The local church no longer tracks with the community it was created to serve. Black churches are increasingly being moved out of the center of our communities, relegated to the fringes as a quaint anachronism; a museum of past glories. And the concept of spirituality, in and of itself, gets moved to the edges along with it. Having lost its place at the emotional and social center of our community, the mindset becomes the same as that of someone seeking entertainment or trying to make dinner reservations. Which church to go to? Well, this one’s got a good choir, and this one’s got a good preacher, and so-and-so will be speaking at this one on Sunday. This modality prohibits the kind of community and brand loyalty vital to black churches. Many of us have no more loyalty to a church than we do to a movie theater—they all become interchangeable.
They can't get enough of 1965. Many Church Folk still dress like
it's 1965, especially the church ladies with the gregarious
Flying Saucer Hats. Many of us embrace a liturgy and doctrine we
have never once examined or questioned. Many of us (yes,
"us") Church Folk have grown up immersed in the culture of
The Yabba Doo: a jubilee style of Gospel music employed by many
black quartets, a kind of call and response: I'm climbin' up
the stairs (YABBA-DOO), Goin' t'meet my Lord! (YABBA-DOO), Got
my ticket in hand (YABBA DOO), Everybody get on board (YABBA
The Yabba Doo is James Cleveland circa, well, 1965. Cleveland, a pioneer and unparalleled giant in the Gospel music field, was the strongman at Savoy records, once the most powerful (and, some say, exploitative) company in black gospel music. James, a flamboyant Don King-ish hustler, built an empire and a legend for himself by wheeling half track (mono and occasionally stereo reel-to-reel machines) and, eventually, 4 and 8-track machines into worship services, making “live” recordings on the cheap and, reportedly, paying the pastors and selected talent while the choir members typically received nothing. Cleveland's house style evolved out of the sound of Clara Ward and other Gospel pioneers, who melded blues and certain jazz progressions with old Negro spirituals from the plantation days to form a uniquely African American cultural expression. Now a beloved, teddy bear-ish icon, Cleveland was, as reported to me by musicians who played with him, a ruthless exploiter of the race and the Gospel, a friend to few, and a deeply conflicted and troubled individual. His annual Gospel Music Workshop of America, which continues and thrives to this day, is, to my thinking, one of the worst examples of Christianity, as it thrives on competitiveness and ruthless exploitation of young talent. Nevertheless, Cleveland is no doubt turning 360's in his grave over the warped deification of the sound he pioneered. I have doubts Cleveland ever intended the black church to remain transfixed by 1965. In one of the last videotaped concerts before Cleveland's death, we can see a wheezing and aging Cleveland presiding over a large group of energetic youth playing fairly progressive music— more progressive than what we, here in Ourtown, cling to. Cleveland was clearly a progressive thinker and, had he survived, would likely be on a whole other level than where we remain, transfixed, staring at our navels as we cling to our quaint yestertime.
The Yabba Doo was scandalous when the Mighty Clouds of Joy first broke big in the late 50's, fusing doo-wop with bluesy Gospel, mile-high conk hair doos and shiny orange tight-fitting sharkskin that made them look like five Black Elvises. I was stunned to discover there are a great number of these quartet-style groups here in Colorado. Much like our black churches' infatuation with Cleveland's sound, these quartet groups pattern themselves after the Clouds and similar groups. And I have to imagine the legendary Joe Ligon must cringe when he hears most of these groups, clownish caricatures of an artform he pioneered. There was nothing clownish about the Clouds. These men would just come out on stage and rip your head off. The point contemporary quartet groups miss is, like Elvis, the Clouds dressed that way in those days because it was those days. Quartet groups dress that way now because they want it to be those days. Joe Ligon no longer wears a pompadour. When the Clouds crossed over with the scandalous dance-floor hit Mighty High back in the late 70's, it nearly ended their Gospel career. Church folks clutched their chests in shock. As much as they may pray for 1965, the Mighty Clouds left '65 back in '65, and Ligon (to my knowledge, the only surviving original member) must be horrified to run into imitators still wearing shiny orange suits.
Still Here: The Original Yabba-Doo. One of my top ten favorites. Was this photo taken in 1966 or last week?
I have nothing against The Yabba Doo
black church was still a political and economic force to be
reckoned with, I probably wouldn't even mind. I kind of like The
Yabba Doo. I even play The Yabba Doo, sometimes. The clip
playing on this page, from the landmark recording Live At The
Music Hall by the Clouds, is among my top ten favorite
albums But the black
church has grown so incredibly pointless, so impotently
toothless, that The Yabba Doo has become elevated to the status
of a sacred rite. The black church, this huge and fearsome
battleship adorned with weapons and laden with deadly weaponry,
never leaves dock. Never fires a shot. The radar operators are
too busy in meetings planning Admiral's Secretary's Cousins Day
to see the squadron of fighter jets dropping nukes on the cities
and sinking the fleet. All we do is sit here and plan the next
ceremony while the holocaust of apostasy sweeps across our
nation unchecked, moving God to a kindly abstraction. It's not
just Yabba Doo Music, it's Yabba Doo Faith. Yabba Doo
Spirituality. Yabba Doo Ethics. Yabba Doo Compassion. Yabba Doo
Love. Yabba Doo Religion. And a superscription also was written
over him in letters of Greek, and Latin, and Hebrew, THIS IS THE
KING OF THE YABBA DOO.
The greater body of the black church in America is firmly seated in 1965. Now, I have nothing against 1965 per se. I'm sure it was a good year (other than Lyndon Johnson escalating the Vietnam War, and losing Malcolm X, of course), but the fact is it is no longer 1965. It is 2002, some 37 years later. Now, do we want a bump and grind in Bishop Blake's pulpit? I certainly hope not, but, yeah, by all means, lets dance. If we had any business sense or any courage, we'd open up Christian Dance Clubs. See, my best guess about The No Dance Thing is it was meant to keep good Christian girls out of dance clubs, where they'd be easy prey for sophisticated con artists looking to score. Moreover, salacious dancing, the simulated sex pelvic grinding and/or thrusting, likely does not edify God either, and certainly sets our thoughts towards them drawers (which were on prominent display in the Jitterbug dance halls of the war years). Dance halls were full of booze and reefer and the music certainly didn't glorify God. Thus, for any or all of those reasons, absolutely, I can embrace the horror of the black church's traditional ban on dancing.
However, the notion of the church policing social behavior is a ridiculous and antiquated one. If a Christian does not truly know Christ, he or she has greater worries than the occasional Electric Slide. Keeping Christians in pens, in small cells of mind-controlled social stasis, is the laziest expression of ministry. Ministry is about meeting the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of people. Ministry is about connecting people to God— not policing behavior or art or thought. Of course, doing the mind control thing is perhaps easier than doing our real jobs. Helping someone get to know God in a real way is much harder than getting them a haircut and dictating patterns of behavior.