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Preaching on Wax

Preaching on Wax: The Phonograph and the Shaping of Modern African American Religion

Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Preaching on Wax
    Book Description:

    From 1925 to 1941, approximately one hundred African American clergymen teamed up with leading record labels such as Columbia, Paramount, Victor-RCA to record and sell their sermons on wax. While white clerics of the era, such as Aimee Semple McPherson and Charles Fuller, became religious entrepreneurs and celebrities through their pioneering use of radio, black clergy were largely marginalized from radio. Instead, they relied on other means to get their message out, teaming up with corporate titans of the phonograph industry to package and distribute their old-time gospel messages across the country. Their nationally marketed folk sermons received an enthusiastic welcome by consumers, at times even outselling top billing jazz and blues artists such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey.

    These phonograph preachers significantly shaped the development of black religion during the interwar period, playing a crucial role in establishing the contemporary religious practices of commodification, broadcasting, and celebrity. Yet, the fame and reach of these nationwide media ministries came at a price, as phonograph preachers became subject to the principles of corporate America.

    InPreaching on Wax, Lerone A. Martin offers the first full-length account of the oft-overlooked religious history of the phonograph industry. He explains why a critical mass of African American ministers teamed up with the major phonograph labels of the day, how and why black consumers eagerly purchased their religious records, and how this phonograph religion significantly contributed to the shaping of modern African American Christianity.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-0799-9
    Subjects: Religion, Performing Arts, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xvi)
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  6. Introduction: Phonograph Religion
    (pp. 1-10)

    The preacher sat in the sweltering sun, anxiously waiting for the train. The Atlanta summer of 1926 had proven to be one of the warmest in the city’s history.¹ However, nothing, not even record-breaking temperatures, could stifle the spirit of Reverend James M. Gates. The rural native turned urban migrant preacher was headed to New York City for a month-long preaching tour. Few would have guessed that Gates, an unschooled sharecropper born in rustic Hogansville, Georgia, a generation after slavery would become a highly sought-after clergyman. He had been preaching in Atlanta for more than a decade with little to...

  7. 1 “The Machine Which Talks!”: The Phonograph in American Life and Culture
    (pp. 11-31)

    Thomas Edison was awestruck. Following the first successful test of the talking machine in November 1877, the inventor recalled, “I was never so taken aback in my life!” He was not alone in his astonishment. TheScientific American, a popular science magazine (published continuously since 1845), was also flabbergasted. In December 1877, Edison presented his novelty to more than a dozen scientists and admirers gathered in the journal’s New York offices. Edison turned the crank of the phonograph and the prerecorded tinfoil cylinder squeaked out, “How do you like the phonograph?” The small assembly looked on in disbelief. “No matter...

  8. 2 “Ragtime Music, Ragtime Morals”: Race Records and the Problem of Amusement
    (pp. 32-61)

    Zora Neale Hurston was astonished by the way the phonograph altered black leisure. During her undergraduate fieldwork, the noted anthropologist and folklorist observed that the majority of African Americans in the 1920s no longer spent their leisure time in church or church-related events as in times past. Rather, in addition to movie theaters, she reported to her Columbia University professor Franz Boaz, “the bulk of the population now spends its leisure with … the phonograph and its blues [records].”¹ African Americans had long enjoyed the phonograph before the interwar explosion of black phonograph artists. TheCrisis, the official magazine of...

  9. 3 Selling to the Souls of Black Folk: The Commodification of African American Sermons
    (pp. 62-90)

    “His sermons,” the first phonograph sermon commercial declared, are “given in a spirited evangelistic style!” The Columbia advertisement, complete with an image of the pioneering phonograph preacher Reverend Calvin P. Dixon, promised consumers that the pair of four-minute homilies “get under your skin and are not easily forgotten!” The advertisement for the sermons addressing urban migration and vice was featured in the national edition of theChicago Defenderon March 7, 1925. Another newspaper ad praised the intrinsic value of the sermons, promising consumers that the sacred commodity “will inspire you,” and adding, “Be sure to buy this record!” (Figures...

  10. 4 Apostles of Modernity: Phonograph Religion and the Roots of Popular Black Religious Broadcasting
    (pp. 91-124)

    G. K. Korn, a Columbia record dealer in Newark, New Jersey, quickly sold out of his initial shipment of Reverend James M. Gates’s first recorded sermon. Likewise, the Broad and Market Music Company, one of Korn’s local competitors, also swiftly sold out of its stock of a thousand copies of the black vernacular sermons by the Atlanta preacher. In an attempt to beat out his competitor, Korn astutely placed a rush supplemental order to Columbia’s New York City warehouse. He was convinced that “Death’s Black Train Is Coming” was a hit. However, to his chagrin, the popular record was already...

  11. 5 A New Preacher for a New Negro: Phonograph Religion and the New Black Social Authority
    (pp. 125-149)

    Reverend James M. Gates and better known minister Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr. (1899–1984) epitomize the two primary ways in which black clerical authority was remade in the twentieth century. Both King and Gates relocated from rural Georgia to Atlanta in 1913 in the pursuit of a better life. Education at the Atlanta Baptist Institute (ABI) at 533 Auburn Avenue was the first measure the two migrants pursued. The elementary, secondary, and industrial educational institution had an enrollment of roughly two hundred students and a faculty of nine. It was supported by the state and local Baptist conventions as...

  12. 6 “Say Good-Bye to Chain Stores!”: Recorded Sermons and Protest
    (pp. 150-168)

    “I tell ya!” Reverend James Gates passionately sermonized to the congregation gathered for his April 25, 1930 Okeh sermon recording in Atlanta, “I hear and see so much evil that is being done through the chain store manner!” The preacher’s two-part recorded sermon,Goodbye to Chain Stores, directed “both white and colored too” to stop shopping at chain stores.¹ America was being increasingly engulfed by chain stores during this period. From 1920 to 1932, chain stores increased 500 percent, from 30,000 stores dotting the country to an inescapable 159,638 stores, the highest number in American history. By the close of...

  13. Conclusion: Let the Record Play! Communication and Continuity in African American Religion and Culture
    (pp. 169-174)

    In the early part of 1945, Reverend Gates suffered an acute cerebral hemorrhage. The prolific sermon recorder, once described by reporters as “jovial,” was left incapacitated for months. His physician, Dr. P. J. Yancey, last saw him on June 17, 1945. Two months later, on Saturday, August 18, 1945, James M. Gates died at his home on Fraser Street. He was sixty-one years old.¹

    On Tuesday, August 21, the preacher’s remains were displayed in the sanctuary of his church. Parishioners, friends, and admirers who had formerly visited their preacher during one of his fireside soirées, came to the church to...

  14. NOTES
    (pp. 175-214)
    (pp. 215-232)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 233-242)
    (pp. 243-244)