Tag Archives: history

A Heavenly Reference to Chicago’s Gospel Music History

CBR_Logo2A City Called Heaven:
Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music

by Robert M. Marovich

Transformative artistic movements don’t just appear, fully developed. They arise over time out of a complex web of interconnected people, places, history, circumstance, raw talent, and society’s readiness to accept them.

In A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music Robert M. Marovich ploughs deep and wide to connect all of Gospel’s variant threads from the late nineteenth through the early twenty-first centuries.

To say that A City Called Heaven is meticulously researched inadequately credits Marovich’s thoroughness. The nearly 150-page-long notes, index, and appendixes section is a good indicator of how much information the author troved and then masterfully knit together. The song index at the book’s conclusion lists about 400 titles, plus the page in the text that each appears.city heaven 9780252080692

This is a who’s who of international stars like Mahalia Jackson, who graces the cover, big congregations, and other major local and national industry players.

But its beauty and practicality as a definitive reference source on Gospel music lies in the book’s additional depth, in the attention also given to the unique contributions of countless small and medium-sized players and their accompanying details. Marovich strives to give credit to everyone—amateur, semi-professional, and professional singers; choir directors; accompanists; songwriters; musicians; quartets and quintets; sheet music arrangers and music publishers; music shop owners; television executives and personalities; and promoters who collectively used live appearances, records, radio, and ultimately television to share Gospel music with Chicagoland, the nation, and the world while developing it into a modern sound.

After a long and arduous, not-always-linear process, the world embraced it.

The text is densely penned, scholarly, and fact-laden. Readers will quickly lose count of the number of names, dates, and places chronicled.

Wondering when singer Albertina Walker’s parents migrated to Chicago from Georgia? Marovich’s got that. (Between 1915 and 1920; she was born in Chicago on Aug. 28, 1929).

Or the date that the Gay Sisters—Evelyn, Mildred, and Geraldine—first recorded with Savoy Records? The cut from that session that reportedly sold a million copies? (March 21, 1951; “God Will Take Care of You”)

How old was Milton Brunson when he organized the Thompson Community Singers in the basement of St. Stephen AME Church? What year was that? How many members were in the original group? And what was the church’s street’s address then? (Nineteen; 1948; 40; 2000 West Washington Blvd.)

A City Called Heaven begins by laying out the parallel journeys of those who ran Chicago’s large, deliberative Protestant churches—that had classically-trained choirs and professional choir directors—and the migrant preachers and street-corner musicians who came from the South during the Great Migration and founded storefront, communal churches that encouraged exuberant congregational participation.

“The worship style of the established protestant churches in the urban north was dramatically different from what migrants practiced down South,” Marovich writes. “The northern worship style tended to reflect the refined tastes of its upwardly mobile middle-class membership.”

“Not finding a comfortable home in the Old Landmarks, migrants created their own ‘islands of southern culture,’ establishing churches that welcomed newcomers and encouraged congregational participation.”

By the 1930s, these two styles became interwoven. Marovich tells you who was behind that—in detail.


Author Bob Marovich

The author gives special credit to a “nexus” of five people—Thomas Dorsey, Malahia Jackson, Sallie Martin, Theodore Frye, and Magnolia Lewis Butts—for being at the forefront, in the 1920s and ’30s, of the melding of these two styles into a modern Gospel sound that incorporated the best qualities of both—emotive and stirring with deep African roots, but also polished and professional.

By the mid-1930s, “Ebenezer Baptist Church was filled to overflowing whenever its Gospel Chorus sang,” Marovich writes. Moreover, “migrants at other churches were eager to have gospel choruses of their own, and their influence was no longer insubstantial.”

Chicago’s deliberative protestant churches had no choice but to acknowledge Gospel’s popularity. If they were to grow their congregational ranks, they had to have a Gospel choir.

“… if indigenous folk music could help increase membership and tithing, it could not be ignored.”

In any industry, rising stars need to know someone who can get them a gig, or just encourage their emerging talent. In the twentieth century, if you were in Chicago and wanted to rise in the Gospel music industry, the people you needed to back you were often right down the street—worshiping every Sunday at your church or at a church within a few blocks’ radius. Mahalia Jackson, for instance, worked as a demonstrator for Dorsey, singing his sheet music compositions on Bronzeville street corners beginning in 1930 and later travelling the country with him “as one of his chief demonstrators.”

A City Called Heaven is a rich timeline of firsts, including groundbreaking moments like the formation of the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, which still exists today, at Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago in 1933.

Important mentions include that in 1926, classically trained singer and pianist Arizona Dranes recorded the first Gospel record at Chicago’s OKeh studios.

Marovich follows the evolution of Gospel’s accompaniment as first piano and then organ, guitar, and then drums backed singers. Similarly, the author traces the rise of gospel choirs in Chicago churches, followed by a move in the 1940s and ’50s to quartets and other small groups, and finally the movement back toward large choruses.

And Marovich traces the career trajectory of Gospel singers like Sam Cooke, who crossed the controversial line into secular music, which artists often did as a way of financially supporting themselves and their families. Born in Mississippi, Cooke migrated to Chicago with his family in the 1930s and went onto sing with Gospel groups like the Soul Stirrers. He founded commercial success in secular tunes like 1957’s “You Send Me.”

Finally, as the twentieth century progressed, Gospel stars from Chicago became part of the historical fabric of the Civil Rights Movement. Mahalia Jackson sang at both the 1963 March on Washington and at the 1968 funeral of Dr. Martin Lutheran King, Jr.

A City Called Heaven is a Bible of where Gospel and has been, where it’s going, and who’s been at the wheel in a century of melding and shaping. An essential new reference.

Four-Star Review

April 2015, University of Illinois Press
$29.95, paperback, 488 pages
ISBN: 978-0-252-08069-2

—Reviewed by Karyn Saemann

Learn more about the book.


Filed under nonfiction

Harvesting the History of Corn

CBR_Logo2Midwest Maize:
How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartland
by Cynthia Clampitt

As we approach Harvest Moon this weekend, it seems a fitting time to look at one of the country’s biggest crops: corn. Local author and food historian Cynthia Clampitt has done just that in her remarkable new book, Midwest Maize.

Those of us who live here—and anyone who has ever driven south of I-80—will know how prevalent corn is in Illinois and across the Midwest. But chances are that few of us have thought much about corn as we pass row after row after row, aside from, perhaps, entertaining the cliché “knee high by the 4th of July.” Clampitt, however, has delved much deeper in this thoroughly researched history of the crop that all but turned the Midwest into America’s Heartland.

midwest maize 9780252080579An exhaustive history, Midwest Maize traces the origins of the crop, the only indigenous cereal grain in North America. From its ancient uses among the indigenous peoples of the Americas to its role among early settlers in the original colonies to its role in shaping the United States, Clampitt leaves no kernel unturned as she explores corn and all its varieties, from field corn to sweet corn to popcorn and beyond. She digs into the sowing, hoeing, and harvesting of corn, shedding light into the history of husking bees that brought neighbors together and built communities. She looks into preserving and preparing corn (the book even includes recipes), and she examines the various products that come from corn, from whiskey to corn starch to myriad breakfast cereals to ethanol and biodiesel. And, she examines the inventions surrounding corn that helped build the Midwest, including John Deere’s tractors, which today are used around the world.

Clampitt demonstrates that corn and all its derivatives shaped the Midwest and the United States not only by providing a crop that today we likely could not live without but by prompting developments sparked by corn. She argues that corn has direct ties to the development of Chicago, where farmers would bring their harvests, first on roads, then via the I&M canal, then via railroads. She explains that Chicago’s Union Stockyards grew in large part to the readily available crops of feed corn that led to massive growth in the population of cattle and hogs. Although other crops might possibly have filled the void had corn not been so prevalent, one is left to wonder whether Chicago would be what it is today had not corn led to such expansive growth.

Midwest Maize is a truly remarkable history, illustrating an ongoing domino effect produced by a crop that many of us think little about. It’s a fascinating look at something that most of us rarely consider beyond whether we’ll grill or boil corn on the cob for summer cookouts or whether we’ll use canned corn or frozen corn in that Thanksgiving casserole. Corn, though, as Clampitt ably demonstrates, has tremendous reach, a crop that today has become all but indispensable.

Beyond the history of corn and how it shaped the heartland, Clampitt also touches on some of the more controversial aspects surrounding the subject, including traditional vs organic vs sustainable farming as well as the problem of food waste, concerns surrounding using feed corn to fatten up livestock, and the diminishing numbers of farmers at a time when food scarcity and food security are such important issues around the world.

Packed with interesting details, Midwest Maize is an informative read, and one that might well be of interest to fans of Mark Kurlansky’s books Salt: A World History and Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World. Fascinating overall, the tale at times gets bogged down in minutiae, but Clampitt’s research and reportage sustains the book, providing readers with a unique look at an adaptable plant that does so much for so many, providing not only food but myriad other resources that most of us take for granted.

Three-Star Review

March 2015, University of Illinois Press
History/Food History
$19.95, paperback, 288 pages
ISBN: 978-0-252-08057-9

“And pray what more can a reasonable man desire,
in peaceful times, than a sufficient number of ears of
green sweet corn boiled, with the addition of salt?”
—Henry David Thoreau

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

Read more about the book.

1 Comment

Filed under nonfiction

Mystery and ‘Honor’ in Chicago

CBR_Logo2Honor Above All
A Novel

by J. Bard-Collins

In Chicago during the late nineteenth century, when the ashes from the Civil and American Indian wars still drifted through the air, tensions simmered just below boiling point. Soldiers transitioned into civilian work wherever they could, into trades, police forces, militias, and politics. Some ran food stands on the streets, and some collected coins in cans from the absentminded passersby. Army ranks faded, alliances formed between immigrants, and these groups developed heritage neighborhoods. With aimless men flooding into the city seeking refuge and work, two things rose from the dusty postwar streets along Lake Michigan: crime and buildings. J. Bard-Collins writes of both in her first novel, Honor Above All, a work labeled historical fiction, but perhaps with a case of mistaken identity.

honor above allGarret Lyons joined the army at the age of fifteen. Serving under General Stannard as an apprentice, he rises quickly in ranks due to his aptitude for planning, a bit of courage, and an overabundance of confidence. Yet when the devastation of the battle of Powder River clears, Lyons seems the only man left standing, putting a target on his back and discharge papers on his bunk. Now in his mid-twenties, Lyons looks for a way to get by using the only skills he has: those of a soldier. Luckily, the United States remains a lawless country, and he finds sanctuary in the services of Allan Pinkerton, founder of what would become the famous Pinkerton National Detective Agency.

Lyons leads a life of turmoil, carrying grief from years of soldiering and mourning the loss of his home with General Stannard. His service with the Pinkertons allows him to forget, for a time, that the war has ended for him. Yet, when an unknown assailant guns down his partner, Lyons returns to Chicago to hunt his killer and reunites with the General in an unexpected turn of events. These events begin the novel, leaving the reader feeling that much of the action happened before he was invited along.

Familiar names from history appear throughout Honor Above All,* giving the mystery a historical-fiction slant. Lyons finds a coconspirator and partner in Louis Sullivan. He mingles with the likes of Burnham and Root while the plot spins out around Montauk Block. Bard-Collins begins each chapter with a bit of Chicago history, lending to the atmosphere and setting of her world. She finds her stride in setting, detailing quick-moving clouds over a rising city that eventually touches the sky.

Yet, with a history lesson beginning each chapter, the plot slows to a forgetful pace. The characters become faded photographs of distant people from a long-ago time instead of a living community of entrepreneurs, artists, and tradesmen. With most of the novel told in a retrospective narrative, the past stifles the present. Each time the author ventures into the historical realm, the plot weakens and another genre takes lead: biography.

Bard-Collins gives her readers vivid, interesting vignettes of 1880s Chicago, so engrossing that they distract from the make-believe story at hand. While many novels cross genres successfully, few survive an author at cross purposes. As a biographical work of Chicago’s architects, its politicians, and its people, the novel shines. As a work of mystery, the suspense hangs stale in the wake of the more interesting, historical nonfiction.

Two-Star Review

November 2014, Allium Press
312 pages, Paperback, $17.99
ISBN: 978-0-9890535-7-0

Reviewed by Mindy M. Jones

*Silver Award winner for the IBPA Ben Franklin Award in the Mystery/Suspense category and Silver Award winner for the ForeWord Reviews IndieFab Awards in the Mystery category

Leave a comment

Filed under fiction