How Sweet the Sound: My Life with God and Gospelby Cissy Houston, Jonathan Singer
Cissy is a Grammy-winning singer, but this isn't about popularity. She is the proud mother of pop-music sensation Whitney Houston, but this isn't about fame. She starred in off-Broadway shows such as "This Is My Song", and shared the screen with her daughter in "The Preacher's Wife." But Cissy Houston's life is really about finding meaning, direction, and love; it is… See more details below
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Cissy is a Grammy-winning singer, but this isn't about popularity. She is the proud mother of pop-music sensation Whitney Houston, but this isn't about fame. She starred in off-Broadway shows such as "This Is My Song", and shared the screen with her daughter in "The Preacher's Wife." But Cissy Houston's life is really about finding meaning, direction, and love; it is about being a woman of high moral principles and integrity in a world where both seem to be lacking; it is about being a wife, a mother, and a sister in the tug-of-war between family and a career that took her all around the world. Hers is the story of gospel music, from slavery to salvation based on God's "amazing grace."
- The Doubleday Religious Publishing Group
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Music has always been a key feature of revivals. Dating back to the Great Awakening of colonial times, the music of the English hymn writers Isaac Watts and John Wesley was used to stir the spirit and bring heaven to earth. When the newly converted slaves worshipped at these revivals, and at the camp meetings that followed later in the wake of the Second Awakening, they made these hymns their own. They accented and elongated unexpected syllables for rhythmic effect, patting their feet and clapping their hands in tempos remembered from a faraway but still vivid homeland. Under the great tents of the camp meetings, visitors listened to the rich voices of spontaneous black choirs, raising the hymns, calling and responding to each other beneath the vast canvas. As the poetic but deeply felt lyrics and simple melodies of these English hymns met the rhythm and improvisational techniques of Mother Africa, the spiritual was born.
The Azusa Street Revival also produced a new and dynamic black worship music. This time it emerged from the individual in the throes of Pentecostal rapture--singing in the Spirit and testifying to the goodness of God. Born in the city, this new music built on the foundation of the hymns and spirituals but charged them with a power and conviction that had never been heard before. This time the music was more personal, emotional and rhythmically irresistible. It drew the young and those who resisted the traditional church experience to the Spirit's new urban outpost--the storefront church--where the young Church of God in Christ denomination and its unique music spread like wildfire. You could hear the sound for blocks--tambourines beating at fever pitch, acappella harmonies and joyful hallelujahs.
As slaves once used the unique rhythm and improvisational technique of Mother Africa's music to transform English hymns into spirituals, the Church of God in Christ now ignited these hymns and spirituals with Pentecostal fire to create a dynamic, new music for the black church--gospel.
At the Overcoming Church of God in Christ on Mercer Street, just around the corner from Court Street, the Drinkard children first heard the new music.
My sister Reebie learned to play the tambourine there. She says, "We learned to get a lot of rhythm; to clap our hands in time. We learned syncopation there. We didn't have any music there, just tambourines, foot-patting; we sang a cappella."
My sister Anne's description of the Spirit-led music at the Overcoming Church of God in Christ makes it sound like the "spontaneous choirs" of the camp meetings in the 1800s:
"Someone would start a song over here and the rest of us would pick it up all over the church--in harmony," says Anne. "You could just feel true harmonies going through the whole church!"
We were just children. And only now, as I look back, do I really appreciate Mother Gillespie and Elder Wyatt. They were not just Christians who were totally sold out to God--that would have been enough! But they were also incredibly talented teachers. I am convinced that Mother Gillespie had designed every detail of her person and demeanor to focus our complete attention on her: from the simplicity of her dress to her graceful manner and the attentive gaze she fixed upon you--as if at that moment there was nobody else in the world that mattered more than you. Because she was so single-minded, so pure in her mission of teaching us spiritual truth through music, she created in us something that I don't even think she knew she was doing. Maybe she did. Her teachings sparked in us the desire to try to sing together on our own.
I don't remember when my brothers and sisters first tried it. We were probably all fooling around, playing church one day. Nicky imitating Elder Wyatt, shouting, "Give me a song, give me a song." Anne, Larry and me, his mock congregation, started to raise a hymn, like in church. And something must've just clicked when we heard what was coming out of our mouths.
"It was a miracle . . . or a mystery," says Anne. "We were in perfect harmony. It just fell right in. If Cissy was singing lead, I'd fall back into her harmony part and the rest of them would fall in around me. The same thing would happen if I took the lead; Cissy, Larry and Nicky would fall in around me. It was just something that happened automatically in our heads, our minds, or . . . our souls."
Once my father got a load of us, that was the end of my carefree childhood! He had Reebie teaching us songs, rehearsing us every night of the week. We sang at St. Luke's AME. When relatives came over, all they ever wanted to do was hear us sing. I'd run in my room and hide--boy, that would make my father mad! You have to remember, I was only five years old! I wanted to keep playing like a normal kid--hopscotch, skully, jump rope. Eventually, when threatened with corporal punishment, I relented and joined my brothers and sisters. "All right now, children," he would say. "Strike me up a tune." My aunts and uncles always wanted to hear me sing "I'm Waiting and Watching." I got sick of that one in no time. I was just being a normal kid; contrary, wanting to do something other than what my parents wanted me to do.
Looking back, the discipline of rehearsing, learning new songs was good for me even if I was on the young side. I might have pouted and stuck my lip out a mile long, but I couldn't deny my daddy anything. Not when I saw how happy our singing made him. He'd listen to us and get this big smile on his face and nod his head in time to the song. "Sing, children," he would say, smiling. "Sing, baby," he would say softly, if I took the lead.
My father's burdens--surviving, feeding us all during the Depression, the recent blaze on Court Street and my mother's stroke--for a moment must have eased as he leaned back in his chair and listened to us sing.
He still had his problems. God didn't wave some magic wand over his life. The fires in the Furnace of Affliction would still burn; he would still have to go through the fire. He knew that. But as he listened to his children sing to him now, he could imagine himself, like Daniel's friends, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, walking about in the very midst of the fire, yet unharmed, for the Son of God was walking with him, by his side all the while.
He closed his eyes, and thought back to Hilton, Georgia, when he was a boy, singing with his father and his uncles in the fields and in the house at night. No audience, just singing for themselves, in the glow of a kerosene lamp.
You know, my God did
Just what He said, uh-huh
Oh yes, He did, uh-huh
Oh yes, He did.
You know, He healed the sick
And He raised the dead, uh-huh
Oh yes, He did, uh-huh
Oh yes, He did . . .
It felt so good, singing in my soul; Nitch, his uncles, their faces raised, their breath as one, blowing the tight quartet harmony into the air. They sounded so good. Drinkards! The best farmers in Early County . . . the best quartet singers in Georgia. The best. Just like his children now. Singing in my soul. Thank You, Father; You have given them this song, You have given them the harmony of brothers and sisters in their throats and in their hearts. Keep them together, I pray . . . protect them . . . use them; may many come to know You through their voices.
Inside my father's heart a vision was being born. A vision not for himself, but for his children--the Drinkard Singers.
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Meet the Author
Gospel music artist Cissy Houston won the 1997 Grammy Award for Best Traditional Soul Gospel album for Face to Face. She is the minister of music at New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey, and lives in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
Jonathan Singer is a New York native and an author and editor with extensive experience in the music industry. He is the author of Where Jesus Walked, and is at work on his next book, the Doubleday Pocket Church Guide. He lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.
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