Monday, November 28, 2005

Rock 'em, Sock 'em Gospel Music

One of my current favorite CDs is a collection of gospel songs performed by Larry Gatlin and his brothers. It includes everything from Sweet Hour of Prayer to Do Lord. I defy you to listen to it without (a) singing along and (b) tapping your foot. That is, if you were raised Southern Baptist like I was.

I used to love request night at church. It was usually a Sunday evening service and members of the congregation would call out the songs they wanted to sing. Two verses would be sung of every request. I learned a lot of old-time gospel songs during request nights, as the older folks took the opportunity to request old favorites that had been put on the shelf by the choir director. If it were not for those request nights, I would have missed out on a lot of songs that instead became my favorites.

I got to thinking this morning while I was listening to Larry, Steve and Rudy about a time in the early 70s, when the Baptist church of Westhoff was invited to the black Baptist church for a joint fellowship. My father pastored two churches in those days; the First Baptist Church of Smiley, which followed normal worship times, and the First Baptist Church of Westhoff, which held its services an hour or two earlier. FBC Westhoff was a very small congregation of mostly older folks. My father usually provided the music for their services, playing piano and leading the singing simultaneously.

During revivals, however, I would be drafted to be the pianist for Westhoff. This caused some interesting opportunities from time to time. For instance, I can remember one revival that was scheduled the same week as finals. I lugged my school books along to church with me, did my thing on the piano, and then retired to the back pew and studied for the next day's test during the sermon. Nobody minded. They were pleased to have a musician on board for the week under whatever circumstances they could get one.

FBC Westhoff used to put on some of the best potlucks. They would make homemade ice cream out back. For a little congregation, we had more than enough food and would leave stuffed full of goodies.

(As a meandering thought as I write this, one night we were headed back home after one of those potluck suppers. As we neared Smiley, we became aware of a huge fire somewhere ahead of us, lighting up the night sky. The closer we got to home, the more aware we became that the fire was mighty close to our house. It turned out to be at the feed store just across and down the road from us. We were very anxious up to the time we turned onto our street. Some of us, namely me, stayed anxious until the fire was out. The history of the Smiley Volunteer Fire Department did not exactly inspire confidence. Another story for another time.)

But I digress. One evening the white folks of FBC Westhoff headed across town to attend a worship service at the black church. For piano-thumping, hand-clapping, joyous gospel music, that was the place to be. It was an eye-opening experience for me to see folks singing with such enthusiasm. Quite different from the sedate music I was used to hearing in church. I was having a grand time. Until...

In a polite gesture to include their guests in the service, someone got the bright idea that I should take a turn on the piano for the last song. No way did I want to put my pallid piano expertise up against the lady who had just pounded the heck out of that old upright. I pretty nearly had to be dragged to the piano, where I timidly plunked out the most boring few minutes of music you can imagine. Bless their hearts, they all dutifully reined in their enthusiam and sang like the staid white folks I was accustomed to providing music for. I'm sure I was the embodiment of a truly colored person for the duration. As in bright red.

Well, as the saying goes, "nobody will remember it in 30 years". It's been roughly 40 years since then and I sure hope nobody remembers. But I remember the utter joy as those folks sang their hearts out. Nothing can beat gospel music sung with joy and gusto. Amen!


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