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'The Fan Who Knew Too Much' Is Written by an Astute Fan of Gospel with a Well-Honed Critical Sense

Clara Ward and her gospel singers, 1962. Photo (partial) by Michael Denning/Library of Congress.

Provocative looks at homosexuality in the black church and Aretha Franklin highlight this collection of critical essays.

One is tempted to wonder if Anthony Heilbut ever paid much mind to this assessment of his first magnum opus:

"This book, in my opinion, was written from the perspective of a fan. There are numerous books written on music by music scholars… which I prefer to this type of writing because the authors ideas are backed up by examples that include musical knowledge and music history knowledge. Heilbut makes many statements about the importance of Gospel music as an influence on US pop music that are untrue and not backed up with any facts or examples … I know enough about music and US music history to know when the author was getting emotional about a music that touched him personally. This is a problem if the reader is not educated in music and US music history, they may take the many fantastic claims that Heilbut makes about Gospel music as truth.(sic)"

The above was a reader review of Heilbut’s The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times posted on Amazon in 2001 (and easily rebutted by another reader). I normally don’t factor such postings into my assessments of a work, but this one’s especially telling.

Indeed, The Gospel Sound is short on the who-what-when that most history books, music or otherwise, dispatch. But it was a revelation when it was first published in 1971, and it is still an authoritative work, even next to more conventional gospel histories published since then. It’s authoritative because Heilbut captures the essence of gospel music not through facts and dates, but through the words and experiences of its creators. He considers several of gospel’s titans, from Sallie Martin, who helped popularize gospel in the ‘30s, through Rev. James Cleveland, who emerged in the ‘60s. He shares close knowledge from first-hand interviews and observations – which he had to, because there simply wasn’t much prior scholarship on gospel music to draw from at the time.

It’s the tone of The Gospel Sound that gives it its staying power. Heilbut is anything but a dispassionate scholar. The book’s chapters are as much long-form portraits as much as history lessons. He's critical, but never caustic. He comes across as an evangelist for gospel – not its religious message (he is, after all, an atheist), but the artistry and perseverance of the performers who defined gospel during its mid-20th century “golden age. .He speaks of craft and skill and various technical aspects, but he also speaks of who these artists were and what they lived through in service of their art (and faith). And he does so reverently, unobjectively, personally.

That reader review was right to this extent: Heilbut wrote like a true gospel enthusiast. Not a breathless, raving slobbermouth, but someone who loves the art and respects its artists enough to take them seriously as such, which no one prior to him had done. The Gospel Sound is, absolutely, written from the perspective of a fan – an astute one with a well-honed critical sense, but still a fan.

Heilbut himself confirms as much decades after the fact, in the title of his current collection: The Fan Who Knew Too Much, with “Fan” in bright yellow letters against a hot pink background. He is a fan, and proud of it, thank you very much.

Gospel music, it turns out, is only one of his passions. Heilbut, a child of Jewish émigrés from Germany, is understandably fascinated with the lives and times of German-Jewish intellectuals who fled Nazi Germany for America: why they left; what they did here; their relationships with their new home; and how they continued to navigate their German and Jewish heritages. From that exploration sprang a particular interest in the work of novelist Thomas Mann, best known for his novella Death in Venice, written before he left Germany in the mid-‘30s. Heilbut argues that Mann’s output as a writer in America, though far less celebrated (even though it includes the novel Doctor Faustus), is equally compelling, especially as it explores themes of homosexuality that the author drew from his own life.

Heilbut has written in great detail on both subjects: Exiled in Paradise: German Refugee Artists and Intellectuals in America from the 1930s to the Present and Thomas Mann: Eros and Literature, respectively. The former book is similar in form to The Gospel Sound, the latter a blend of literary biography and cultural critique. The seven essays in The Fan Who Knew Too Much contain examples of all those approaches, but the book itself is largely a compendium of extensions from his previous work. Subjects that he only touched on previously, such as pioneering soap opera creator Irna Phillips, get a longer look here. Years after he published his major works, Heilbut hasn’t finished being fascinated by their subjects.

The essay “The Children and Their Secret Closet” is a case in point. The subject of homosexuality in gospel music, and the black church by extension, merited only a few pages in the 1997 addendum to The Gospel Sound, but Heilbut holds nothing back now. In fact, he expands his scope, moving into an area that has up-to-the-minute implications beyond the pulpit.

He gets right to his primary assertion in only a few sentences: not only is it basically an open secret in the black church that many gay men over the years have helped shaped gospel music, “…it is impossible to understand the story of black America without foregrounding the experiences of the gay men of gospel. From music to politics their role has been crucial; their witness, to quote their mother’s Bible, prophetic.”

The first part of that construction is likely a revelation to those outside the black church. That institution, by and large, has a reputation as being less than inclusive on matters of homosexuality (as do other faith institutions, to be sure). But outsiders don’t know about the winks and nods that happen when those gay gentlemen – the “children,” as they are discreetly known – get to singing and shouting, leading the choirs, and thrilling the faithful.

Heilbut taps into his long association with gospel music and its artists to tell how black gay men have found not only sanctuary but also stardom through the church, and have shaped the music’s traditions in the process. He cites figures like Charles Campbell, a portly singer in the Bradford Specials, Alex Bradford’s ‘50s quartet, who confessed to Heilbut his need for a brassiere because “my titties are too big;” by the way, Bradford was gay too, and Heilbut shares some of Bradford’s great stories.

Another seminal figure Heilbut cites is Rev. Cleveland, one of the most influential post-WWII gospel artists. At his peak in the ‘60s, he took over the reins of a venerable gospel music workshop; under his watch legions of black gay singers gained an entrée into the industry. Heilbut also points out that Rev. Cleveland had been outed, more or less, well before he died of AIDS in 1991.

The second part of Heilbut’s construction – that to know black America, one must know the nature of the relationship between black gays and the black church – seems like hyperbole at first glance. While he lays out the case for the cultural impact of gays in gospel, it’s not immediately evident how that ties into the broader racial narrative (even with two gay men rooted in the church in particular, political strategist/organizer Bayard Rustin and author James Baldwin, occupying places of prominence in that narrative). But as Heilbut pivots from the historic music of the black church to its current politics, his point becomes clearer, and more forceful by the word.

While the black church celebrates the musical contributions of its gay members on the one hand, it attacks their gayness on the other, Heilbut asserts with no shortage of indignation. He discusses how the church, always fundamentally conservative on social matters, evolved from occasional warnings against homosexuality to a full-blown “war on the children” in the ‘80s and ‘90s. He indicts some of the most prominent figures in the church, including mega-pastors T.D. Jakes and Bishop Eddie L. Long and singer Donnie McClurkin; even Tyler Perry takes a hit for his films’ caricatures of sissified choir directors. (To be fair, he doesn’t spare white evangelical churches from this criticism; going further, the parallel he draws between the conservatism and emphasis on the “prosperity gospel” of salvation-through-conspicuous-consumption of both white and black churches deserves further exploration.)

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