan Young’s book on Black Mississippi gospel singers and preachers. Specifically, the passage, “the extravagant breath control and the ‘changing gear’ that some congregations expect before they will accept that ‘now he’s preaching’ all seem to be coldly calculated to create an effect.” (my emphasis) Then he goes on, “It seems that certain sectors of church goers are actually trying (Briggs’ emphasis) to achieve some sort of catharsis through hysteria.” While I am certain that Keith has no intention of appearing to be patronizing towards some African American religious performance styles, that is unfortunately how this soon-to-be-former American reacts to the sections quoted and especially to the use of the word “hysteria”(1) at the end of the cited passage. There is more involved than that sort of pat superficial statement, and so I will attempt briefly to explicate some of what I know about Black religious behaviors.

What goes on in Black church services and musical programs is not coldly calculated for effect, but is an organically permitted group of culturally agreed upon sets of behaviors and markers that signify (not semiotically!) one’s religiosity within a given religious context. One example of such behavior is trance, which is a part of most of the world’s religious activities, including many non-Black Christian groups today. Certainly it is a part of many African religions, as well as non-US African American ones such as santeria (Cuba), vodun (Haiti), or umbanda (Brazil). Some form of trance behavior has been and continues to be a part of many African American Christian churches in the United States. Often the actions of the preacher, the congregation, or any musical group involved are geared towards establishing the potential for that outcome to occur in a “safe” context. The performance characteristics may appear to an outsider such as myself to be out-of-control, but that is not the case to those within at all. An individual may (or may not) act in acceptable fashion in a protected setting according to the “rules” of the group. There are culturally accepted limitations beyond which one does not go (and would not be apparent to an outsider)… to do so would be considered by the community members as inappropriate. To say “coldly calculated”, “effect”, and “hysteria” is misinforming and disrespectful to a functioning and shared religious experience, and demonstrates a lack of knowledge and understanding of those expressive behaviors. Or maybe a lack of first-hand exposure to them. One need tread carefully. (And it can be quite overwhelming to experience it as an outsider, as I [a card-carrying atheist] well know.) I cannot determine what may be the case for the writer from the review. And I intend no disrespect towards Keith here, but I’m saying “hey, there’s more going on than you have indicated in your review, maybe more than you may be aware of”… or any White person would be.

In other religions of the world (including the Americas), often the celebrant is literally taken over by their specific deity and they become that deity for a brief period of time. This occurs in some African American religions outside the U.S. and is often an expected part of a given worship service. In the US, possession generally takes a different form, in part because Christianity is ostensibly monotheistic in nature. Certainly, people attending African American churches or religious music programs can (under the right circumstances) “get happy” and have the spirit of the Lord descend upon them, resulting in certain predictable things taking place. The best known among them are spontaneous dancing (known often as “shout”), or linguistic behaviors (glossolalia – “speaking in tongues”), or what appear to be bodily seizures which may occur. A context is set for such potential activity, but the actions do not necessarily always take place. In those cases where it does occur, a kind of trance activity sets in, but it should be noted that such normal and normative actions have clearly delineated and acceptable boundaries within each church or group of churches. In the words of Travis Bickel, “What is, is” and it should be accepted for that and understood as such (if possible).

In that regard, I’d like to give some greater exposure to some work done by Glenn Hinson(2) with “quartets” in Philadelphia and North Carolina in the 1980s (and his more general work with African American religious expressive behaviors). What he learned from various singers was that there were culturally derived and accepted performance “markers” that can indicate a change in performance “level” or intent. This succession of movements from one level to another is found in many forms of expression in a Black service or program, including choirs or the preaching of the minister. Not all levels are utilized at all times in any one “performance”, but they are available and understood by all who regularly take part.

In the case of a given quartet performance, the group starts to sing the song (level one) relatively “straight”. After a variable amount of time, the performance may become “elevated” (level two). In this state, the singing becomes more intense (“hard”) and often a lead singer truly emerges from the ensemble. As the performance progresses, the song may then eventually return to the initial performance state, or it may move into yet another level. This (level three) is often referred to as “drive” and these levels are like changing gear in a car. Here the performance becomes more fragmented, the lead sings shorter phrases, and the group answers him with repeated phrases or riffs in classic call-and-response. The lead singer’s voice becomes more raspy with his or her breathing becoming more abrupt and harsh. It is similar to voice changes that occur in other religions when the individual’s deity takes over their body and its functions. The performance becomes even more “hard”. There is usually not the accompanying alteration in total posture and/or voice that indicates when one’s orixa has descended upon the worshiper as in the Afro-Brazilian religion of umbanda, for example. The performance of the song will eventually end, returning to the beginning state, often going back through “elevation” (or not). There are many variants on this overly simplistic model.

In the “drive” section the church members interpret it to mean that the spirit of the Lord has descended and trance by them is a possibility. This is usually not, though, full trance or possession on the part of the singer, although it does occasionally occur. Certainly it is a window of opportunity for a congregation member or program attendee to go into trance activities. This singing behavior can be faked, but if the congregation doesn’t cotton on to the sham (a rare occurrence!), the other singers will and they do not approve of phony religiosity at all! The singer’s status and regard in the group and community would be greatly diminished if faking continued.

As I have mentioned, similar patterns can take place in the preaching behavior of the minister (see writings of Gerald Davis, or Alan Young, or the writings and recordings of Alan Lomax, or Jeff Todd Titon). Once the sermon has begun, there is often an increase in vocalic intensity which may be followed by more notable vocal rasp and prominent breath expulsions or intakes at the ends of short phrases. This multiple level pattern of behavior is common throughout specifically African American US Protestant denominations, sects, and cults. Some of these religious performance markers have now been incorporated into many White, rural church services (again, see Titon, or Lomax). The “gear changing” is real and it serves an important “marking” function within a church service or singing program. It is not calculated, as such, but is understood – just ask Ray Funk, Kip Lornell, Ray Allen, or Doug Seroff!

These aspects of religious behavior should not be viewed as pathology (which is why I cite Robert DiNiro’s character), even   though seeming strange to an outsider. They are potential culturally specific and culturally accepted actions, not coldly calculated to create an “effect”, but available to aid the group in expressing freely (in ways that the community understands and accepts) their feelings about their oneness with their god. This is anything but cold and calculated (much less hysterical) in its act, or intent or effect within a congregation. What the Black church-goers are trying to do is to express their faith, their joy, and their love, individually and collectively, towards their deity. Nothing more, nothing less. It constitutes a series of markers that indicate that it is OK for someone to move into ecstatic expression within their given context… or not.

As for myself, I must quote George Bernard Shaw and say, “I am an atheist, and I thank God for it.” And I am also very White. Of course, there’s always been a slight sense of envy in me that one can believe so strongly, openly, and freely, and take comfort from it. I guess “once a folklorist, always a folklorist”… not for me as a participant/observer, but as an accepted and acceptable outsider. I, for one, cannot denigrate that of which I am not a part, but I can try to understand, appreciate, and accept it as best I can. We can do nothing more and nothing less.

(1) HYSTERIA (n): 1. Mental disorder with emotional outbursts. 2. Any frenzied emotional state. 3. Fit of crying or laughing.

   -Collins Reference English Dictionary: London (1988), Paragon


  • (2) HINSON, Glenn – Fire In My Bones: Transcendence and the Holy Spirit in African American Gospel. Philadelphia (1999) University of Pennsylvania Press.

Peter B. Lowry

Published: BLUES & RHYTHM #125 –Xmas 1997, p. 5.

Later on:

This piece dances around the problems that occur when one looks from the outside at another’s culture in any depth. In this case, it is sacred activity rather than secular activity (Sunday Morning Service rather than Saturday Night Function). Once again there exists the difficulty of NOT perceiving or judging according to OUR criteria, of attempting to look through another’s eyes, and grasp the importance of what we see ACCORDING TO THE “OTHERS” and not to ourselves! It is a constant difficulty for all who “live’ within the social sciences – sociology, folklore, anthropology, folklife, social history, a.o. May the farce be with us all!

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