A musical call and response between brass and reeds opens the 1933 composition for Cab Calloway and His Orchestra, “Harlem Camp Meeting.” A voice asks, “What’s this comin’ off here?” and after a brief pause, reflects, “It’s more like one of them good ol’ revival days here. A camp meeting! Yowza, yowza!” Next comes a clarinet solo, and the inquiring voice assumes the role of a narrator in remarking, “There’s a dear brother got happy on that clarinet, look at him. Greeeat day!” As the clarinet solo continues, the narrator interjects affirmative responses: “Tell me all about it, brother. Tell me all about it, now.” The narrator then refers to the “brother” as “son” and tells him to “Get ready for this scat sermon I’m gonna give you here.” The narrator produces a wordless vocal melody, accompanied by syncopated chimes replicating the sound of distant Sunday church bells. Another “brother” follows his vocal solo with a muted trumpet solo, and the narrator encourages this man to “get happy there, get happy” with responses of “uh huh,” “yowza!” and “Shout it, Elder, shout it, Elder.” To this musical crowd, the narrator proclaims, “Get happy, get happy, all you sinners, and get happy here!” The percussion halts for a brass interlude before the beat resumes with an antiphonal chorus of clarinet “sisters” swinging with brass “brothers.” As the music climaxes, the narrator joyously proclaims with laughter, “This is the kind of camp meetin’s we have in Harlem, yeah, man!”1
Composed by the African American trombonist Harry White, this record takes the (foxtrotting) listener on a tour of the exciting sounds of a black Protestant revival setting. Through his musical performances, the African American singer, dancer, composer, and bandleader Cabell “Cab” Calloway, III (1907-1994) articulated andportrayedirreverence as a distinctive and commonplace mode of religious skepticism in African American religious history. His early career shed light on the formidable presence of comedy lampooning African American religious life byAfrican American men and women familiar with the subject matter. Calloway produced humorous irreverence by replicating the sights, sounds, and behaviors of black Protestant church settings, characters, events, and experiences. Although he used humor to depict his church life, such irreverence never took the form of full-throated maliciousness. Rather, Calloway attempted to convey through musical performance the humor he found with religiosity without denouncing religious persons or institutions. The music Calloway performed and recorded reflected his decision to withdraw from regular participation in the institutional life of black Protestantism. His music resonated with many other African Americans who preferred Saturday leisure to Sunday service.
With “Harlem Camp Meeting,” the key sonic distinctions from a traditional black Christian worship experience are the song’s instrumental “testimonies,” “yowza” exclamations, and the swinging sounds of a Harlem big band. When the narrator urges participants to “get happy,” or when he recognizes a clarinetist who got happy on his instrument, he evokes the charismatic Christian practice of shouting, crying, and dancing under the possessive influence of the Holy Spirit—but these participants are to be happy as “sinners.” The narrator speaks back to the soloists who provide their musical testimonies, behaving as a church member who vocally affirms the righteous speech of her or his sisters and brothers in Christ. In this three-minute recording, Calloway’s performance shifts rapidly from observer to interpreter to practitioner.
Calloway’s ascendancy to revival preacher comes with a “scat sermon” in the middle of the song. This forty second scat interlude is most interesting, for Calloway produces a rhythmic and melodic imitation of the “whooped” portion of African American “chanted sermons” with it. Scholar of preaching and preacher Martha Simmons describes whooping as “melody, one that can be identified by the fact that its pitches are logically connected and have prescribed, punctuated rhythms that require certain modulations of the voice, and is often delineated by quasi-metrical phrasings.” The “chanted sermon” originated in the rural South’s revivals and prayer meetings, spreading into urban areas through the United States with African American migrations in the twentieth century. Calloway was familiar with the form, despite having attended more elite middle-class African American churches in his youth, because the chanted preaching style as oral “folk” art was, according to African American religious historian Albert Raboteau, a “tradition of preaching [that] remain[ed] popular among literate and ‘sophisticated’ congregations.” Calloway’s “growling” portion (from 1:28-1:35) most exemplifies the whooping preacher’s monotone chanting sound and audible gasps for breath. The shouts near its beginning emphasized his rising emotional pitch, and the moans represented the shouted singing that many preachers use to conclude their sermons, displaying their physical exhaustion by this point.
As a religious profession, the black Protestant preacher involved artistic performance, the fashioning of dramatic personae, and the cultural authority to make moral, social, or political pronouncements. Whether the members of a younger African American generation, like Calloway, who were aspiring toward jazz music as a profession were dedicated church parishioners or not, they bloomed from a cultural garden that these dramatic, authoritative performers had tilled. Moreover, they inherited and brought into their entertainment profession the cultural leeway to fashion their work in such racially representative ways that were performative, dramatic or charismatic, and authoritative. “Harlem Camp Meeting” is one of many instances of musicians and composers creating humorous and familiar performances of black Protestant religious practice. Unlike the chanted African American Christian sermon, however, Calloway’s scatted message celebrates the jazz man’s existence: a recreational life that is at times sexual, inebriated, and raucous. And as a nocturnal life on the weekends that resulted in partiers sleeping late on Sundays, Harlem’s “camp meetings” were always in conflict with observing the Christian Sabbath.
Calloway, once referred to as the “Satanic Sultan of Scat Singing” by writer and journalist Vincent L. “Roi” Ottley in his New York Amsterdam News column “Radio Personalities” on July 27, 1932, employed irreverent humor to offer a clear alternative to religious calls for a return to “old time” African American Christianity that traded on expressions of “low church” religiosity. As a bandleader, flamboyant conductor, composer, singer, and dancer, Calloway often crafted and inhabited the identity of a pastoral figure against the backdrop of New York’s Cotton Club. If not the owners of radios, most African Americans encountered Cab Calloway’s jazz through phonograph records, thereby accessing the sounds of his artistry absent the racist professional context of the Cotton Club, in which white patrons consumed his performances. In the Great Depression era, the “hi de ho man” was the entertaining showman with a popular reputation for bearing a jubilant, often irreverent musical message for partying club patrons and for radio or phonograph listeners to partake in his celebration in their homes.
African American performers have irreverently presented criticisms of religious life that consuming audiences identify and recognize, but without an explicit dismissal overall of religious practices and beliefs in most cases. For performers to present compelling parodies of African American Protestantism, and for audiences to accept these productions as comical for their compelling authenticity, there must be some degree of sustained engagement with these black religious traditions as they evolved over the long twentieth century. Calloway’s performances reveal that various songs and musicians in the early decades of jazz captured the presence of this enduring link between religious familiarity and religious irreverence in African American entertainment.
In his 1976 autobiography, Of Minnie the Moocher and Me, Calloway wrote that he “converted in the 1930s” to the Episcopal Church and was “still a firm believer in church and in God. I don’t think of myself as a religious person. I love to live. I like the good life. I enjoy entertaining and I get as much satisfaction out of giving people pleasure as I do out of going to church. Maybe entertaining is my way of expressing godliness. Lord knows, there are worse ways.” For Calloway the Episcopalian, providing joy to others through entertainment was personally gratifying and an acceptable vocational objective in lieu of dutiful church attendance. But with the suggestion that there are “worse ways” of “expressing godliness,” is it possible Calloway was referring to types of religious worship he found either distasteful, insincere, or hypocritical? Ultimately, it is not difficult to misinterpret this brief reflection and overlook what Calloway offered: a constructive but vague appreciation for institutional religious life and a fundamental belief in the divine. He lived as if religious irreverence was compatible with religious belief and belonging.
many black Protestants built churches, parachurch associations, denominations,
schools, and print press outlets to preach their social, cultural, political,
and theological goals, some African American Protestants, or the black
Protestant mainline, or the black Protestant middle class, also employed
artistic performance in their quest for long-term institutional space,
recognition, and power. Jazz vocalists, including Calloway, and jazz instrumentalists
preached through the artistry of their music profession and amplified
Afro-Protestantism as a cultural and artistic presence in history. These
preaching jazz professionals allow Afro-Protestantism to resonate as a mode of
performance and vocalization to hear and interpret in the public actors it
influences—when Cab Calloway and many other African Americans evoke preacherly
traditions, sacred race histories, or ritual antiphonies in rhetoric, poetry,
and music with sincere or irreverent appreciation. As performers, their
voices and legacies call religion scholars toward both novel and conventional
archives to respond to the fundamental artistry of religious thought and
Author’s transcription. From Cab Calloway and His Orchestra, “Harlem Camp Meeting,” The Chronological Cab Calloway, Volume 1: The Early Years, 1930-1934,© 2001, 1933 by JSP Records, JSP908, Compact disc.↩