“Tuning Up” in Contemporary Gospel Performance by Braxton D. Shelley (U. Chicago)
The Music Department continues “New Perspectives in American Music,” a four-part spring semester 2017 speaker series, with “‘Tuning Up’ in Contemporary Gospel Performance” a talk by Braxton D. Shelley (U. Chicago) at 4:30 p.m. on Monday, March 20, 2017, at the Center for Humanistic Inquiry, Frost Library, Amherst College.
For practitioners of many African American Christian traditions, “tuning up” is a colloquial referent for a preacher’s shift from speech into song, most often at the end of a sermon. This phenomenon and its antecedents lie at the heart of many scholarly examinations of black preaching, ranging from Bruce Rosenburg’s “Can These Bones Live?: The Art of the American Folk Preacher” (1970) to Frank Thomas’ “They Like to Never Quit Praisin’ God: The Role of Celebration in Preaching.” (1977) These observations concerning the musicality of black preaching depend on an analogy between such sermons and gospel songs. Although scholars have noted the interrelation of African American preaching and African American gospel music (Floyd 1997; Ramsey 2003), their relationship has not yet been used as a means to theorize gospel performance.
Braxton extends “tuning up” from its specific role in black preaching to contemporary gospel performance, considering this practice as an analytic for formal procedure in gospel music. He begins by analyzing excerpts from sermons—Bishop James Morton’s “The Lazarus Conspiracy”, Rev. Dr. Gina Stewart’s “Am I My Brother and My Sister’s Keeper” and Rev. Dr. E. Dewey Smith’s “A Seminary From A Cemetery”—to illustrate the different forms this practice can take. He then uses homiletics, ritual theory, practice theory and phenomenology to argue that “tuning up” is a means of organizing attention. Close readings of three gospel songs—Richard Smallwood’s “Healing,” (1998) Myrna Summer’s “Oh How Precious,” (1975) and Brenda Moore’s “Perfect Praise” (1989)—to illustrate how the vamp, the repetitive ending cycle that is one of gospel’s central features, musically performs the process of “tuning up.” As in the sermons, and in similar settings, the structure and performance of each of these songs invites an attention shift concomitant with the beginning of its vamp. It constitutes a shift in performance that calls forth a change in perception—from the individual to the collective, and from the ear to the body, engendering a communal perception that lies at the heart of the gospel aesthetic.
Braxton D. Shelley is a PhD candidate in the history and theory of music at the University of Chicago; he is also finishing a Master of Divinity in the University of Chicago’s Divinity School. He earned a BA in music and history from Duke University. His dissertation, “Sermons in Song: Richard Smallwood, the Vamp, and the Gospel Imagination”, develops an analytical paradigm for gospel music that braids together resources from cognitive theory, ritual theory and homiletics with studies of repetition, form, rhythm and meter. He has presented his research at Northwestern University’s Music Theory and Cognition Workshop, Harvard University’s Graduate Music Forum, Music Theory Midwest, and the Society for Christian Scholarship in Music.