I’m laying on my bed, listening to Sister Gertrude Morgan.  Really, how can I be laying down under such insistence that I do something?  “Let us make a record”, she shouts as her tambourine rattles and crashes.  “Don’t you want to make a record?” she intones.  “Prophet Isaiah made a record!  Ezekiel made a record!  Peter made a record!”

A record for Sister Morgan is heavier and higher than any piece of scratched vinyl or mere compact disc.  Making a record is getting your hands dirty.  Making a record is standing on street corners, taking in strangers, and bringing about God’s holy kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

The fourteen songs of “Let’s Make a Record” are the only known recordings of the enigmatic street missionary.  They are bare and unadorned.  It’s just her and her tambourine, but with every striking word, with every shake of her tambourine, she consumes her listener in a great, righteous fire.  In the liner notes to the album, the writer says that Sister Gertrude “battered Time itself with rhythms that intensified as the spirit took her”.

Some of her words are improvised, appearing as her tambourine, as perhaps even God, dictates.  Some of the words are ancient and have been drifting in and throughout spiritual music since the days of slavery, taking on new contexts with each succeeding generation.  She sings of John and his revelation.  She sings of Christ, the living bread.  She sings of Power.

Oftentimes, mid-song, Sister Morgan will start into a sermon: “So let us humble ourselves, dear ones, get ready for the new world.  Prepare yourself to live in that holy city.  That same city, that same kingdom, that Jesus was talking to His disciples about when He left them, gone on back to His Father.  Don’t forget it!  Amen!”

She became a familiar presence in New Orleans in the 1940s and beyond, easily recognized by her white nurse’s uniform (she was nurse to Dr. Jesus) and her unpolished, detailed paintings of Christ and the creatures of Armageddon that she created as visuals for her sermons.  Standing on street corners, dressed in perfect white, holding up paintings or playing her guitar, she would preach from Revelation; a mysterious figure with a mysterious past.

William A. Fagaly, in his book on Sister Morgan (Tools of Her Ministry) writes that she was “the seventh child of Frances and Edward Williams, born on Saturday, the seventh day of the week, on April 7, 1900 in Lafayette, Chambers County, Alabama”.  She was married for about ten years beginning in 1928, but strangely parted from her husband around 1937.  This might of had something to do with the transforming revelations she was intermittently experiencing.  In December of 1934, while alone in her kitchen, she heard the voice of God tell her, “I’ll make thee as a signet for I have chosen thee”.  Three years later, around the time of her separation from her husband, she heard the same voice say, “Go-o-o-o-o, Preacher, tell it to the World”.   She followed this voice to Opelika and Mobile, Alabama; and eventually to New Orleans, where she would spend the last 41 years of her life.

In New Orleans, she floated throughout the city, preaching and playing guitar on the streets of the French Quarter, taking in runaways and orphans as a missionary in Lower Gentilly.  After a few years, she opened the Everlasting Gospel Mission in the Lower Ninth Ward, a white house of peeling paint and red brick surrounded by a lawn of four-leaf clovers.

Inside the mission, you would find rooms coated in white paint or blanketed in white fabric, symbols of purity.  After being told in a revelation that she was the bride of Christ, she thereafter wore only white and decorated her home in white as a living example of her purity.

Hanging on the walls of her mission, sitting in corners, propped up on furniture, you would find blocks of wood, pieces of cardboard, Styrofoam trays painted over with Sister Morgan’s scenes of destruction and restoration.  Scores of angels drift across her canvases.  Winged beasts snarl and howl.  Great buildings of the New Jerusalem rise and shine like gold.  Scribbled sermons and verses fill every blank spot.  And amid the chaos, there is usually a painted Sister Morgan, holding a Bible, or a guitar, or clutching the hand of Jesus; or soaring over the mess in an airplane, her bridegroom beside her, steering.  “Jesus is my airplane”, she so often etched into her works in crude ballpoint letters.

Sister Morgan is probably known more for her paintings than for her music.  It was through an art dealer named Larry Borentstein that she became somewhat famous throughout the art world as a relevant and honest folk artist.  He opened his studio to the missionary, selling her works and giving her a corner to sing and play guitar.  He is also the man responsible for organizing the recording of “Let’s Make a Record”.

I know of few recordings more captivating.  There is true power in her words and delivery.  She has convinced me that though the Church might require two or more believers, gospel music can be ferocious and mighty with only one intense voice.

Sister Morgan died in 1981 and now lies silent in an unmarked grave.  Those who knew her recognized that she inhaled and exhaled the Holy Spirit with every breath.  They say she never had conversations.  She spoke only in sermons.  When listening to her recordings, I remember that.  I remember that the only thing that differentiates her songs from the rest of her life was a jangling rhythm…although, as I think about it more closely, I wouldn’t be surprised if her entire life wasn’t lived to something resembling a tambourine beat.

As for me, it’s time to get up.  It’s time to do something.

Information was gathered from William A. Falgaly’s book, Tools of Her Ministry

and the liner notes to Let’s Make a Record

From Tom Petty to Jesus

August 15, 2011

It all started in Middle School.  That’s when my musical identity first took shape.   Before then, I don’t remember ever loving music.  There were certain songs that shook me up a little bit, but nothing that unsettled my very foundations.  My musical interests consisted of whatever trends were spreading through elementary school, which would explain my cd collection: Mariah Carey, Ace of Base, the Bodyguard soundtrack and Kris Kross.

The big bang of my musical evolution began when I purchased Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” in 7th grade.   I had watched the video for “You don’t know how it feels” earlier that morning on VH1, the one where they distort the word “joint” so that it sounds like “nowng”.  I liked the song and decided I would buy the album.  This was no small feat in those days.  It took weeks, possibly a month or so, to accumulate enough money to purchase a cd.  If I made a mistake, if the album didn’t hold up, the blow would be devastating.

I bought the cd at the now defunct Phar-Mor.  In the ensuing weeks, it would be all I listened to.   For me, it opened up new realms of hearing and perceiving.  The feedback of the guitars. the lilting vocals, the backwoods lyrics; they stirred in me a strange feeling of nostalgia for a time and place I had never visited.  I felt as if Tom and his band would have been at home at my grandpa and grandma’s house in the late 1970s, hanging out with my uncles, drinking beer in the garage, playing music too loud.

For the next year, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were all I listened to.  To raise enough money to purchase their greatest hits, I spent an entire Saturday dressed as a giant Lucky the Leprechaun, walking around K-Mart, handing out coupons for Lucky Charms.  The weight of the massive head pressing on my shoulders was nearly unbearable.  The humility was excruciating.  But it was worth it in the end.

In 9th grade, the box set “Playback” was released, a six cd retrospective on the band.  To get me to play basketball my freshman year, my mom promised to buy me four cds at the end of the season.  I saved allowances, hoarded Christmas gift cards and endured an entire basketball season, all for the sake of the Heartbreakers.

You may scoff.  You may lecture me on the irrelevance of rock songs about girls; but Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were torchbearers of traditional rock and roll, picking up where the Beatles and the Bryds had left off.  And besides, it was Tom Petty that eventually led me to Bob Dylan, and Bod Dylan who more or less led me to everything else.

Petty and Dylan were fellow Wilburys and tour mates.  For those reasons alone, I supposed he must hold some significance.  I naively waded into the Dylan pool through a library copy of his MTV Unplugged album, but quickly retreated back to my beloved Heartbreakers, as a scared child to his mother.  His voice was nasal and course.  It sounded broken or cracked.  Slightly traumatized, I gradually recovered and tried again when my dad rented Dylan’s Bootleg Series: Volumes 1-3 from the same library.   Now we were getting somewhere.

Here was a young man in full control of his unpolished voice.  Here was a kid almost, a revolutionary, rallying against corruption and greed and evil (I was a Dylan novice remember, and a freshman in high school, so it would be some time before I understood the complex relationship Dylan had to the late 1960s, as well as his bitter divorce from the era in the form of “Another Side of Bob Dylan”, “Bringing it all Back Home” and especially, “Highway 61 Revisited”).

The song from the bootleg series that probably resonated with me most was a short, simple sketch called “Man on the Street”.  The song consists of only 2 chords, G and E minor, but the story of a dead stranger on the side of the road whom everyone either ignores or coldly disregards stirred in my mind a desire to oppose hypocrisy of all kinds (plus, I’ve always been a sucker for a well placed minor chord).

Throughout high school, Dylan usurped Petty’s role as the preeminent musical influence in my life.   Where Petty had taught me how to sing, Dylan inspired me to pick up a guitar and write (though that would come much later).  And whereas Petty encompassed the entirety of my musical attention in his day, Dylan opened me up to the diversity of American music.   I journeyed across the lineage of artists and genres that had influenced Dylan in the formation of his identity; surreal folk ballads that had travelled from Scotland to the Untied States and that had been rewritten in the mountains of Appalachia; mournful blues laments that began on southern street corners and followed the length of the Mississippi upward; and, my favorite, magnetic gospel shouts that had set fire to the cotton fields of southern plantations and had rattled the walls of southern churches.

And not only that, but I discovered the wealth of influenced artists that Dylan had left in his wake.  He changed the rules of music forever.  We are all connected to his art in some way.

If you were to chart my musical evolution and compare it to other aspects of my teenage to adulthood development (say, using a line graph for example), you might find similar patterns of growth (with occasional back and sidesteps) in my spiritual evolution.  Though I’ve by no means reached adulthood in my faith, I feel like I’ve come a long way since my high school days.  The last ten years especially have been a time of progression, revelation, regression, deterioration, revaluation, and rebirth.

For most of those challenging years, I found little consolation in mainstream Christian music (to be fair, I’m not here to put down the metropolis that is CCM.  Many people have been replenished and nudged heavenward through the musicians working in that particular genre of music.  I want to tread lightly and hopefully not throw judgments upon fellow believers, or tear them down for having different musical standards than me).  It’s just that most of mainstream Christian music didn’t speak to me personally or set me aflame as the gospel I heard in old field recordings, or in the brimstone voice of Johnny Cash.  And the more I travelled the path that had started with Tom Petty and that had erupted with Bob Dylan, the more I discovered deeper and graver and profounder Christ-centered music.

The essays that will appear in this column in the ensuing months will be written so that I may pass on to others artists and albums that have illuminated my own faith walk.  Some will be obscure and nearly forgotten.  Some will be underground and worthy of attention.  Some will be washed in static.  Some will be washed in noise and feedback.  All, hopefully, will have been washed in the blood.