For the Record – By Joseph Winters

Joseph Winters on Lerone Martin’s Preaching on Wax

Lerone A. Martin, Preaching On Wax: The Phonograph and the Shaping of Modern African American Religion, NYU Press, 2014, 240pp., $24
Lerone A. Martin, Preaching On Wax: The Phonograph and the Shaping of Modern African American Religion, NYU Press, 2014, 240pp., $24
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In her seminal article, “Rethinking Vernacular Culture,” historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham encourages students of religion to pay closer attention to the race records (phonographs marketed primarily to black audiences) produced in the 1920s and 30s. While most people associate these records with the production of the blues and jazz, Higginbotham reminds us that in addition to secular music, “companies such as Okeh, Victor, Vocalion, and Paramount recorded vernacular discourses of religion in the forms of sermons and gospel music…” For Higginbotham, these race records, which included popular sermons and gospel blues, provide insights into working class black religious culture — its expressions, desires, and conflicts with middle class norms. Drawing attention to these sonic recordings challenges tendencies to privilege the written text as a site of black expression, she argues, and corrects tendencies to ignore the religious practices of working class blacks.

In Lerone Martin’s insightful and timely text, Preaching on Wax, the author responds to Higginbotham’s call by providing an account of how black preachers between 1925 and 1941 used the phonograph to record, sell, and distribute sermons. Martin’s book, as suggested by the title, promises to contribute to discussions about religion and commodification, or the use of popular culture to disseminate “sacred” ideas and rituals.

Preaching on Wax seeks to understand “why a critical mass of African-American ministers, like Reverend [James] Gates teamed up with phonograph labels to record and sell their sermons and why black consumers eagerly purchased them.” By examining this partnership, Martin hopes to show how ‘phonograph religion’ re-shaped African-American Christian practice. While students and scholars of black religion have examined the importance of print, radio, and the Internet, there has been a paucity of scholarly engagements with the phonograph as a significant medium of black religious practice and identity.

Any serious discussion about black phonograph religion has to include the historical circumstances for black people in the early twentieth century. For instance, this period saw a mass migration, or displacement, of black bodies from the rural South to southern and northern cities. As Martin points out, urban life introduced blacks to new forms of piety, entertainment, leisure, and consumption. At the same time, these newly arrived black communities often felt a sense of longing for the practices that they both left behind and carried with them. Because urban churches often eschewed elements of black “folk” expression (such as the chanted sermon), consuming records that catered to rural sensibilities “helped the transplanted faithful to hold fast to their faith in a strange land.” In addition to connecting the consumption of records to the logistics of migration, Martin reminds the reader that black clergy did not have the same access to radio as their white counterparts. Phonograph religion was, in part, a creative response to this race-informed disparity.

Before providing a detailed analysis of black preachers who relied on the record industry to package and sell sermons, Martin offers a general overview of the phonograph’s early social impact. The phonograph, or talking machine, promised to transcend the limits of time and space, allowing sounds to be recorded, mass produced, and widely distributed. The emergence of the phonograph increasingly enabled “Americans to “gather at home and various other spaces to enjoy music, current events, landmark speeches, political debates, and religion.”

Much of phonograph’s appeal was its broad utility — it could be used for many purposes. The phonograph could be used for private amusement, moral and religious instruction, and the education of the youth (via children speaking books). In addition, with portable record players and the production of records in different languages, the phonograph and emerging record industries could accommodate the movement and flux of modern life.

But as Martin reminds the reader, many people did not welcome the popularity of the record with open arms. Not unlike contemporary concerns about the harmful effects of the Internet and social media, early critics were concerned that the phonograph would undermine “the foundation of Western culture, particularly reading and book publishing.” In urban black communities, criticisms were directed at race records, particularly jazz and blues recordings that violated the norms of middle class respectability. Songs that sounded too expressive, that glorified moral vices like alcohol consumption and promiscuous sexual activity, were accused of mis-representing black people and perpetuating damaging racial stereotypes.

As Martin points out, black churches in urban spaces responded in at least two ways to the growing menace of phonograph and commercial entertainment. One alternative was to compete with secular forms of entertainment by promoting alternative, and more respectable, leisure activities such as opera, theater, and dances. Another option was to surrender popular entertainment to the record industry and direct the church’s energies to spiritual uplift. This second option resembles what sociologist Max Weber called differentiation, which suggests that religion has a specific social function that is distinct from other social practices.

But Martin argues that black preachers like Calvin “Black Billy Sunday” Dixon, Leora Ross, and James Gates pursued a third alternative — using the phonograph, and commercial culture more generally, as a way to market, sell, and produce black religion. Crucial here for Martin is the different levels of market success between Sunday and Gates. Whereas Sunday’s record deal with Columbia records was short-lived because of low album sales, Gates became an immediate and longer-lasting commercial success. Martin attributes this contrast to different aesthetic and homiletic styles. Sunday’s recorded sermons were “urbane, didactic, and Stoic.” Gates, on the other hand, “forsook the polished delivery of his predecessors, instead recording sermons in emblematic folk style using improvisation, tonal modulation, and rhythmic chanting.” As someone who experienced and lived the migration from rural to urban Georgia, Gates was “in tune” with the folk styles and preferences of black migrants. His use of vernacular expressions, tropes, and sounds made his records widely accessible, successful, and lucrative, demonstrating how “authenticity” and commodification can go hand in hand.

Yet the kind of popularity and resonance that Gates achieved with everyday, working class blacks did not have the same implications for female preachers like Leora Ross. As Martin points out, Ross’s success as a phonograph preacher was fleeting because of prevalent discourses (exemplified by Gates’s sermon “Mannish Women”) that promoted traditional gender roles and discouraged women from performing duties, like preaching, that were coded as “masculine.”

Martin demonstrates how commercial success became a way for preachers like Gates to enter the black professional class. While a religious contemporary like Martin Luther King, Sr. gained prestige and recognition through formal education, Gates acquired authority and stature through consumer culture.

Here it is important to keep in mind the broader developments and shifts in modern American life that challenged the authority of the black preacher. Martin underscores, for instance, the increasing tension between science and religion and the emergence of a new black professional class (writers, journalists, politicians) that challenged the power and legitimacy of black clergy. Yet Gates was able to accumulate wealth and retain prestige, qualities associated with home ownership and the consumption of luxury cars, by exploiting his widespread success as a marketable phonograph preacher. According to Martin, “commercial celebrity was a pathway for black religious clerics to maintain a sense of relevance and authority for their profession and gospel. Selling the gospel in the marketplace provided an avenue for clergy to maintain a sense of social authority and upward mobility during the New Negro era.” The commodification of black religious practice provided opportunities and possibilities for black clergy to ascend the social ladder.

But the logic of capital is marked by contradiction. Gates experienced and performed this contradiction during his jeremiad against chain stores. While Gates criticized big corporations for undermining independent businesses and eroding the values of local communities, his phonograph ministry depended on the very institutions that he lambasted to distribute his records. As many people in the academy are accustomed to hearing, any “resistance” to power is intertwined with submission to that power.

Martin’s Preaching on Wax is a beautifully written, well-researched book. The text develops Higginbotham’s claim about the significance of the phonograph as a site of African-American religious expression. It also draws attention to figures that are usually rendered invisible by the scholarship on popular evangelists in the twentieth century (Billy Sunday, Aimee McPherson, etc.). More generally, Martin’s work compels the student and scholar of African-American Christianity to re-think the relationship between black religion, popular culture, and commercial success. As the author claims in his concluding remarks, the marketing strategies of contemporary televangelists like T.D. Jakes and Creflo Dollar are not new; they repeat the formulas used by phonograph preachers like James Gates.

Perhaps black Christianity has always existed between the sacred and profane, while troubling the way we imagine and fabricate sacred boundaries. (The Word might be above the marketplace but it gets circulated in a commodity form.) In addition, Gates’s commercial success might point to the ways in which iconic religious figures, even the prophetic kind, have always used “media” to circulate ideas and criticisms, media that shape the production of these ideas. Gates’s phonograph ministry might just be a pronounced example of this tendency, a salient example of someone who exploited commercial media to respond to the complexities of racial modernity. Whether we agree with his “commercial” strategies or not, Martin argues persuasively that we cannot simply dismiss them as antithetical to black religion.