Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Maurice O. Wallace's "King's Vibrato"

Maurice O. Wallace is Associate Professor of English at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, author of Constructing the Black Masculine: Identity and Ideality in African American Men’s Literature and Culture, 1775–1995, and coeditor of Pictures of Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity.

He applied the Page 99 Test to his new book, King's Vibrato: Modernism, Blackness, and the Sonic Life of Martin Luther King Jr., and reported the following:
From page 99:
Long before King overcame the hegemony of vision underwriting print to recover “A Knock at Midnight” for sound, gospel had already settled the vexed relationship between inscription and envoicement. Thomas Dorsey provoked this very tension thirty-five years ahead of King, inaugurating a musical modernism in black sacred culture in 1931 at modern gospel’s beginning.

In 1931 three Chicago church musicians, Thomas A. Dorsey, Theodore R. Frye, and Roberta Martin, introduced a radically new musical aesthetic into African American religious experience. Against the prevailing tastes of black northerners for classical hymns and oratorios by Mendelssohn, Bach, Mozart, Rossini, and Handel—preferences indistinct from the musical repertories of white churches—they helped Chicago’s black Protestants shift away from their high-church devotions toward more dynamic expressions of faith and God-consciousness such as those brought north by black southerners to the Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, and Presbyterian establishment. The ecstatic displays and emotional freedoms that had been the exclusive purview of Holiness devotees and storefront Pentecostals were not long kept apart from the worship experiences of their mainline cousins owing significantly to Dorsey, Frye, and Martin, and the revolution in black sacred sound they inspired. The new music was blues-based, heavily syncopated, and, above all, expressive.
It seems page 99 of my academic study, King’s Vibrato: Modernism, Blackness, and the Sonic Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. is a very fine index of the general history and aesthetic influence of modern black gospel music on King’s preaching and speech-making sensibilities. This history of gospel is not only a history of a musical genre, it is the sound of the sacred in the secular and secular in sacred music practices that helps define modernism’s sound in twentieth century African American culture.

Modern gospel began in Chicago among African American migrants from the South who brought their religious sensibilities to the North where they met with a grittier urban experience. Gospel brought the divine into the material absurdities of everyday black life, making hope sustainable in the city. Gospel buoyed faith in the migrant’s belief concerning the city’s survivability. Gospel’s pathos, equal parts mourning (over the enduring proximateness of death to modern black life) and protest (against racial injustices as everyday as police violence and as systematic as inadequate access to health care), can be heard in the mood, tone, feeling and timbre of King’s preaching voice. His voice was influenced not only by the general brooding of black people about their American experience, but by the architectural acoustics of the buildings he preached (in Chicago and elsewhere), the sound of pipe organs (which was standard furniture in many aspirational black churches), new audio technologies (namely, microphones and loudspeakers) and, finally, a dialogic relationship to black audiences, the co-producers of his sermons and speeches. I identify the convergence of all of these factors in King’s career as “the Ebenezer sound” after the church of his youth where, under the ministerial leadership of his father and the musical leadership of his mother, these influences were first distilled for the shaping of King’s public voice and its incantatory tenor.
Learn more about King's Vibrato at the Duke University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue