“Teach me some melodious sonnet,” Deirdre Gaddis sang soothingly to herself, trying to remember the rest of the old hymn. The heads of several patrons in the coffee shop snapped around to find the source of the silvery voice. Gaddis didn’t seem to notice anyone looking as the rest of the verse came back to her, “Sung by flaming tongues above.”
“Such a beautiful little song,” Gaddis concluded, unaware her impromptu hymn — which, judging by her nonchalance, was more of a mnemonic reflex than her trying to sing so people could hear — had garnered some attention and made the Adele song playing over the stereo suddenly seem inadequate to those looking in her direction, smiling. A woman wearing a hijab, sitting behind Gaddis, had taken her earbuds out to listen.
For Gaddis, a Birmingham native who is the director of music ministries at Mount Zion Baptist Church, gospel music has always been about bridging the divides; from Birmingham in 1963 to present day Black Lives Matter demonstrations; from then-President Barack Obama singing “Amazing Grace” during the eulogy of Reverend Clementa Pinckney, one of nine people killed at the Emanuel AME Church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, to the images of President Donald Trump swaying back and forth during a campaign stop at the Great Faith Ministries worship service in Detroit.
“Across the South, we have a deep appreciation of history — we haven’t always had a deep appreciation of each other’s history,” Obama said during the eulogy to the crowd of mourners, borrowing a phrase he attributed to Pinckney.
“What is true in the South is true for America. Clem understood that justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other. That my liberty depends on you being free, too,” Obama said, moments before leading the service with a rendition of the gospel classic. “That history can’t be a sword to justify injustice, or a shield against progress, but must be a manual for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past — how to break the cycle. A roadway toward a better world. He knew that the path of grace involves an open mind — but, more importantly, an open heart.”
Gospel music is an inescapable expression of life in the South, for good or ill. Perhaps more accurately, for African-Americans in the South (and elsewhere) gospel music has become a deep-rooted cultural pillar sang in praise, in protest, and plenty of places in between. As one local gospel singer, who is black, posited, “It’s all we ever had.”
“Gospel finds you where you are”
Blues is to sadness what gospel is to hope, Gaddis said — two contrasting soundtracks to the African-American experience. Mahalia Jackson, a gospel legend and one of Gaddis’ more central influences, once condensed her love of gospel into a cure: “When you sing gospel you have a feeling there is a cure for what’s wrong.” By contrast, Jackson didn’t speak as tenderly about the blues: “Anybody singing the blues is in a deep pit yelling for help.”
But the two genres aren’t mutually exclusive, at least not for Gaddis, who said gospel just has a way of “meeting people where they are,” more so than any other music.
“Gospel music embraces whatever situation is going on. It’s soothing for the soul, and at the same time it can ignite a fire within you to get you involved,” Gaddis explained. “There is something different about it, because you’re tying God to whatever situation you may find yourself in. The gospel relies heavily on emotion. It builds up and paves the way for the preacher to come and deliver the Word.”
She likened gospel music to the Levites preparing for battle by alerting the people in the book of Deuteronomy. “Just like the Levites went out and got people ready for battle, that’s what gospel music does for preachers. We make it easier. We set the environment and get people’s hearts in tune to hear the word. The right song, for whatever it is that you may be feeling — if you’re sad or something — it not only delivers you, but it delivers others too. It doesn’t matter your faith, your race, your gender — gospel music embraces everyone where they are.”
Gaddis began singing and playing piano in church when she was seven years old at Mount Zion, where her love affair with gospel hymns began. Those same hymns, the “Old 100s,” as she referred to them, have also been synonymous with the ongoing struggle for equality, in that many of the songs have become a rallying cry for protesters, especially at the peak of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Songs like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “We Shall See the King,” and “We Shall Overcome,” have been sung during protests for as long as Gaddis can remember. At 42, she knows gospel music has been pivotal to the generations of struggle from the black men and women that came before her in Birmingham and elsewhere.
On an unseasonably warm Monday in January, in observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, revelers marched down the route that reflects the 1963 marches that King and thousands of foot soldiers made, many leaving organizing meetings at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church before heading toward city hall. Black and white citizens, hand in hand, sang “We Shall Overcome,” while marching across ground that paved the way for such a scene, half a century after segregation was abolished.
Those songs of freedom are just as important now as they ever have been, Gaddis said. A few hours earlier, the world had witnessed President Donald Trump take the oath of office, images of which were being rebroadcast on a TV in the corner of the coffee shop.
Now and Then
“I understand protests. Protests in the ‘60s here were about deliverance. But the violence that people are willing to go through now, it seems like it’s all for nothing,” Gaddis said, referring to the images of rioters smashing storefronts in Washington D.C. on the day of the inauguration. “Do I like the fact Trump was elected president? Absolutely not. I don’t think he identifies with us as a people. I don’t think he respects or appreciates women. I think it has thrown everyone for a loop. But we’ve got to give him his opportunity to do the right thing. We can protest without throwing concrete at police who are just doing their job.”
On this day in particular, she said, it’s hard to ignore the vitriolic undercurrent that has swept through the American politics and exposed the old fissures of inequality and division.
One of Gaddis’s musical influences, Birmingham’s own Verna Sneed, lived through the movement in Birmingham. Sneed was raised in Pratt City. Now 66, she still attends the same church she sang in when she was a little girl, the Bethel Baptist Church of Pratt City.
“Gospel music has always been a reflection of the black race,” Sneed said, tracing gospel’s roots back to blues music which, not unlike gospel, was heavily influenced by white oppression. Sneed was 13 years old when the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed. “My brother was one of the musicians for the [Southern Christian Leadership Conference] here in Birmingham, and they played at a lot of the rallies that followed,” Sneed said.
She remembered vividly sitting in the back of the bus as a child and singing, quietly, “We Shall Overcome,” as she and her friends were forced out of the back exit because more white passengers had boarded and needed a place to sit.
Dating back even further, Sneed explained, gospel songs were a way to “send out messages” to those being held in slavery. “That song, ‘Wade in the Water’ it was a musical rendition but it was also a message to slaves saying that if you were going to escape you need to stay in the water because your scent can’t be picked up by the dogs,” Sneed explained.
The piano Sneed’s family had in the living room became a hub of music and revelry, she recalled. Unlike most other types of music, gospel singers often draw their influences from family members who sang in church. “We would sing together. Some days we could be sitting around the house singing and other people in the neighborhood would come over and fill the living room and the front porch. That’s what gospel music is. It just gets up under you. It’s musical soul food. It lifts you when you’re down and it gives you hope,” Sneed recalled fondly. “You can’t sit up under it.”
“Let’s sing about love”
When Cameron Sankey answered the phone, the excited sounds of several children could be heard in the background. Sankey, a father of four, is the grandson of one of Birmingham’s gospel matriarchs, Katie Sankey, and is a talented musician in his own right. Now 32, he has a family of his own — “a loud one,” he joked — and is the music director at More Than Conquerors Faith Church.
“I deeply believe in gospel music because I believe it to be the word of God and it speaks life into people,” Sankey said, as his wife Courtney could be heard trying to wrangle the children to bed. “It speaks to any situation. You can find any gospel song that can be applied to your life. Especially in Birmingham, gospel music has made a huge impact on the world and the way we view race relations. In a sense we need to go back to that foundation that we can all come together and grow from there.”
He recalled being a child and how his mother, to his amazement, had a seemingly endless supply of gospel hymns she would sing, in any given situation. “I would watch her and how she [would] deal with situations in life and it seemed like she always had a song that would ease her mind or ease her heart,” Sankey said, noting that his father was also a musician. “I guess I learned how to deal with things by watching them and listening to those songs. Just watching them live it gave me what I needed to be successful and happy.”
Sankey hopes his music will have the same kind of impact on his children as they grow older. However, he said it’s troubling to see the ways in which racism has reared its head in the months leading up to last year’s election. Like many other gospel singers who are familiar with the struggles that unfolded in Birmingham, Sankey said music will play a powerful role in helping to bridge those divides. As a father, Sankey believes it’s important to instill that lesson in his children.
“We have to stand up for what we believe in. That much hasn’t changed. If we believe in love we can sing about love,” he said, pausing for a moment, “If you believe, and even if you don’t, the gospel will always lead you home again.”