Concert Reviews | CD Reviews | DVD Reviews | Opera | Early Music | News | Film | Art | Books | Kids

22.6.17

À mon chevet: Go Tell It on the Mountain

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

book cover
The Sunday morning service began when Brother Elisha sat down at the piano and raised a song. This moment and this music had been with John, so it seemed, since he first drawn breath. It seemed that there had never been a time when he had not known this moment of waiting while the packed church paused -- the sisters in white, heads raised, the brothers in blue, heads back; the white caps of the women seeming to glow in the charged air like crowns, the kinky, gleaming heads of the men seeming to be lifted up -- and the rustling and the whispering ceased and the children were quiet; perhaps someone coughed, or the sound of a car horn, or a curse from the streets came in; then Elisha hit the keys, beginning at once to sing, and everybody joined him, clapping their hands, and rising, and beating the tambourines.

The song might be: Down at the cross where my Savior died!

Or: Jesus, I'll never forget how you set me free!

Or: Lord, hold my hand while I run this race!

They sang with all the strength that was in them, and clapped their hands for joy. There had never been a time when John had not sat watching the saints rejoice with terror in the presence of the Lord; indeed, it was no longer a question of belief, because they made that presence real. He did not feel it himself, the joy he felt, yet he could not doubt that it was, for them, the very bread of life -- could not doubt it, that is, until it was too late to doubt. Something happened to their faces and their voices, the rhythm of their bodies, and to the air they breathed; it was as though wherever they might be became the upper room, and the Holy Ghost were riding on the air. His father's face, always awful, became more awful now; his father's daily anger was transformed into prophetic wrath. His mother, her eyes raised to heaven, hands arched before her, moving, made real for John that patience, that endurance, that long suffering, which he had read of in the Bible and found so hard to imagine.

On Sunday mornings the women all seemed patient, all the men seemed mighty. While John watched, the Power struck someone, a man or woman; they cried out, a long wordless crying, and, arms outstretched like wings, they began the Shout. Someone moved a chair a little to give them room, the rhythm paused, the singing stopped, only the pounding feet and the clapping hands were heard; then another cry, another dancer; then the tambourines began again, and the voices rose again, and the music swept on again, like fire, or flood, or judgment. Then the church seemed to swell with the Power it held, and, like a planet rocking in space, the temple rocked with the Power of God. John watched, watched the faces, and the weightless bodies, and listened to the timeless cries. One day, so everyone said, this Power would possess him; he would sing and cry as they did now, and dance before his King.

-- James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain, pp. 13-14
The summer reading season is upon us, and more Balzac is on my nightstand again as I slowly work my way through La Comédie Humaine. This week, though, has been devoted to some of the works of James Baldwin, beginning with the marvelous, ground-breaking Giovanni's Room, his 1956 novel about an American in Paris struggling to accept his homosexuality.

While that novel was drawn from Baldwin's personal experiences, in a disguised way, Go Tell It on the Mountain is more transparently about his youth as the son of an abusive stepfather who was a preacher in Harlem. Although Baldwin was not a believer himself, all of his work is suffused with a knowledge of the Bible and Gospel music that could only have come from first-hand experience, such as the scene described in this passage. Baldwin's writing is fluid and packed with vivid descriptions, a style that draws you in after a couple of pages and holds you. Next up is Notes of a Native Son, a 1955 collection of Baldwin's essays.

No comments: