Entertaining the Spirit
When you work on a book, there are stories within stories that come to you, and—you can’t help it—they pull you in. That’s how we found ourselves in front of a two-story white stucco building in Hollygrove on Live Oak Street. It took us a while to find it. The uptown neighborhood of New Orleans wasn’t developed until the early 1900s because of its low-lying, swampy location, and it is cut up with drainage canals. We came to photograph Oscar Washington, the bandleader and snare drummer of the New Wave Brass Band and his uncle, Melvin Washington, at their family church. We had been working with Oscar on a book about how music gets passed on in New Orleans, and he told us that, for him, it all began at the St. Anthony Divine Spiritual Temple, where his uncle and musical idol played the drums. “Everybody in my family came out of that church. My daddy’s mother, Delia C. Washington—God rest her soul, I know she’s looking down on me right now—was an usher there.”
When we met with Melvin at his house to talk more about it, he said, “It was like an inheritance. I guess it come from the tree. The roots. When the tree sprouts up, all the roots down there. It was a family of drummers . . .” But if it was the men in his family who played the drums in R&B bands and the military, it was his mother, Delia, who transformed it into a religious experience. He said, “I had a praying mother, a really praying mother.” He paused, looked at us, and asked, “Should I go further?”
We were encouraging.
“Well, my faith, was a spiritual faith, and . . . this goes deep.”
St. Anthony was founded in the early 1940s. Melvin explained, “The first church was on one side of the pastor’s house on Cherry Street. Then he bought the lot over there on Live Oak Street. It was built by the congregation. People donated their time and labor. My daddy donated the steel and laid the foundation for the church to be built on. I was a little boy. I used to pick up one cement block at a time and give it to Deacon St. Cyr to help build the church.”
The building is gutted from Hurricane Katrina, and empty now, but in its heyday Oscar remembered that inside they “had altars with big human-like statues of Jesus, his mother, St. Anthony, and a big old statue of Black Hawk. I was told Black Hawk was the Indian chief and he was the protector. People would pray with their hands on the statue.”
We asked more about Black Hawk, and Melvin said, “It’s all right to share it, but would you understand it?” He was aware of a lot persecution behind how people worship. In the spiritual faith, people call the Holy Spirit to directly communicate with God and see into the future. “A lot of people say ‘telling your fortune.’ They didn’t use that word, they used prophesizing. Prophesizing means to predict—the past, the present, and the future.” When we asked him to tell us more about Black Hawk, he told us we should look him up in history books—we would find him there.
Black Hawk was a Sauk Indian, a member of a tribe that settled up north on the banks of the Mississippi in Illinois after being displaced from their land in Wisconsin by the French. When thousands of acres of their land were taken by the federal government under questionable circumstances, he led a series of battles in the 1830s to get it back. Although unsuccessful, he went on to write an autobiography that lived large in the American imagination. In the mid-twentieth century, his warrior spirit continued to be evoked in spiritual churches around New Orleans. Oscar remembered that on Thursday nights, people came from all over town to their temple for the Black Hawk services. “With limousines! I mean it was a big thing at the time—a very big thing.”
Perhaps it was more than a coincidence that the name of their pastor was Bishop Wilbert A. Hawkins.
If Black Hawk drew people from around the city, it was Bishop Hawkins who hosted them and the spirit. When we asked more about him, Oscar explained, “There were very little flaws in him that you saw because he was a gentleman. He went about his business in an orderly manner. When you got him to laugh and smile with you that was a plus because he was always all about business. He had an office up on top of the church. People would have appointments just like a doctor. They would go there on a Saturday to see him and he would pray for them. He would burn colorful glass candles and give them incense to burn in their house.”
The description is similar to what is found on the literature of spiritual churches in New Orleans. In his work on Black Hawk altars, Stephen Wehmeyer writes, “Through spiritual ‘work’ involving prayer, candles (‘lights’), holy oils, herbs, and the manipulation of saints’ statues or other sacred images, the clergy and congregants of the Spiritual Churches make a way for themselves in the . . . dangerous and hostile terrain of urban New Orleans.”
Bishop Hawkins’s powers were known well beyond the city. Melvin said, “People would come from Chicago, Detroit, California—all over the United States—to this little church on Live Oak Street. And he would prophesize to them. When I was a little boy, during segregation time, they had just as many white people as black people. It was very amazing, yes.”
He was a healer, but he was also a musician. In the spiritual church, healing and music often worked hand in hand. Oscar said, “Pastor Hawkins was the key musician in the church. He was magnificent. He played the organ with the bass pedals, and he also played the drums and the clarinet. He was total.”
In the New World African religions, just as in the Old World, the syncopated rhythms of the drums call on the spirit. When the rhythmic pattern, which is played by a drummer, is just right, the spirit comes strong, fast and furious, and often lasts a long time. This syncopated music is the cradle of what connects the spirit world with people. If it is touching all the people, the pastor and musicians will hold it as long as they can.
Oscar explained, “God says he wants you to praise Him with a joyful noise. When they started playing the music fast, fast, you felt God’s presence. It is like something shot up inside your bones. The congregation will shout and jump around like bees swarming.” Oscar remembered what would happen to Delia. “When the spirit would hit my grandmother, her daughters would say, ‘Oh Lord, look at our mama!’ She would spin around, doing her holy dance with her feet going up and down. God has gotten inside of her and she felt that power.”
Melvin agreed, “It’s just about the same way when you are playing instruments. Something touch me—something gets all in me—and I feel a difference. It’s using me. It gets in my feet. It gets in my hand, and it looks like it takes control of my body, and I could play all night. You have to feel it, but like they say, it’s better felt than told.
“And to feel it, you have to be prayed up. You don’t just get on instruments and think you’re going to feel it. And when I say prayed up, seriously . . . like your poor parents poured their heart out to God for different challenges they had to make in life. You may not know it, but that’s what a lot of these parents had to do. Poured their heart out to the almighty Maker. That’s what my mother did when the disaster of my family happened.”
When Melvin was in high school, his father left, and he took on some of the responsibilities his daddy left behind. “I just took the role of . . . his shoes. I didn’t know they were so hard to fill, but I found out. That’s how I started playing music outside the church. I was playing anywhere I could make a nickel.” A few years later, at a hall on the other side of the Mississippi River, he was playing with an R&B band. Cigarette smoke was cloaking the room, and the crowd was calling for the same Ray Charles song, “What’d I Say” over and over again.
A voice came to him: “How can you serve two masters?” He remembered, “Everything—the sound—was blinded out. I stopped the music. I stopped the whole band, and everybody looking at me to start playing again. The other musicians thought there was something wrong with me and I told them, ‘Look this is my last night playing with you all.’ ”
After that night, he only played gospel music.
It was a time when, Melvin explained, “Only two churches had drums—the Spiritual and the Sanctified church. The Baptist church? They’d put you out. They’d run you! It was just the organ and the piano.” It was hard for some people to digest because it was so African in its sense and origins. People who considered themselves to be affluent in society weren’t sure they wanted to embrace drums in church.
But gospel musicians were aware of the different styles and could hear them because different churches hosted gospel programs, and they were broadcast on radio stations all the time. St. Anthony was popular because of Bishop Hawkins and Melvin’s growing reputation from backing traveling gospel groups when they were in town. He said, “The piano player for Ebenezer Baptist Church, Ms. Geraldine Wright, used to come back to St. Anthony—that’s where they seen me playing. She was a gospel singer at this large Baptist church, and the pianist with the Calvacade of Gospel Stars.” She put together a program at Ebenezer with her group and the choir and asked Melvin to back them up, going so far as to have the pastor, Reverend Landrieu, come pick up the drum set.
At the evening broadcast service, the opening hymn was “Jesus on the Main Line (Tell Him What You Want).” Melvin remembered, “When I start playing, look like I put life in the whole church. When they heard the high-sounding cymbals, the whole congregation stood up. The choir was singing and they were clapping.” And then something happened that had never occurred before.
“They did the holy dance in the middle of the floor!”
The deacons of the church said it was a bunch of noise, but Reverend Landrieu asked him to come back to play on Sundays. It didn’t take long for it to become the sound of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. And it was repeated around the city. They were all scrambling to get drummers to play that sanctified beat.
As Melvin was making a career for himself as a gospel drummer around the city, Oscar’s dad—Melvin’s older brother—moved out of their home in Hollygrove and started another family. Oscar reflected, “Everything happens for a reason, but when you are young, it is hard to distinguish those things because you don’t know about them. All you know about is love. That is it. When love gets broken, then you are in turmoil.” But throughout the rest of his childhood, his father’s family stayed with him. After school on a Friday, he would go over to his grandmother’s house in Hollygrove. “That is where I spent my weekend. Five o’clock in the morning on Sunday, I would walk with her about four blocks from where she lived to the church for sunrise service. Dark, dogs running out there barking at us, but she kept a grip on me to where I couldn’t break loose or run. It helped shape my life—even now and for the times to come. I had an overall vision about, ‘This is the way you were taught.’ ”
After beating on the gumbo pot for years, Oscar started to play drums at St. Anthony, learning to keep a 2/4 backbeat, which is known as the sanctified beat. He said, “When you play the drums, you are the heartbeat. You are the driving force. You keep everything motorized.” He had to hold the time with the organ, the piano, the tambourines, and the syncopated rhythm of Bishop Hawkins’s preaching. Hit the bass drum—boom. Hit the snare—ka.
Now keep it going—boom-ka, boom-ka, boom-ka, boom-ka—as the congregation sings what it is about to do:
I don’t know what you come to do! I come to clap my hands!
I don’t know what you come to do! I come to stomp my feet!
I don’t know what you come to do! I come to praise the Lord!
I don’t know what you come to do! I come to dance and shout!!
Oscar explained, “I had to adapt to that because I was not that skillful. It wasn’t that easy for me then. When I get a beat or so behind Pastor Hawkins would pick his hands up and let me know, ‘You got to keep up. You got to stay in time. You are losing the time!’ I had to push myself to stay up. He was demanding. By him being such a musician that he was? He wanted it out of you.
“As I got better, I started to feel like I was being taken over by something. A supreme being got inside of me and was making me drum at an ease. I knew where I was going—I was right there with the band. I could stay at this pace and I won’t lose no time because something is controlling me. If you want God to move inside of you, you want to feel him, this is the way that happens. It is such a powerful thing and you are definitely involved whole-heartedly. I was in that zone to where the band can get on my shoulders and they can walk. I can carry them.
“The only way to be possessed is to give it up. You are not losing control, but giving it up. Bishop Hawkins’s services encouraged his congregation to open their heart and soul to the spirit. He knew when you did, it became the great equalizer. The spirit is going to be honest with you. You don’t get it unless you are honest with it, too.” As Delia Washington told Melvin years ago, “You give some, and God make room for you.”
As the city started making room for the drums of the spiritual church in other places, the number of churches started to decline. Bishop Hawkins died in the 1970s, and the congregation he had gathered around the St. Anthony Divine Spiritual Temple spread out. Melvin was playing in Baptist churches. His sisters got married and became Catholic, and their mother followed them. Oscar’s maternal grandmother started her own spiritual church, the Faith in God Spiritual Temple, in a corner grocery in Central City, and Oscar played the drums there on Thursday nights before going on to play with Doc Paulin’s Brass Band and starting the Pinstripe Brass Band.
The legendary Black Hawk services back in Hollygrove faded. We wanted to know more about them, but Melvin admitted, “That’s the part I keep pulling back. Let me see if I can call it up in my memory box.” He wanted us to know, “We didn’t worship Black Hawk as a god, we entertain his spirit, because he lived on this Earth once before.”
At St. Anthony Divine Spiritual Temple, it’s dark. They “put the lights out” for the Black Hawk séance. Except for a cross lit up in the center of the altar, the church is illuminated with candles.
Bishop Hawkins enters the room from the front door of the church, wearing a biretta hat with a black cape over a black robe, and walks over the chairs to the front of the church.
The organist is playing softly, and the choir sings the old hymn: “Remember me, remember me, oh-oh, oh-oh, oh Lord, remember me.”
Bishop Hawkins turns to face the altar. Melvin says, “He is down on the floor and raises his hands up to the altar to pray—to ask the Lord to give him the spiritual power that he can back up Black Hawk’s spirit so that he may get the message out. This is not a formality, but this is real. The spirit is using his body. The spirit would reveal through him what danger, happiness, or sadness is coming to you.”
The music ascends again. Melvin starts to play the drums, joining the organ and the piano. Everybody sings loudly:
Meeting tonight, meeting tonight, meeting on the old campground
Ohh meeting tonight, meeting tonight, meeting on the old campground.
Ohh, it’s Black Hawk tonight, Black Hawk tonight, Black Hawk on the old campground
Ohh, Black Hawk on the old campground.
Melvin said, “That was his number.” It’s an old slavery-time song that was sung to let people on the plantation know they were having a service. A campground was often a secret place, out in the woods or at somebody’s house. It continued to be played in tent revivals and was incorporated into the Black Hawk services.
In the middle of the floor, Bishop Hawkins starts to dance. The spirit takes control of his body, and spins him around, his cape flaring. Melvin explains, “He would go around in a circle, just like how the Indians dance their religious dances. He wouldn’t be dancing the blues or nothing like that. It’s a holy dance.”
Melvin remembered, “The music would die down low and they’d sing it low. Oh, it go further now, it really go deep.”
The spirit of Black Hawk whispers to him as he dances down the aisle, calling out people in his congregation, to tell them what’s happening in their lives. “And everything he prophesized,” Melvin says, “came to pass.”