TERRORS AND IDYLLS OF THE EXILE
This is NOT a political piece like many of the worthy and informative articles on 99 GetSmart. Every once in a while the present writer gets out and into trouble of a different kind.
It could be nothing more than a freak of geography, wherein God’s Creatures are tossed around the globe like so many storm-tossed mariners but even taking that into account, the sheer strangeness of the occasion is worth musing on for a minute or two: a small circle of Americans, none of them church-going, most of them strangers to one another, sitting around a cocktail table in the night club of a corporate hotel, where water was unthinkable and a glass of wine 29 Euros; the platonic, pre-fabricated cocktail table itself, the same in every dive the world over: there might be one factory on the whole planet, in Chicago, Cuzco or Mandalay that makes every single one of them; three quarters of us strangers to each other, black and white, who would never so much as look in the hotel door or even go down that block in our day to day, our knees knocking against the lip of the table (which may be the reason for the explosion later on), sitting in an environment faux to the max, everything “pre-designed” and meant to signify a certain easy complacency with the ways of the world; all of us there for one purpose beyond the unspoken one of sitting in a small circle with unknown others who may or may not have shared our reasons for exile, or even our taste – because we were all Americans in Europe, and however often that sort of gathering ends up a real disaster, we were willing to chance it. That purpose being to hear a small group of gospel singers, who were willing to sing for us sinners in an environment that shouted hoshannas to easy money from every corner. We were grouped around the table for the simple reason that we came from the same wilderness, the forest of America, a country now so far away we might not even be able to find it on a map.
We came to hear the Baptist-Methodist delivery of Sweet Jesus, who no matter how endlessly he procrastinates over his return – and where actually would he go to be received hospitably? A certain irreducible number of Americans are sure it must be the U.S.A. but, by God, we’d have that socialist hanging from a tree before the sun went down – delivers musically.
The waiter was, like the song says, very kind. No matter how many times we said “pas encore” when he came for our order, he smiled and deferred. A Kabuki drama, full of deference and hidden motives. We were playing a role, that of indigent Americans on foreign soil, no less than he, who isn’t a waiter when he’s at home. We had snuck in the side door, so to speak: one of our party was related to the oldest and most venerable of the singers, Elsa Harris, who has joined the Victory Singers for a brief tour of the Continent. And there we were, not buying drinks, getting to know each other, and listening. I don’t know how often black and white sit down together in the States these days, but it isn’t often; and less so here. What did I have to do with the religious message of Jesus this and Jesus that? Absolutely nothing. But tonight at least, Jesus wasn’t going to be denied, here on the home ground of the cults that made his name. (To compress two thousand years of history into a single sentence, if Paul hadn’t ventured to Greece and Peter to Rome, no would even know who the troublemaker from Galilee is.)
So there we sat, thirsty in a temple of Mammon, listening not to some dumb hotel jazz but voices: heavenly, ardent, righteous. We watched in a kind of open-eyed stupor.
Someone someday should do a full-length study about the way the Godless French flock to gospel performances, the price of the ticket, the way they sit there agog as if they were, finally, after a weary week of the worst despotism imaginable – the ordinary – at an authentic happening, and how, within twenty minutes or less, they are smiling, clapping and flapping their arms like the rawest yokels at the county fair. Well, the French are notoriously ever in search of a new exotic flavor – but surely they do not believe. So they are once again playing a role. And yet… What sounds to me like the worst pandering to Jesus, emblematic of just how primitive religion is in my country, they applaud more fervently than they ever did the Belgian priest LeMaitre’s announcement that the universe is expanding infinitely in all directions. When we come over, the Euros like to see us primitive, in bear skins if possible, chanting a noisome litany of pseudo-sacred truths. It reassures them.
It is for that reason among many others that I cannot completely convince myself that Europe is so very done with God just yet. He is, I suspect, waiting in the wings somewhere, fidgeting, eager to try on a new outfit of shiny, theatrical garb. Where and when are the questions. Make of that what you will.
The Victory Singers are a small group, five ladies and two men, one piano, and not one of those enormous choirs decked out in flowing robes whose posters adorn public walls in city after city here on the Continent, leading one to the suspicion that there are many wise black folk who have decided that singing for their supper in Europe is a far better deal than heading home to be an unemployment statistic and member of a race that some 47.3% of my countrymen will never truly accept as Americans at all. (“So happy to be here among the real people,” the pols whistle when they land in rural Kansas or South Carolina.)
(I know: Obama won reëlection resoundingly despite the fact that he is a savage, tom-tom beating African bent on hauling America against its will to a socialist paradise. It must have happened because… because an influential and odious character named Withers, who happens to be a cartoon, came out for Romney, and that gave America pause to think. Stranger things have happened. In any case, America is not to be understood – it kills those who try; it can only be accepted as is, contradictions intact.
What was it like for a white Christian in the South to go into the voting booth and, against pressure from his preacher and his boss, vote for a man they are taught to despise? That interests me. Of course they routinely vote for men who cannot be trusted with either their dollars or their daughter…)
And so there they were on stage in jeans, eloquent testimony to the Poor Church which, no matter the indignities of the week, gets up early Sunday to testify that God is with them each step of the way, a claim I find absurd but not laughable, utterly unproven but worthy, for a host of reasons, of respect.
And what did they sing? Our Homeric Hymns, the originals lost, replaced by a multitude of versions derived from the first template, variants comingling in the spirit, each telling a different story depending on who steps up to sing it. No one should be shocked to hear lines in Tell ’em I’m a Child of God appear to very different ends in Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Alright. Or perhaps the singer in the Detroit church where Child of God was recorded listened to Dylan… – nothing out of the ordinary there. But if you trace the song back, you will end up not with a modern day believer singing for Jesus but a fugitive, an escaped slave, rain-soaked and shivering, who had no name to give him or herself and nothing more than A Child of God as a password and a desperate hope of shelter. An exile, in short, in his or her own country. That may or may not fit your definition of political but it is the human context in which many gospel songs were born.
I don’t know if I have conveyed the full strangeness of the evening, which seems to me now to have taken place in a hall of mirrors that would beggar Versailles. What were the Victory Singers doing at Le Méridien Etoile, an American chain of businessman’s hotels near Porte Maillot? There they were, five robust ladies testifying to the power of the name Jesus on the small stage of the imaginatively named Jazz Club (no Sluggos or Five Spot for the corporate set) and there we were in the front row, stranded until one of our party gave in and confessed, “Ah, hell, my husband died. I ain’t poor these days. I’ll go a round.” (How often do Methodists or Baptists or Seventh Day Adventists play for the cocktail crowd?) And there they were, the French making up the majority of the audience, there because they were staying in the hotel and it beat a Friday night watching television, or because even with the lowest rate of church attendance in Europe, their magnificent cathedrals empty of believers, they wanted to hear evidence of those who do believe. Vicarious thrills. And like I say, they put on, in their awkward way, just like mountain folk who come down from the hills to see some two-headed miracle.
Fiery condemnation will get you nowhere except a pulpit and, in any case, the occasion was too strange and sublimely discordant for such judgments. The only thing that could have topped the proceedings was if they announced that a production of Leroi Jones’s Dutchman would follow the second set. I wonder if the small crowd would have gone for that.
As it was, we had to content ourselves with the lady a few feet away who got a little too into it, kneeing the cocktail table and sending her tall, 50 Euro phizz flying into the air. It promptly landed and gave her a nice bath in Coco-Schnapps or whatever she was drinking. Uproar. Catastrophe. Something for the waiters to do – at last. They leapt into action with napkins and condolences. The singers kept belting it out the whole time.
The Victory ladies were a bit agog themselves. They had been to the Eiffel Tour earlier in the day for the first time in their lives. The piano player sighed wearily, “I stayed in bed. I’ve already done it three times,” (you can interpret that any way you like) but the ladies were beaming. Not a cathedral – the Eiffel Tower, which no Parisian goes near. Iddhis Bing December 3, 2012