Lift Every Voice and Swing

Black Musicians and Religious Culture in the Jazz Century

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Vaughn A. Booker
  • New York, NY: 
    New York University Press
    , July
     368 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., did not think much of pop music, or so he claimed in some advice columns from the late 1950s. “The two are totally incompatible,” he wrote, because the “profound sacred and spiritual meaning of the great music of the church” should never be mixed with the transitory pop music of the day: “The former serves to lift men’s souls to higher levels of reality, and therefore to God; the latter so often plunges men’s minds into degrading and immoral depths.” But King didn’t really believe in the moralisms he repeated here. He was captured by the soul music of the 1960s, and especially by James Brown, once leaving a meeting by announcing that “I’m sorry, y’all. James Brown is on. I’m gone.” (a story told in Jonathan Rieder, The Word of the Lord is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Harvard University Press, 2008, p. 43.).

King’s self-contradictory reaction to forms of popular music and entertainment in the 1950s and 1960s followed a pattern traced by Vaughn A. Booker in Lift Every Voice and Swing, an innovative and rewarding book. Musicians and entertainers considered to be outside the ken of the righteous ended up being performers who conveyed religious messages and sentiment. In the case of Booker’s subjects, these were primarily middle-class African-American churchgoers and audiences, who listened to Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and others who came to represent a “religious authority . . . outside of traditional Afro-Protestant institutions” (263). 

First, though, a word about the title—one of the best titles I’ve seen in years. The reference brilliantly wordplays on the so-called African American national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a song featuring a tune and lyrics infinitely superior to the wretched official national anthem of the United States. The final, beautiful verse is the most applicable here:

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
Thou Who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou Who hast by Thy might, led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.

The link above takes you to a version from Kirk Franklin and his choir, appropriate as an introduction for a book that finds religious expression in inventive musical forms through the course of the “jazz century.”

Much recent scholarship on 20th-century African American religious history has focused either on its relationship to new forms of popular culture (particularly through the venue of Holiness and Pentecostal churches, the source of Rosetta Tharpe’s guitar, gospel quartet stylings, and much else), or to alternative forms of religio-racial identity, memorably explored in Judith Weisenfeld’s recent instant classic New World A-Coming (New York University Press, 2016).

Booker brings us back to mainstream churches and denominations, and to middle-class African American life and religious expression. But he does so through the unusual venue of the religious leadership of jazz musicians. In particular, Booker follows the careers, writings, musical offerings, and wide-ranging influence of Cab Calloway (certainly the most surprising selection of the four), Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, and Mary Lou Williams. In doing so, Booker not only seeks to demonstrate “more than just jazz artists’ authority as religious and race representatives,” but also to illuminate “the vitality of Afro-Protestantism in modern American history through influential representatives and religious innovators in various professions, not simply clerical ones” (266). The influence of the musicians and their “emergence as a new kind of representative helped to locate religious authority for African Americans outside of traditional Afro-Protestant institutions” (263). The Afro-Protestant mainline—the larger and more middle-class Baptist and Methodist churches in particular—resisted. Just the word “jazz” itself, after all, came from illicit sources forbidden to pious folk.

Booker draws heavily from the publication of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) Church, the Star of Zion. It was a newspaper replete with rich sources for the investigation here, and the quotations from it early in the book are priceless. One particular favorite comes from Rev. William Walls, the editor, taking a shot at W. E. B. Du Bois’ criticisms of the church’s excessive moralism; Walls calls out Du Bois for not staying in his lane and invites him to the Methodist mourner’s bench, after which “we will thank him for his advice” (29).

There’s more rich material here than I can cover, but the chapter on Calloway is especially inventive in its placing him in the long tradition of “religious irreverence” (76). (I would never have thought him a candidate for this book; he did make his career, after all, on the song “Minnie the Moocher.”) The chapter on Fitzgerald is moving in its depiction of her genius for expressing joy despite an early life nearly matching Billie Holliday’s for its depth of pain and tragedy; and the chapters on Williams provide a wealth of detail on her conversion to Catholicism and her work providing refuge, sustenance, and hope for jazz musicians in trouble (starting with Charlie Parker and Bud Powell, troubled geniuses beyond even her capacity to help fully).

But the chapters on Ellington are where the author’s skill, depth of research, and brilliant analysis shine through most clearly. Partly that’s because as a composer Ellington was the most self-consciously religious of the group. Many of his later classics, including “Come Sunday,” provide unexcelled material for examination, and Booker exploits the opportunity thoroughly. Here, I conclude with the closing of chapter 6, a passage that expresses well the spirit of this enriching book as a whole: “For Ellington to pose an ultimate question about love was to pursue a divine connection that was not necessarily mediated by an engagement with the atonement of Jesus. To proclaim divine ineffability in public songs and private writings was both a product and practice of his personal religious wrestling” (186).

The fact that some of Ellington’s deepest thoughts came from scribblings on hotel room stationary suggests both the intensity and the evanescence of the space where jazz meets religion—where desire and longing expressed artistically create moments of spiritual transcendence beyond human speech.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Paul Harvey is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.

Date of Review: 
May 10, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Vaughn A. Booker is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religion and the Program in African and African American Studies at Dartmouth College. He was selected as one of 10 early-career Religion faculty nationwide for the 2019-2020 Young Scholars in American Religion cohort. Vaughn hails from Lansdale, Pennsylvania.


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