The Homophobic Center Might Not Hold Forever
The church, of course, doesn’t have a monopoly on homophobia in the black community. Books like J.L. King’s On the Down Low fed into fear that a closeted black man might be infecting an innocent black woman at the height of AIDS paranoia, and anti-gay sentiments by the likes of civil rights movement elder Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth gave credibility to black distrust of gays. Indeed, it was the homophobia of the black church, along with its anti-abortion stance, that gave George W. Bush enough entrée into the black voting populace to siphon enough black votes in swing states like Ohio to win re-election in 2004. (It’s too bad that Heilbut makes little of the fact that some black churches and congregations have responded to the AIDS crisis progressively, offering outreach and education programs and AIDS testing in their communities.)
Heilbut’s concern here is only the institution of the church, but because of its influence on the black mainstream, his analysis has ripple effects throughout black life. We saw evidence of that this spring, when President Barack Obama – beloved by the black church in 2008 – came out in favor of same-sex marriage. Many in the church were outraged, and several prominent black pastors pledged to withhold their support for him in the current re-election campaign. For most black churchgoers, though, Obama’s stance won’t change their minds one whit, neither in the pew nor the polling place. But as the issue moves forward, it will be interesting to see how the black church reconciles, or not, its hatred of the sinner (or at least the sin) with its love of her/his music.
Heilbut remains wary of how it will play out, but he seems to sense the homophobic center might not hold forever. He cites what happened to Bishop Long in 2010: his reputation cratered and his empire all but crumbled upon revelations of amorous liaisons with four young boys, with photos of Long in spandex as viral proof. The essay is a must-read for anyone interested in the life of the modern black church. Few other observers have ever displayed such an intimate and informed insight into the institution’s culture, not to mention Heilbut’s no-holds-barred guts in taking on this tripwire of a subject.
He puts that insight to further use in the next essay, “Aretha: How She Got Over”. Playing on the title of a popular gospel standard, the piece is a critical appreciation (amazingly, one of the few such works to date) of how a teenaged gospel prodigy named Aretha Louise Franklin became the most beloved and influential pop singer of her time.
Most with a cursory knowledge of Franklin’s work focus on her glorious 1967-1974 run as the Queen of Soul, but Heilbut all but ignores that period while looking at her career’s complete arc, beginning in the Detroit church of her father, Rev. C. L. Franklin, where she made her first recordings. Aretha and her sisters were the beneficiaries of Rev. Franklin’s own musical talent, as well as the talent that came though his church.
The key connection here is the Famous Ward Singers, one of the most influential gospel groups. Rev. Franklin, who first gained stature as a blues-tinged gospel singer, toured with the quartet after a recording of his sermon “The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest”, became a hit in the early ‘50s. He took up with Clara Ward, daughter of the group’s matriarch, in a years-long, oft-tempestuous relationship. Heilbut draws Franklin’s musical lineage back to both her father and Ward, along with fellow Ward Singer Marion Williams and Dinah Washington, the pop-jazz-r&b hitmaker who had long ago jumped off the gospel train.
In the essay on gay gospel singers, Heilbut establishes both gospel’s showmanship and its often-suffocating culture. Even though Aretha’s artistry literally sprang from her father’s church, both father and daughter recognized that as much as she had soaked up from first-hand connection to gospel’s queen mothers (Heilbut’s term), her destiny lay in broader pastures. Thus, Rev. Franklin drew on his secular show-biz connections, and Aretha landed a deal with Columbia Records in 1960, all of 18 years old.
Over the next six years, she recorded all kinds of material, from string-laden pop to swinging jazz, singing the tunes of everyone from the Gershwins to Ashford & Simpson. None of it made a commercial impact, and not until Sony re-released the entire output last year as an 11-cd boxed set (Take a Look: Aretha Franklin Complete on Columbia) did many Franklin fans, myself included, ever think to examine it. Looking at that section of her canon turns out to produce one revelation after another, the overarching being that all the artistry and musical passion she displayed as the Queen of Soul had been largely in place for years.
Heilbut’s assessment reveals that he probably didn’t need the reissue to acquaint himself with Franklin’s secular roots. He breaks down the authority with which she essays “Today I Sing the Blues” on her first album, and the ease with which she swings through and transforms a ditty like “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody”. Heilbut notes that while her gospel background is apparent throughout her Columbia recordings, she was already well on the way to transcending it, with the crispness of her diction, the clarity of her tone and her innate musical chops (not that gospel singer was ever all that far removed from other styles of black pop singing).
It shouldn’t be surprising, given Heilbut’s leanings, that the Atlantic Records-era album he devotes the most (actually, only) attention to is Amazing Grace her 1972 live gospel album. From that point, he whips through the key points of her next 40 years: the not-always-stellar pop recordings of the ‘80s; her pinch-hitting for Luciano Pavarotti on the 1998 Grammy Awards (duly noting how she fell back on her gospel training to compensate for a missed high note); her performance (or, perhaps more memorably, her hat’s performance) at Obama’s 2009 inauguration; her influence on pop singing; and all the tabloidy stuff too (the weight, the men, etc). While most of Fan expands upon Heilbut’s previous work, it’s possible to see “How She Got Over” as the first pass at a future, fuller consideration of Franklin’s life and work.
Similar analytic vision, if not the same level of detail, is brought to bear in the book’s second section, in which he offers codas of a sort to his previous work on German-Jewish intellectuals and Mann. Heilbut then goes on to the Irna Phillips profile (itself a mini-history of the evolution of soap operas), a roundup on male sopranos, and a brief essay that starts out about blues music and authenticity, spends some time on folksinger Josh White, passes through Alan and John Lomax and other blues collectors/chroniclers, and winds up on the arch-conservatism of Zora Neale Hurtson. Fascinating stuff, but the reader attracted to Fan by the gospel-related material can’t be blamed for wondering how these disparate subjects (the “other mediations” of the book’s lengthy subtitle) connect.
Let’s take that one step further: how did it come to be that Heilbut can write so knowingly and vividly about subjects whose only apparent connection is that he’s interested in them? He takes that on in the book’s title essay, which travels from a look at fandom in general to an exploration of his own.
As strong as the “other meditations” material is, the gays-in-the-black-church and Franklin pieces are easily the most compelling. They’re less dependent on Heilbut’s prior work than the other essays, but more to the point, they’re more energetic and passionate. There’s a reason for that: gospel music gave Heilbut’s young life meaning and hope. As a bullied youth, gospel became his balm in Gilead.
“Gospel grounded me and kept me sane,” he writes, “not because ‘it gets better,’ but because for most people, it does not. Blues knows this. But gospel won me with its complex balance of the joyous and the grim—or, as I subtitled my first book, its good news and bad times.”
That faith in the power of the music and the dogged humanity of its voices not only sustained him emotionally, it also opened a professional path (as a gospel record producer as well as a chronicler of its life and times). But he’s yet to become jaded about it, or too far beyond his difficult years to still draw sustenance from it. He can’t stop thinking about it, and he won’t stop loving it. Ain’t no fan, he surmises, quite like a lifelong one:
“Keats, who dwelled in melancholy, longed for ‘a life of sensation, and not of thought.’ That immersion in sensation can be a fan’s highest bliss. But then he may aspire to something else: and dream of becoming, in Wallace Stevens’ words, ‘the man who has had time to think enough.’ Sensation and thought: that may be an old fan’s last reward.”
Heilbut, ultimately, is part historian and part critic. Those who enter either vocation generally do so because they’re drawn to the subject for reasons of both the head and the heart. Heilbut brings all of both those resources to bear in his work, and when they’re fully engaged, as in the best moments here, the learned, rear-gazing wistfulness the above passage implies seems a long way off.