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The Gospel Set

November 13, 2012

Of The Word, Dark Secrets and Inconvenient Truths


Aretha Franklin, the Rise of the Soap Opera, Children of the Gospel Church, and Other Meditations

By Anthony Heilbut

Alfred A. Knopf, 354 pages

Review by Bob Marovich


Although Anthony Heilbut completed The Gospel Sound in 1971, the book remains the indispensable, undisputed, authoritative history of gospel music–truth be told, it hasn’t really had a challenger for that title–and the first serious extended writing about this distinctive American art form.

Lo, some forty years later, Heilbut returns to gospel’s Golden Age, a term he coined and a subject dear to his heart–and adds a few other topics, too–in The Fan Who Knew Too Much: Aretha Franklin, the Rise of the Soap Opera, Children of the Gospel Church, and Other Meditations.

In the opening essay, “The Children and their Secret Closet,” Heilbut goes where most fear to tread. He chronicles the historic and estimable contributions of gay men and women to gospel music. No cultural interloper he, Heilbut has, since the late 1950s, walked among gospel’s pioneers, become a friend and confidant to many of them, and produced several award-winning gospel projects. Almost singlehandedly and for decades, he kept Marion Williams, and a score of Chicago singers and musicians, active behind the recording microphone when major labels had blithely moved on.

‘A song with long, strong arms’: Aretha performs Thomas A. Dorsey’s ‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand’

Heilbut writes with full permission from those whose tragic tales he tells. We learn how a community (gay) within a community (black) within a community (migrant) walked with dignity through the most undignified of trials to transform the sound of the African American church and, ultimately, American popular music.

The irony, Heilbut points out in “The Children,” is how some benefited personally from the talents and gifts of musicians whose sexual preferences they decried publicly. He quotes one person who even exclaimed, “God wants you dead.” Had the “you” trigger been pulled against any other disenfranchised group of people, the public outcry would have been deafening, and rightfully so. But it was aimed at the homosexual community and nobody said a mumblin’ word. No one, whether white, black, church, organization, writer, or political figure, who has disrespected the “sissies and bulldaggers” are spared Heilbut’s ire. It is a masterful piece of writing, ranking among the author’s best work.

Gospel enthusiasts will also find Heilbut’s extended essay on the musical passage of Aretha Franklin from PK to Queen of Soul to be of interest. It is as insightful and eye opening, and places its subject as squarely within the context of American life and culture as Greil Marcus’ “Presleyiad” did for the Hillbilly Cat in Mystery Train.

Gospel plays a significant role in other chapters of The Fan Who Knew Too Much. In “The Male Soprano,” for example, Heilbut discusses the above-the-stave singing of virtuoso artists such as Carl Hall of the Rasberry Singers. In “The Curse of Survival,” Heilbut’s argument for understanding blues singers in the context of their times–as popular entertainers, not mythical figures–parallels the trend among gospel record collectors who elevate the raw, amateur, and obscure over the artists who were the public face, the bread and butter, of gospel music during the 1950s and 1960s.

Reading The Fan Who Knew Too Much is a revelatory and stirring experience. It is an elegy for, and ode to, the émigrés and exiles–“those who are heavy laden,” to quote a gospel lyric–who despite their suffering contributed significantly to the richness of American culture. De grandes souffrances vient du grand art.



Bob Marovich is a gospel music historian, radio announcer and author. His “Gospel Memories” radio program of vintage black gospel music and artist interviews airs live first Sundays from 3 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. on Chicago’s WLUW 88.7 FM, and streams live at the station’s website. Snippets of recent broadcasts can be heard online at the Gospel Memories Radio Show. Bob is also founder and editor of The Black Gospel Blog.







The Gospel Church and the Ruining of Gay Lives: An Interview with Anthony Heilbut

In a fascinating, informed interview with Douglas Harrison posted at Religious Dispatches on July 30, Anthony Heilbut discussed the most controversial aspect of his new, acclaimed book, The Fan Who Knew Too Much: Aretha Franklin, the Rise of the Soap Opera, Children of the Gospel Church and Other Meditations, namely that of the lives of gospel homosexuals (“better known as ‘the children,’ in the parlance,” as Harrison notes) within the black gospel world. Below are a few choice excerpts from that interview; the complete text is available at the Religious Dispatches website. Highly recommended reading.

In the book you show how sexual and gender identity (ascribed or professed) was related to musical performance during gospel’s golden age in the mid-twentieth century. Was that specific to that period? Do you think that looking at non-heterosexual identities might help in reading the history of earlier forms of black American song, such as spirituals?

Absolutely. Absolutely. I mention in the book that when Marian Anderson began traveling, her first musician was the top church pianist in Philadelphia. And shortly after they started touring he was arrested for the same old reasons that put so many others in jail: soliciting. And this would have been in the early part of the twentieth century.

George Washington Carver, who is considered an absolute legend and who was a gay man, was also Marian Anderson’s greatest fan, or so identified. So we’re talking about evidence from the early twentieth century that the people surrounding the church and in love with church singers—their greatest fans—were gay men. We don’t know too much about the nineteenth century because people didn’t seem to ask these questions. But all the evidence I have is that as long as there have been records or reports of black religious singing, gay men played a very active role either as performers or as managers, as conductors, as accompanists, as directors.

Mahalia Jackson and Nat King Cole, ‘Steal Away,’ together on Nat’s TV show, 1957

Your account of the black church charts a dramatic swing in attitudes and practices toward non-heterosexuals over the past 30 years. What do you think are some of the origins of this shift?

I connect the extreme homophobia in the black church of the last twenty-five to thirty years to the intrusion of particular right-wing elements within our culture. I don’t want to say these are exclusively white because unfortunately there is a long tradition of reactionary tendencies within the black church.

But there are a whole bunch of famous white evangelists, among them Kenneth Hagin and John Hagee, who are promulgating this “prosperity gospel.” “Name it and claim it,” which of course is extremely quietist politically, because essentially you don’t have to do anything. You don’t have to organize. You certainly don’t have to think in large sociological categories. It’s all based pretty much on “what you tithe will be reflected in the Lord’s generosity.”

And always the two major themes of Pentecostals, and more particularly black Pentecostal churches (and the larger they are, the worse it gets) emphasize two themes: prosperity gospel and opposition to gay rights.

When you consider the longstanding tradition of orthodox religious antipathy toward gay men in particular, what do you think are some of the factors that account for why religious art has inspired and continues to inspire so many gay people?

I’m imagining down the line that I will have to dispute someone or someone will debate me [on this question].

What I want to say to all of these people from all denominations—and we know that homophobia is allowed in all churches—is: where would religious art be without gay men? You wouldn’t have the Sistine Chapel. You wouldn’t have The Last Supper. You wouldn’t have “Ave Maria.” Most likely you wouldn’t have the “Hallelujah Chorus,” because we seem to think Handel was gay.

And if we were to get rid of all of the gospel songs and hymns [written and performed by gays] that people have been saved to…? I mean… [trails off laughing]

“Writing It Out,” the third section of your first chapter, is one of the more evocative sections of the book. Stylistically, it’s an excursion of sorts, less energized by the urgency with which the book tells the individual stories of gospel’s gayness. It’s more of a jazz riff tracing through-lines of queer experience and expression in modern religious history and literature.

I agree with you, I went on an excursion—but remember that those first two sections of the book are very graphic and very dramatic. I really hoped people would laugh and that people would cry. I’m much cooler in [“Writing It Out”]. I am, even by my standards, unusually impassioned in those first sections.

But you must remember that I’m really very angry. I really want to be literate and literary, but I’m really furious. Probably the most daring thing I say in the book is when I compare [the gospel church to] the Taliban, and then I say, thinking of all the ruined gay lives, this really is the number that no man can number.

It’s also interesting to me that “Writing It Out” is followed by the section “War on the Children.” Such an organization suggests that the latter was a reaction against the former—that as these voices emerge, there’s this really virulent reaction culturally against them.

And also it’s so very political. As the church has become more right-wing or apolitical—and by the way you can’t even blame the church. The whole culture—we are so far post-integration. In other words, we are so back in segregation that maybe it’s asking an awful lot of black gospel people to be more progressive than the dominant society. But the fact is that everything progressive that was represented by [gay men such as Bayard Rustin, James Baldwin, Al Duckett] is being disputed in the church.

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