[I promised a post each weekend about music. Here’s one.]
meet me in the city
meet me in the city
– Sister Gertrude Morgan, “New Jerusalem”
There’s a strange attraction for me to religious music. I’m an atheist in the most uncontroversial sense of the word, but I have this tendency to empathize with and understand faith when I see it or hear it, and I have tremendous respect for it. Perhaps I am impressed with the strength it seems to bestow on some people? I don’t know.
Likely, this is what most attracts me to the music and paintings of the late Sister Gertrude Morgan (1900-1980), whose work I was privileged to see and hear at the Museum of American Folk Art in New York City almost two years ago. Her music, like her painting and her sermons, was by all accounts merely one component of her missionary work in New Orleans. Music so embroiled in a supervening cultural activity (Morgan’s religious endeavors) cannot be judiciously reviewed outside of that context. Like her paintings, her songs were intended as mere “tools of her ministry” (the name given to the exhibition I attended), and were not meant to be appreciated as art in any other sense. However, they are.
In 1970 Gertrude Morgan made a recording of her music. The music captured on Let’s Make a Record, confined to the limitations of recorded audio, is not only deprived of its context within Morgan’s missionary work, but also of its original performative context – variously, preaching through a megaphone on public streets, or making up songs on the spot in her orphanage, rapping on memorable lines or passages from the New Testament for a hungry and downtrodden audience.
In her songs we do get some glimpse of some of her prophetic visions – about “New Jerusalem” (essentially the future Christ’s kingdom on earth depicted in Revelations), and about her impending marriage to Jesus, which involved being carried away with him on a flying horse (both of them consipicuously side-saddle in her paintings). For me, these prophetic moments seem to be the most compelling ones in her music, where her voice takes on a more serious tone, and drops its melodious tendencies in favour of a rhythmic, repetitive emphasis (the quote from “New Jerusalem”, above, is one of these moments). Perhaps uncoincidentally, I am also most attracted to her paintings where New Jerusalem is depicted as a rectangular apartment block. I’m not sure why my preferences play out this way, but I can venture a guess: both of these devices (repetitive, nonmelodic passages and renderings of repetitive architectures) might symbolize order or fate imposed by God on an otherwise spontaneous (dare I say chaotic?) work. It seems a reasonable interpretation, seeing that her songs were made up on the spot – the certainty and measured delivery stands out in sharp relief against the backdrop of her tambourine-backed improv sermons.
But as much as I am fascinated by Gertrude Morgan’s tools, the out-of-place character of her work-as-field recording, work-as-album, or works-as-art exhibition is exemplary of the uneasy, indeterminate positioning of art in North American society, that gives us (and should give us) all crises of identity from time to time. What value do these recordings really hold, apart from their immediate value as devices in SGM’s missionary work while she was alive? And what sort of enterprise reviews this work as-if-it-were-art? How is such an excercise useful, entertaining, or enlightening? Are we merely consuming it like we are tourists of history, or tourists of rural southern US culture?
Or in my case, as a tourist of faith?
More information about Sister Gertrude Morgan’s work is available at the following links: