In Conversation with David W. Stowe

David Stowe

An interview with the author of How Sweet the Sound: Music in the Spiritual Lives of Americans.

Molly Sheridan: Where did your interest in this link between music and spirituality in America come from?

David Stowe: I was in Japan for three years at a graduate school of American studies and was asked to develop an undergraduate course on American culture and religion. So I thought, well, what about American religious music? As I worked on that course and then continued to teach it when I got back to Michigan, the subject grew on me. I realized there was some really fascinating music out there that hadn’t been written about in any sort of comprehensive way, and so I began to think about this as a book. It’s a book that really grew out of teaching, but I think the situation of being in Japan and having a perspective from outside the U.S. while thinking about what makes the United States tick as a culture helped me reflect on the importance of music and religion.

MS: Religious music in America could mean many different things. Where did you start when you decided to teach this class? I’m curious what jumped out at you when you first started to think about what to bring into this.

DS: I ordered lots of materials—I was teaching Japanese students, so I wanted to have as much musical and visual material as I could so there wouldn’t be as much of a language barrier. I got in touch with my father, who’s kind of a music buff, and I knew that he had some old religious music. He’d grown up in a Christian family and I asked him if he could make some tapes for me. I think he was surprised that I was interested.

I really started with gospel, with the African-American tradition. The stuff that I could obtain easily in Japan was from the Smithsonian Folkways [Recordings]. One of the first collections I got was the four-part CD put together by Bernice Reagon. It’s called Wade in the Water: African-American Sacred Music Traditions. Then I gradually began obtaining a wider range of Christian music and then began seeing what I could get in terms of other world religions—Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam. I figured I should know something about all those musics, but it really started with black gospel.

MS: You said your father was an initial source. Did you grow up in a particularly religious music-oriented household?

DS: It wasn’t a really intense kind of conservative religious background, but I knew my father had some stuff. He was also a big jazz fan, so he got me started on my interest in jazz as well. Actually, my memories of jazz are more vivid.

MS: Your book ends up encompassing quite a bit of different religions and kinds of music. Is there any defining characteristic or sound that ties them together? Or are they all something different as far as this “American spiritual” sound you’re writing about?

DS: What I discovered after immersing myself in the music for a long time was that the Protestant hymn tradition had a really powerful impact on all the forms of religion in America. That the form of the hymn— which is a relatively rigid, structured form of usually four lines and four verses and so forth—had an impact on Buddhist religious music in North America. It had [also] affected Jewish music in the reformed tradition. It had certainly shaped Catholic religious music in different ways. So the hymn form, which really developed among New England Protestants, ended up being a kind of thread throughout the history of American sacred music.

MS: How did those characteristics jump the religion barrier?

DS: First of all, hymns are very useful in that they are short. You can set different text to different songs, so they’re very versatile and flexible. And they were very good at capturing the core theology, the core creed of the faith. I think other religious traditions in North America were exposed to hymns—these hymns were public culture for much of American history, so [most people] were aware of them—and they began to realize that these were practices that would help their own religious communities. These short, memorable tunes that captured the core message would work for other faiths. They were aware that their musical traditions from the old world, so to speak, weren’t as appealing in North America and so began to look for techniques to borrow. It was really immersion in hymn-singing culture and a recognition that hymns could help their communities grow.

MS: I was reading this morning about a group of 17th-century Jesuits in Bolivia. They realized that the language of music was a more effective way of communicating the teachings of God than prayer and preaching alone. It’s a very important in religious evangelism, especially when you’re dealing with a language barrier.

DS: Right. The first point of contact between Europeans and native peoples in America was through music. Catholic and Protestant missionaries were usually among the first Europeans, and they quickly realized that music was a way of communicating, of obtaining some interest, and basically it was a very effective medium for conveying Christian beliefs.

I think there’s also a sense in a predominantly Christian culture like the United States for these minority religious traditions to assimilate themselves so as not to stand out and draw attention. One thing you see, for example, is that Japanese-American Buddhists tend to organize themselves into churches. They meet on Sunday mornings, they have the equivalent of sermons, and they would sing hymns. So they adopted all of these forms from Protestant worship and I think part of it was to escape the sense of being this kind of alien, un-American religion, as a way of making themselves look and probably feel more familiar.

MS: You’re talking a lot about formal religions in the examples we’ve been discussing, and yet the book is subtitled using the word “spiritual”, which obviously can be the same thing or different. What’s the division in the music you’re actually covering? Is it one and the same, or a little bit of both sides?

DS: Well, I try not to use them completely interchangeably. I think spiritualism is a broader category that encompasses religion, but I think of religion as more institutionalized traditional forms of worship. Most of the book does deal with recognizable world religions, but I wanted to open it a bit to other forms of religious experience which are maybe not recognizably Christian or Hindu or Muslim. Especially in the 20th century, when I talk about figures like Duke Ellington and Sun Ra and John Coltrane, they don’t really fit comfortably into any one organized religious tradition, and so I think spirituality is a more apt term. I think also with Native American spiritual traditions it’s useful to have that broader category.

MS: The chapter that you wrote connecting the beliefs and practices of Sun Ra and 18th-century mystic Conrad Beissle I thought was really fascinating. I would have loved to excerpt a portion of that on our site, but it just really was too complex to do so cleanly. Would you, in lieu of that, talk a bit about what led you to draw those parallels between the two men?

DS: Well, there’s an online version of that article you might be interested in then. It’s basically the same thing.

What led me to it? I guess in both cases it had to do with colleagues of mine. One of my graduate school advisors, John Szwed from Yale, had published a biography of Sun Ra. In reading that book I discovered this really extraordinary world of Afrocentric spirituality that had shaped his career, so I was aware of that. And a colleague of mine at Michigan State, Arthur Versluis, is one of the international figures on esoteric religion and in talking to him I’d been exposed to the history of these German-speaking immigrant groups, these mystical communities in North America. As I read more about those, I thought, Ah-ha! These two musical movements, so different—they’re 200 years apart—really share some pretty crucial core beliefs about the central importance of music and about the relationship between music and the cosmos. Even the types of communities that Sun Ra and Beissle formed, these sort of monastic orders, so to speak, had a lot in common. So I just thought it was an amazing unexpected juxtaposition. I wasn’t sure it would hold together on close examination, but as I did more and more research I realized that in fact they do have a lot in common. I didn’t find any evidence that Sun Ra was aware of these earlier groups, but certainly they drew on a shared tradition going back to ancient Greece, the Pythagorean tradition, and in Sun Ra’s case back to Egypt. So, they did share a common set of philosophical and theological beliefs.

MS: Since many of our readers might be interested in the technical or musicological side of what you’re doing, I see that there are some musical examples and things scattered through the text, but how much of the book is looking at the music theory side as opposed to more of a sociological perspective?

DS: Well, I tried to do some musical analysis in all the chapters. I certainly did uneven amounts, but I tried to at least give some close, formal attention to the music that I talked about. I’m not trained as a musicologist, so I didn’t conduct technical musical analysis, but I tried to bring as much of that knowledge that I’ve developed on my own as an amateur to work on these pieces. So it’s not a work of hard-core musicology, but I think it might be closer to the sort of mix of formal analysis and sort of cultural/social analysis that you might find in ethnomusicology. I’m really trying to figure out what makes particular pieces of music work and give readers a sense of how music creates its meaning.

MS: You call yourself an amateur musician. What is your music background?

DS: I’ve been a percussionist and drummer since I was in elementary school and I taught myself some other instruments, as well, so I have a practical training in music. In doing my American studies degree, when I realized I was going to write a dissertation about jazz, I began to teach myself as much as I could about music analysis and the current state of musicology. In the period I was doing this, it was changing in very interesting ways. This was the mid-’90s, so you sort of had that new turn in musicology towards social and cultural contexts. So I did it for a comprehensive field in my graduate training and that’s about the extent of it, although I guess after reading enough of it and trying to apply it over the years, I feel like I’ve picked up a reasonably good handle on the more accessible techniques. I was writing this book for a fairly general audience, so it wouldn’t have really been useful to have very detailed technical analysis for readers who couldn’t appreciate it. So there’s kind of a nice balance between what I can do and what most of my readers can really absorb.

MS: There are so many artists that you touch on in this book, but which artistic figures really stood out for you personally as you were doing this research?

DS: There were so many. Well, Thomas Dorsey and Duke Ellington—I was just fascinated that Duke Ellington turned so single-mindedly towards sacred music in his last decade with these three ambitious concerts of sacred music and Dorsey had such a dramatic personal story. The song “Precious Lord” came out of this incredible personal tragedy where his child and his wife died in giving birth and out of that he wrote this song which probably became the best known of all gospel songs.

I was also really interested in Charles and John Wesley where the book begins because I thought it was such an interesting story. These two fairly young, Oxford trained, English missionaries in North America in this really wild frontier settlement, and just the incredible culture shock they underwent there. Also the experience of crossing the Atlantic, meeting these German Moravian settlers who made this incredible impression with their hymn singing. The Wesleys had a very discouraging, unsuccessful time. It was really a fiasco, their year or two in North America. They went back and of course had a great career founding Methodism and leading these incredible revivals. And then Charles Wesley becomes this prolific hymn writer—he wrote thousands and thousands of hymns. I thought that was a really dramatic story of how basically religious history and religious music was changed through these very unlikely circumstances.

MS: You said you started teaching this in Japan. How did your students react to this picture of America?

DS: I think they were kind of flabbergasted at times because I showed them a lot of footage of very intense religious practice—Pentecostal services, the kind of worship services where people are letting it all hang out. This is very far from either Japanese religious practice or Japanese practice at all. So they were kind if taken aback, but I was hoping that it would pique their interest in America. I didn’t get a lot of feedback from the students that you might expect from assertive American undergraduates. They tended to keep their opinions to themselves, partly because of the language barrier. I did have evidence that it shook up their impression of what religious experience and practice was like. It was just so different from Buddhist or Shinto music. Some of the students wanted to know more about the performers and where they could get the stuff on CD. I guess that was their way of expressing interest.

MS: Can you have religion without music?

DS: No, I don’t think so. I think the two are really joined at the hip.

MS: Even certain practitioners of Islam who forbid music, their prayers could be listened to with musical ears. Even there you could almost say that there’s an aspect still of this connection.

DS: Exactly. Islam is a really interesting case because to call the chanting of the Koran or the call to prayer “music” is a kind of sacrilege. The term music can’t be applied to that, but of course to non-Muslim ears, it does sound like music. It’s got all the qualities of music. So, you can’t find religion without some sort of musical expression. As far as people can tell from the study of the early roots of human beings, religion and music grew up together, and that relationship is very strong throughout the entire world.