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Downhome Gospel

Downhome Gospel: African American Spiritual Activism in Wiregrass Country

Jerrilyn McGregory
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Downhome Gospel
    Book Description:

    Jerrilyn McGregory explores sacred music and spiritual activism in a little-known region of the South, the Wiregrass Country of Georgia, Alabama, and North Florida. She examines African American sacred music outside of Sunday church-related activities, showing that singing conventions and anniversary programs fortify spiritual as well as social needs. In this region African Americans maintain a social world of their own creation. Their cultural performances embrace some of the most pervasive forms of African American sacred music--spirituals, common meter, Sacred Harp, shape-note, traditional, and contemporary gospel. Moreover, the contexts in which they sing include present-day observations such as the Twentieth of May (Emancipation Day), Burial League Turnouts, and Fifth Sunday.Rather than tracing the evolution of African American sacred music, this ethnographic study focuses on contemporary cultural performances, almost all by women, which embrace all forms. These women promote a female-centered theology to ensure the survival of their communities and personal networks. They function in leadership roles that withstand the test of time. Their spiritual activism presents itself as a way of life.In Wiregrass Country, "You don't have to sing like an angel" is a frequently expressed sentiment. To these women, "good" music is God's music regardless of the manner delivered. Therefore, Downhome Gospel presents gospel music as being more than a transcendent sound. It is local spiritual activism that is writ large. Gospel means joy, hope, expectation, and the good news that makes the soul glad.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-783-7
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Prologue
    (pp. ix-xiii)

    Although African American, I am no Zora Neale Hurston. Even this esteemed folklorist candidly expressed disappointment about her initial excursion to conduct fieldwork in Eatonville, Florida, where she grew up. She fell short due to her failure to code switch: “But, I went about asking, in carefully accented Barnardese, ‘Pardon me, but do you know any folk-tales or folk-songs?’ The men and women who had whole treasuries of material just seeping through their pores looked at me and shook their heads.” InMules and Men, Hurston elected self-reflexively to dramatize her research experience. However, this ethnographic project is not that...

  4. Introduction
    (pp. xv-2)

    In 1990, as a follow-up to my urban ethnographic research, I elected to move to the South to study African American folklife. My timing was perfect. I learned that the University Press of Mississippi had begun a “Folklife in the South Series.” Of the unclaimed regions, I selected to document Wiregrass Country. At the time, I had no idea that the region defied public recognition throughout most of its historic existence. This region is variously referred to as the piney woods, pine barren, or, for tourism, Plantation Trace. Although wiregrass (Aristida stricta) grows from the Chesapeake Bay to the rim...

  5. CHAPTER 1 “Come Go with Me” Liberation Songs
    (pp. 3-25)

    The South contains more regions than anywhere else in the nation. Yet, Wiregrass Country managed to fall through the cracks of southern geography. The specificity of the region’s history is seldom taught, even in its local schools. For instance, some of the most meaningful battles in the south between U.S. forces and Native peoples occurred within Wiregrass Country. With the settlement of whites, battle lines became equally drawn around the issues of slavery. The region offered a haven for runaway slaves, who often joined forces with the American Indians, becoming their translators and chiefs. Fugitives also developed maroon societies within...

  6. CHAPTER 2 “Ev’ry Day’ll Be Sunday” Burial Sodalities
    (pp. 26-50)

    In the Wiregrass, the hymn “Ev’ry Day’ll Be Sunday” speaks multitudes. It alludes to how local residents seek a sense of sacredness in daily living the gospel, with an eye toward eternity. This chapter explores the centrality of burial societies as one of the social vehicles used during this life’s journey. While the remembrance of bondage still infused the thoughts of recently freed men and women, they organized burial leagues. For example, memberships in Sunday Morning Band dates back to August 8, 1868. It all started in Columbia County, Florida, at Bethel Church and grew into a statewide phenomenon. Traditionally,...

  7. CHAPTER 3 “There’s a Meeting Here Tonight” Baptist Modalities
    (pp. 51-73)

    Today, Wiregrass Country is a region in which many African Americans still attend Sunday morning worship services on a bimonthly basis. Whether Missionary Baptist, Primitive Baptist, AME, or Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME), church services are regularly held on either the first and third Sundays or second and fourth Sundays of each month. I soon learned that Fifth Sundays traditionally amount to a sort of wildcard, a time best used to unite various sacred performance communities. On Fifth Sundays, residents are mobilized to participate in ritualistic displays ranging from the denominational, such as Baptist union meetings, to nondenominational singing conventions and...

  8. CHAPTER 4 “On the Way to Glory” The Shape-Note Tradition
    (pp. 74-99)

    While training to become a folklorist, I heard mention of Sacred Harp music. But like certain grown-up words overheard by a young child, I possessed no reference point. With its European origin, I could not fathom this musical form’s religious appeal or how African Americans engaged in its aesthetic value. Simply put, nothing I read prepared me for the day I finally heard it performed live by the Wiregrass Sacred Harp Singers of Ozark, Alabama. Wiregrass Alabama is the last stronghold of four-shape music sung by African Americans. In 1991, I agreed to transport bluesman Neal Pattman from Athens, Georgia,...

  9. CHAPTER 5 “God Has Smiled on Me” Traditional Gospel
    (pp. 100-125)

    I now believe it was divine intervention that called me to trace the Thomas-Grady Counties Singing Convention, leading to this larger research project. In fulfillment of my early research agenda, I confess often being very dependent on the kindness of strangers, serendipity, and some say divine unction. There is an elusive quality about documenting African American folk culture. Success often depends on timing.

    Historically, a canopy road lined with majestic oaks met you upon crossing the Georgia–Florida state line. In Tallahassee, hardwood trees chiefly have dominion over the more scraggly longleaf pine. Botanist Roland Harper found “that this region...

  10. CHAPTER 6 “The Gospel Train Is Coming” Wiregrass Contemporary Gospel
    (pp. 126-153)

    For me riding the contemporary gospel train turned into a mesmerizing experience. Not having grown up in a church or household that privileged gospel music, I really embraced interacting with some spectacular networks. Gospel performances are ubiquitous throughout the region. Whereas certain sacred performance communities may be limited to a particular pocket of Wiregrass Alabama, Florida, or Georgia, contemporary gospel music is omnipresent. Its performers depend on actively belonging and regularly contributing to their networks year round. This pattern holds true nationally as well. According to the preeminent performer and historian Bernice Johnson Reagon: “In African American communities, gospel music...

  11. CHAPTER 7 “I Feel No Ways Tired” Sarah’s Daughters
    (pp. 154-176)

    Until entering Wiregrass Country, I had seldom met such a strong concentration of emboldened women. As a young girl, I mainly encountered women who aspired to be “ladies” or, in the least, ladylike. While working class, they accepted uncritically societal injunctions regarding womanhood. They set up a wall of support for domesticity, modesty, piety, and chastity. Not to say that women in Wiregrass Country do not espouse and sanction these same ideologies. I just rarely have encountered such a multiplicity of Christian women who contradict and confront these sanctioned patriarchal tools. During our interviews, I began to understand better how...

  12. Epilogue
    (pp. 177-182)

    This sociomusicology related to African American Wiregrass sacred music and spiritual activism more than fulfilled my personal quest. I experienced African American culture in new and unimaginable ways. My research, I suspect, unearthed many southern and regional traditions, in situ, unknown to many. I dare say that the Twentieth of May, Sunday Morning Band, Fifth Sundays, and the sacred music these occasions ritualize fall outside the purview of both the general public and many scholars. Therefore, I hope that my moderately self-reflexive approach raises understanding of the region’s cultural diversity. After all, the diverse Wiregrass ecosystem offers some key lessons...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 183-198)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 199-208)
  15. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 209-211)
  16. Index
    (pp. 212-214)