Blest Be the Tie That Binds: Connecting Races with Music

Quote

The World’s Columbian Exposition, commonly known as the Chicago World’s Fair, of 1893 served as a turning point for America in many ways. The fair brought almost 1/3 of the country to see a Chicago reborn out of the ashes of the Great Fire of 1871, a shining White City representing the beautiful, though definitely idealized, America. As the world came to see the fair, many dignitaries and VIPs also visited.

Quinn Chapel, Chicago, IL.

In his mid-70s, the orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass was one of these VIPs. His visit to Chicago elicited a reception in his honor at the Quinn Chapel of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The program welcomed men and women of all races to celebrate and honor the achievements of the Hon. Mr. Douglass by presenting on topics like “Why our ministers love him,” “From a business standpoint,” “The mothers of the race,” etc. Between the presentations and speeches (many notably by African American speakers), the assembly joined in the singing of songs and hymns.

The reception’s organizers knew the power of music to connect people. Hymns especially unite the Christian faith together, reminding how similar people really are, no matter the color of their skin or their eyes, or the amount of money they have (“Amazing Grace” immediately comes to mind). One of the hymns sung at the event strikes me as especially poignant, “Blest Be the Tie That Binds” by Rev. John Fawcett, the pastor at a small church in Wainsgate, England, in the 18th century:

Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.

Before our Father’s throne
We pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one
Our comforts and our cares.

We share each other’s woes,
Our mutual burdens bear;
And often for each other flows
The sympathizing tear.

When we asunder part,
It gives us inward pain;
But we shall still be joined in heart,
And hope to meet again.

This glorious hope revives
Our courage by the way;
While each in expectation lives,
And longs to see the day.

From sorrow, toil and pain,
And sin, we shall be free,
And perfect love and friendship reign
Through all eternity.

I can only imagine the power of that moment, races coming together to sing a message of unity and hope, praying for the future of love and friendship to come soon and free all from toil and pain. As modern-day musicians, we must remember that the ability of music to proclaim messages calling for social change makes it the responsibility of musicians to write about, compose, and trumpet messages like this one. Sometimes we need a reminder, for as Frederick Douglass, calling for the end of lynch law, said in his final remarks, “What [Americans] needed was a higher Christianity, one that is not ashamed of any of God’s children.” We still need that higher Christianity today.


“The Douglass Reception: An Exceptional Affair in Many Respects–Something of the Programme and Certain Participants.” Cleveland Gazette. December 9, 1893. http://docs.newsbank.com/openurl?ctx_ver=z39.88-2004&rft_id=info:sid/iw.newsbank.com:EANX&rft_val_format=info:ofi/fmt:kev:mtx:ctx&rft_dat=12DB0E0CC3A99F40&svc_dat=HistArchive:ahnpdoc&req_dat=102FE1F6CA316FA2.

Quinn Chapel A.M.E. Church, 2401 South Wabash Avenue, Chicago, Cook County, IL. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/il0843.sheet.00006a/ (accessed April 7, 2015).

 

Mahalia Jackson’s Glori-Fried Chicken

Bach and Handel had the same eye doctor (who botched both their surgeries). Brahms went to a tavern called The Red Hedgehog every day. Debussy loved cats.

Sometimes we need to be reminded that the musicians we worship did not just compose, play, or sing. They were just like us. They had lives, they had other interests, and, in Mahalia Jackson’s case, they had fried chicken.

Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 6.14.28 AM

Chicago Defender, October 31, 1970.

In 1968, Jackson, still at the height of her singing fame, started a fried chicken chain in Chicago, meant to be the black counterpart to country comedian Minnie Pearl’s own chain as well as a competitor to Colonel Sanders’s rapidly expanding Kentucky Fried Chicken. Though we now claim Jackson as part of our shared American musical heritage, the intended audience for this chain implies a more limited role for Gospel music in the 1960s. As an article in the African-American newspaper The Chicago Defender noted, the chain was “black-owned, managed and staffed and is hiring in the communities in which it operates.”

In this way, the chain was most definitely a product of the 1960s. In the midst of the Civil Rights Era, less than 15 years after the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education declaring segregation in public schools to be illegal, integration was still in progress. Black and white restaurants and neighborhoods, though not legally segregated, existed (and, in fact, still exist today).

In the end, even with her name, fame, and star power, the restaurant chain was a bust. Both Minnie Pearl’s and Mahalia Jackson’s stores went out of business within a few years. A final restaurant bearing her name (Mayo’s Fried Pies and Mahalia Jackson’s Chicken in Nashville) closed in 2008.

I don’t blame Richard Crawford for not including this story in our textbook, “American Musical Life.” There’s only so much you can include, and, however much I might like to say otherwise, knowledge of Mahalia Jackson’s Glori-Fried Chicken is not essential to understand Gospel music. But stories like this one put history in context and show the humanity and depth of musicians. They are people, just like us.

Go grab some fried chicken and enjoy a performance by the Queen of Gospel.


“2d Mahalia Jackson Chicken Shack Opens.” Chicago Daily Defender (Big Weekend Edition) (1966-1973), Oct 31, 1970. http://search.proquest.com/docview/493558307?accountid=351.

Miller, Adrian. Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time. Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press. 2013.

A Muddy link from Blues to Rock

As blues gained popularity through publication and performances it became blended with other types of popular music. Blues and rock music were obvious candidates for combination, both drawing on folk instrumentation and sharing similar subjects. In Chicago, which was a hotbed of blues music when many black musicians migrated to Chicago to leave the South. Possibly the most influential musician of the blending is McKinley Morganfield AKA Muddy Waters. Waters got his start at home in Mississippi when Alan Lomax traveled there on behalf of the Library of Congress in 1941 and again in 1942. Waters was later released on the album “Down on Stovall’s Plantation” from these recordings.

DownonStovallsThis recording shows us that Muddy Waters is a legit player of the blues from the south and would be taken seriously by white audiences in the North.

In 1943, shortly after Lomax’s visit, Waters moved to Chicago in hopes of making it big as a blues musician. As Muddy Waters made his way as a blues performer he made with friends with Big Bill Broonzy who helped Waters become popular. This article from Cultural Equity highlights some of the connection between Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy. Muddy Waters was put on singles in the late 40s and through the 50s in Chicago. RecordAdWaters gained popularity from recording Robert John tunes who had been on the blues mind since 1938 from the “Spirituals to Swing” concert in New York (Here’s a short RadioLab episode about this concert and Robert Johnson, it’s great!).

Muddy Waters became very popular in Chicago and was seen as a performer who was keeping the folk in the blues and rock that he was performing. Because he had such a close connection to the south and his history there. The Defender wrote an article to this effect in 1972. Muddy Waters keeps alive an Afro-American culture