"You got to be in it to feel it. And if you're not in it, you just sit there and you look." The words of Primitive Baptist Elder W. Lawrence Richardson, a former member of the gospel group The Fairfield Four, sum up the essence of Fire in My Bones: Transcendence and the Holy Spirit in African-American Gospel (University of Pennsylvania Press, 424 pp., $24.95), authored by UNC-Chapel Hill anthropologist and folklorist Glenn Hinson. They also reflect the career of The Branchettes, the gospel duo celebrating nearly three decades in song and praise later this month.
I know from whence the Elder speaks. Shortly after moving south, my wife and I visited a program at the Allston Unity Chapel in rural Pittsboro. We were struck by the congregants' beautiful attire, cheered by their singing, moved by their sincerity, embarrassed when the Rev. Carrie Boulton invited us to introduce ourselves to the assembly, and touched by the warm reception that followed. In spite of our color and our unfamiliarity with African-American faith and ritual, we were made to feel a part rather than apart.
But, as Richardson suggests, we did little more than sit there and look, aware of the deep currents of faith running through the congregation, but having next to no appreciation of what was actually going on.
Fire in My Bones--its title refers to a biblical prophet who likened the touch of The Spirit to "a burning fire shut up in my bones" (Jeremiah 20:9)--goes a long way toward shedding light on what's going on at Allston Chapel and in countless other sanctified services, throwing wide the curtains on what may seem, to the unsaved, a ritual as much about show as it is about The Spirit. But readers will quickly come to realize that, in the words of the "saints," or the saved, it's The Spirit and The Word that render real the very notion of "having church" in the first place.
Although an academic, Hinson sidesteps the distancing analysis of ethnography, instead giving the main text wholly to the "believers," and isolating contributions from "outsiders" in the notes. The saints have their say, whether it's about achieving "accord" and the attitude to worship, conversational engagement and spiritual communion, the false purposes of "form and fashion," the elevated speaking style some describe as "zooning," or the basics of gospel singing: "Go slow, rise high, catch on fire, and sit down."
The structure of the book also is unique: Hinson uses a rural Johnston County church service marking the 20th anniversary of The Branchettes, winners of the 1995 North Carolina Folk Heritage Award, as a template for examining the elements common to sanctified services of all denominations. In treating service as story, with a beginning, a middle and an end--a narrative arc, so to speak--the book reads like a novel, making it hard to put down.
But the "story" being told is not fiction. It's the story of a living faith being experienced on a daily basis by saved believers--saints like Evangelist Evelyn Gilchrist, speaking before a Pentecostal congregation in Durham; Claude Landis, a Baptist quartet singer from Creedmoor; and Bishop Frizelle Yelverton, pastor of Durham's Mount Calvary Holy Church. It is their words, and the words of others too numerous to mention, that accompany us on our journey of faith. Their insights are riveting, deeply heartfelt, frequently fascinating, and occasionally funny.
It is while discussing the difference between those "playing holy"--churchgoers merely performing sanctity--and those genuinely anointed with The Spirit, that Durham's Rev. Zebedee D. Harris tells the parable of the poll parrot. Purchased in a pet store and guaranteed to talk, he squawks out passing sights during the walk home--"Shoe shop!," "Theater!" and even "Nightclub!"
The next day, his owner takes him to church, where folks are shouting, carrying on and falling over benches. "What's this place?" asks the man. "Nightclub!" answers the parrot. "This isn't a nightclub, this is church!" the man scolds.
"Same crowd," explains the parrot.
This question--of showing up "not for the appointment, but for the anointment," of being saved, rather than playing with God--hovers over every page of Fire in My Bones. We hear it in the reflections of gospel singers, who used God's blessings to "get the glory" for themselves before turning their lives over to the Lord. And we hear it in tales of "benchwarming" congregation members, unwilling to engage in worship, who arrive with "dead batteries" and expect "performers" to give them a "Holy Ghost charge."
But how do even sincere believers know that the "stirrings within," that the words and songs they speak and sing, for all purposes "authored from beyond," derive from God and not elsewhere? Pausing to question the source is key, say the saints, and it is in this arena that Fire in My Bones provides its most compelling witness. We learn that Satan, too, is a master of music. And that in moments of high emotion and intense devotion, he's waiting to strike.
The Branchettes know a thing or two about the ways of Satan. That's why they're moaning. It's a gray afternoon in February, and they're at Durham's Overdub Lane Recording Studios to record their first CD of gospel music. The song is called "Remember Me."
"The devil is mad," sings Sister Lena Mae Perry, "'cause we're moaning this song, and he can't understand." Moaning, explains Sister Ethel Elliott, is just one of the ways to confound Satan.
"Maybe you've had a hard day's work, or maybe something went wrong that day," she says. "You get in the kitchen and start your meals, and you might sing a line or two of words. But the devil's been worrying you all day, and when you sing, he knows exactly what you're saying--so he knows right where to strike. But when you throw that moaning on him, he has to flee from you. 'Cause he don't know one thing you're saying."
The Branchettes were born near the Johnston County town of Benson--Ethel in 1928, Lena in 1939--and both grew up in churchgoing farm families, singing around the house, as well as in church, for as long as they can remember. It was at Long Branch Disciple Church, in the Meadow area, where they first met, and their debut as the Branchettes can only be described as divinely inspired.
The Long Branch Senior Choir, in which they sang, was scheduled to sing at a church program in nearby Smithfield, but only three members, including Elliott and Perry, managed to show up. Although nervous, they sang anyway, and were said to have set the place on fire. The trio decided to call itself the Branchettes, or "small branches of the Long Branch," their home church. A few years later, the trio's elder member passed away--but Elliott and Perry have persevered. They will be celebrating their 27th anniversary the weekend of March 11-12.
In the studio today are not only Perry and Elliott, but also Ethel's daughter, Willa, and Hinson himself, who is producing the CD with a grant from the North Carolina Arts Council. The setup is spare--it's the Branchettes, a pair of microphones, and a well-worn hymnal limp with years of use.
The minute they open their mouths, it's clear that the Branchettes' unadorned voices are powerful enough to carry The Word far beyond the cozy walls of the studio--which they do, regularly, at church programs, local revivals, gospel anniversaries, local hospitals and nursing homes, mostly within a 50-mile radius of their home church. Taking no personal credit for their talents, they sing for the purpose of lifting people's burdens and honoring God.
"Oh, how I love Jesus," they sing, Lena with her hands on her hips, Ethel with her hands at her side, eyes closed, transported. Willa faces them while they sing, helping to keep the pace, joining in on handclaps. A take, maybe two, and they're done, gathering to confer on the next number. Hinson has a request--an old song called "Sign of Judgment."
"Oh, lord, please, you carry me back to when I was this high!" laughs Sister Perry. "This lady, she used to get down with it, I can't get down like she did!" But get down they do--with thunder, four horses and other biblical admonitions--rendering a song so intense that it makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck.
"Sign of Judgment" is a topic of discussion a week later, when we return for a second recording session. The Branchettes have laid down a couple of tracks, to my ears even more powerful than the week before, but to them, something seems to be missing.
"You can 'put' feelings in the song," says Sister Perry, "but last week, there was a little something different. You have to wait until the Man comes to get the feeling. And it don't happen every time you get together for a song service. Last week, when we were singing 'Sign of Judgment,'"--she punctuates her point with a wave of her hand--"He was here." Just ask my neck hairs. The session continues for five hours. "I know I been changed," they sing, "the angels in heaven done signed my name."
I ask the Branchettes if they ever imagined singing together for 27 years.
"Sometimes we've experienced people saying we won't stay together, that we're not going to keep on singing," says Sister Perry, "but that was the devil trying to entice us to stop. Sometimes it got so hard, he thought he had us, but the more he was behind us, the better we got, and we just kept running. The devil has tried to make us turn back and just give it up, but with the help of the good Lord, putting him first, He sees we're not going to stop now."
The Branchettes will be signing Fire in My Bones at Durham's Regulator Bookshop at 2 p.m. Saturday, March 4.