Sacred Music Without the Sacred
It cannot be said that the Smithsonian fails to be candid about its intentions. In its exhibit on African-American sacred music, the accompanying brochure begins by saying:
African Americans use the tunes and lyrics of their sacred songs to document and interpret history. These songs examine local, national, and world events through the prism of the black experience. Sacred songs provide an oral record of a people who, at times, sang what they could not say. The music illuminates the African American journey of survival in America. It tells the story of personal salvation, the salvation of a people wrapped in song.
Nothing, it will be noticed, is said about religion. In fact, the entire subject matter of African-American sacred songs is surprisingly absent from the exhibit. The impression given by the exhibit is that sacred songs are nothing more than a tool for black emancipation.
"Wade in the Water: African American Sacred Music Traditions" runs at the National Museum of American History through December 7. The exhibit examines sacred music from every possible angle: its role in American history, the way in which it was shaped by publishing practices and by discrimination, and its use in sacred dance. Yet one element is largely missing: When, at the end of the exhibit, a label says that sacred music "is also created and performed outside of [churches], one is tempted to reply, "ĎAlso'? What do you mean, Ďalso'?" Where did you show sacred music being performed in churches?"
The exhibit does show one intriguing example of how black sacred music has been shaped by its original setting. In one corner of the gallery is a set of rudely crafted instruments used for worship: a folk violin, a banjo decorated with a man-shaped carving, a fife made of a cane, and a fiddle made of a gourd. These instruments were used in 19th-century churches; but then came the Second Great Awakening, the Christian revival which regarded musical instruments as tools of the devil. African-Americans taking part in the movement tossed aside their musical instruments.
The Pentecostal movement reversed the trend, drawing its theology from biblical passages such as Psalm 150: "Praise [God] with the sound of the trumpet: praise him with the psaltery and harp. Praise him with the timbrel and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and organs." Bishop Charles Mason, founder of the Church of God in Christ, added to worship the use of a tambourine, drums, washtub bass, piano, and guitars. Then, in 1940, organist Kenneth Morris of Chicago's First Church of Deliverance introduced what would become a staple in many black churches: the electric Hammond organ.
This is a fascinating story, and it is a shame that the exhibit designers did not take this opportunity to explore other ways in which black worship and black sacred music influenced each other. As it is, visitors may find themselves asking: Why sacred music? If the true importance of the African-American musical tradition lies in its ability to bring about "personal salvation," why have African Americans chosen over the years to sing about events that took place in biblical times? What is it about the sacred tradition that allows African Americans to see beyond their troubles to a brighter future? The exhibit leaves this question unanswered, and indeed, unasked.
National Museum of American History. 14th Street and Constitution Avenue N.W., Washington, D.C. 20560. Metro: Smithsonian (Blue and Orange Lines). 202-357-2700; 202-357-1729 (TTY). 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Extended summer hours are determined annually. Closed December 25. Free admission.
"Wade in the Water: African American Sacred Music Traditions." Through December 7.
Children's Books: Taking Religious Art Seriously: Buddhist Sand Mandalas and Shaker Homes. By Heather Elizabeth Peterson.
© 1997 Heather Elizabeth