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Standing in the shade doesn't help when it gets hot in Mississippi. As the temperature climbs through the nineties, the air grows heavy and the summer heat attacks from all sides, radiating from every surface and exerting a physical pressure that slows movement, thought, and speech. But the man who has engaged me in conversation seems immune to the temperature. His name is Willie Harris. He looks to be in his fifties, stocky and muscular in a blue suit and with a necktie pulled up to a powerful neck barely contained by his tightly buttoned collar. He is a church deacon and a gospel singer, a member of the Sensational Traveling Stars of Houston, Mississippi. "I always wanted to be a professional singer," he says. "But I never had the chance. Maybe it's because of where I was born. If I was in Jackson or Memphis, maybe I would've had a chance." The Sensational Traveling Stars are long established. "You've heard of my group?" says Willie in a mixture of statement and question. "I'm sure you've heard of my group." Back when records were made of vinyl and seven-inch 45-rpm discs ruled the airwaves, the Stars went to Nashville to make some singles and one album. "They're old now," says Willie, "but they still sound good." A puff of wind stirs the dust and flicks a furnace blast into our faces. We stand quietly for a moment, me trying to remember whether I've heard of the Sensational Traveling Stars, Willie mulling on events of years ago. "You know, I was offered a contract to singblues," he says, apropos of nothing that has gone before. "But I turned it down. It wouldn't have been right to go from singing the Lord's songs to singing blues." He pauses. "I can sing blues. Seems to me it's easier than gospel. All you got to do is get up there, holler a bit, do the step, and let the music take over. In gospel, every time you open your mouth you have to be saying something."
But isn't being a professional gospel singer a tough calling to follow? "No," Willie demurs. "Not if you keep your mind on the Lord. I could do it. You just have to want to do it." He's not singing today. He'll be in the audience. The stars today are the Pilgrim Jubilees, a group that forty years earlier also had the chance to become professional—and wanted to do it. They've been based in Chicago since 1952, but their roots are in Houston, Mississippi, and every year for the past eleven years they have returned on the first Saturday in June for a "homecoming." It's usually held at Houston's high school, but this year that venue is unavailable. The official reason is that the auditorium is being renovated, but it's also being suggested that school officials saw the masses of equipment brought in to record and film last year's homecoming and decided the Pilgrim Jubilees could afford to pay a bigger hire fee this year. "It seems like the Devil tried to block this homecoming," says its organizer, Joann Reel. "This is the closest I could find." "This" is the Houlka High School gymnasium, a hulking, dowdy, cavernous tin-roofed building that boasts it is the home of the male Houlka Wildcats and the female Houlka Wildcattes basketball teams. From the placards on the wall, it seems the Wildcats last appeared in a state final when they were beaten in 1991, and the Wildcattes' last taste of fame was in 1977. The gymnasium is not air-conditioned. And however hot it is outside, it's hotter inside. Two giant fans have been placed at each end of the room, but all they do is push the hot air around. So the audience waits outside until it's time for the music to start.
Houlka is the next town north from Houston, and many of those at the homecoming have driven the eleven miles up Highway 15. Although he is in a Houston-based group, Willie Harris has come quite a bit farther—he lives in West Point, about forty-five miles away. Two young women have come from Louisiana, a small group is here from Georgia, two women have driven from Nashville. Most of the Pilgrim Jubilees have come from Chicago. And I am from Auckland, New Zealand, at the farthest reaches of an eight thousand-mile journey that started nine months earlier when I met Pilgrim Jubilees manager and lead singer Clay Graham and suggested writing the group's story. Or maybe it was ten years earlier, when I was in the town of Clarksdale, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta and a mecca for blues fans seeking a glimpse of the gone-forever days when their music ruled and the Delta blues players were its royalty. Returning one evening from a day of blues sightseeing, I saw a sign outside the Clarksdale Civic Center advertising that the Pilgrim Jubilees would be there next Wednesday. Gospel was not then my main musical interest, but I knew enough to recognize the name and resolve that I, too, would be at the Civic Center next Wednesday.
The evening wasn't a great success. The Civic Center seated about six hundred; about five hundred of the seats were empty. But the Pilgrim Jubilees, led by Clay Graham and his elder brother, Cleave, performed to the hundred or so people present as though they were working a sell-out concert at Carnegie Hall. Ten years later, Cleave explained: "I don't sing according to how many people are there; I sing to the people that want to hear me that came. They're not responsible for the people that didn't come. So we sing. And I can't play at singing. If I'm gonna praise God, I'm gonna praise him." The concert was my first close-up exposure to the power and intensity of "hard" quartet gospel singing—the style, born in the late 1940s and developed through the 1950s and 1960s, that replaced the soft controlled harmonies of the earlier "jubilee" groups with one or two powerful lead singers able to whip any audience into a frenzy through the sheer power and intensity of their singing and stage technique. Clay and Cleave Graham are experts in the technique, and as Cleave left the stage and prowled into the audience, the cords in his neck standing out and sweat dripping from him as he sang, my blues archaeology didn't seem so important.
My subsequent efforts to find out more about the Pilgrim Jubilees had only limited success. This was not, it seemed, a group that appealed to the small number of academic and record-collecting gospel music researchers. Their attention was focused on the "golden age" of the 1940s and 1950s, when groups were singing a cappella or with only limited accompaniment. The Pilgrim Jubilees started their career in these glory days but achieved their gospel market fame in the 1960s as accompaniments expanded to include electric guitars and basses, drums, and keyboards. To the purists, this turned the golden age to brass and rendered groups working in that style all but invisible. But out on the "gospel highway"—the metaphorical network that links traveling singers and audiences across the United States—it was a different story. The unaccompanied performers were old-fashioned; today belonged to the new young groups with their four-and five-piece backing bands. And among the leaders in this style were the Pilgrim Jubilees.
The world of African American gospel music has never attracted "outsider" research and observation in the way the blues world has, and the closer one comes to the present, the more pronounced this neglect becomes. So the fact that the Pilgrim Jubilees are rarely mentioned in gospel studies is no indication of their status on the gospel highway, where they have been leaders for forty years. They didn't draw well that night in Clarksdale—it's always hard to get people out on midweek nights—but today they are still traveling all over the country, still heading the bill wherever they perform, and still producing recordings, blending gospel's past and present in a mixture that pleases African American religious audiences even if it doesn't appeal to the academics.
I returned to the United States in 1992. This time, my focus was on gospel music; the results were published in Woke Me Up This Morning (University Press of Mississippi, 1997). For some time after, I told myself and anybody who asked that Woke Me Up was two books in one—my first and my last. When that resolve weakened and I started looking for another topic, an early thought was to do a biography of the Pilgrim Jubilees. But I had no way of contacting the group, and so in 1998, I attended the annual Gospel Music Workshop of America convention in Philadelphia with vague thoughts of a study on gospel choirs. The GMWA is heavily choir-oriented, but it has a quartet division—and the Pilgrim Jubilees were on its main concert. I had my conversation with Clay Graham, and the choir project was shelved.
In May 1999 I went to the United States for five weeks with the Pilgrim Jubilees. The first two weeks were spent living in a South Side Chicago motel not far from Clay Graham's home, the rest in Mississippi following the group through a small part of the life of a gospel quartet on the road. It wasn't easy. Unexpectedly, most of the group members didn't know I was coming or were unsure of what I wanted, and very little progress was made until they held a meeting to discuss my project. Interview appointments could be difficult to make and weren't always kept, schedules were changed ... one such change left me waiting in Meridian, Mississippi, for a group that was supposed to be there on Tuesday and arrived on Friday. This study is short of precise dates for many key events in the Pilgrim Jubilees' history because they can't remember them. But what they do know about is life as professional gospel singers. They know the pitfalls, the hardships, the days of arriving in a distant town so short of money they can't afford to refuel the car and discovering their concert has been canceled, of singing their hearts out and then finding that the promoter has absconded with the money, the days when racism meant that even a gospel singer could land in jail simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And they know the joys—the elation of having a record at the top of the charts, the companionship within the group and with the people to whom they sing, and above all, the drive to keep spreading the Christian message that has sustained them through fifty-five years and hundreds of thousands of miles. So these were the things we talked about. And these are the things that, much more than dates and locations, define the gospel life. The Pilgrim Jubilees may not always be the most punctual of people, but they quickly accepted the presence of this strangely accented foreigner and not only answered all my questions but volunteered information I might not have thought to seek. The only exception came when the conversation turned to subjects that might reflect badly on people—such as the more unseemly side of competition among quartets. Group members would discuss such matters in broad terms but generally refused cite specific cases or people, deflecting questions with the stock phrase, "I don't want to call names."
In virtually every gospel quartet, one person—usually, but not always, the manager—is deputed to speak for the group; in some groups other members will refer interviewers to that person. This did not happen with the Pilgrim Jubilees—all members spoke freely and at length with me during the face-to-face interviews and in the many follow-up telephone calls. But by virtue of his position as manager and because he is the dominant personality in the group, Clay Graham is to a large degree the speaking voice of the Pilgrim Jubilees. For this reason, his name occurs most frequently in this book. More extensive interviews were also done with Cleave Graham and with baritone singer and songwriter Major Roberson because of the length of time they have been with the group. Where possible, I have used verbatim transcripts from the interviews. These taped conversations have been edited—speech does not always transfer easily to the printed page—and in some instances I have amalgamated more than one discussion on a topic into a single block. But the overall aim has been to keep the editing to the minimum needed to facilitate coherency. The opinions, viewpoints, and perspectives are also those of the group members. An overriding aim of this project was to let the Pilgrim Jubilees tell their story in their own words, as free as possible from editorial interpretation and qualification. Interpretation is generally limited to providing context and background, and the only area in which I have occasionally amended information provided by the group is in establishing the provenance of songs. Many parts of the narrative, of course, cannot be independently verified, neither do they need to be. This is the Pilgrim Jubilees' story, and if some areas, such as tales of rip-offs and bad deals, contain an element of hyperbole, this is the way they recall events—and it is their recollections that are the reason for this study.
Why the Pilgrim Jubilees? It was a question asked frequently while I was working on the book—not least by the Pilgrim Jubilees themselves. They know they are well established and popular in their field, but they're not the top-selling Canton Spirituals, or the globe-trotting Mighty Clouds of Joy, or the Blind Boys of Alabama with a string of international bookings keeping them so busy they now hardly ever perform to African American religious audiences. They are the Jubes. Their records sell a respectable but hardly chart-topping twenty thousand to fifty thousand copies each, they had to wait until 2000 to get a trip to Europe, and they seldom perform to any but black religious audiences. Why should someone from the other side of the world arrive in Chicago wanting to write about them? Part of the answer is easy. Clarksdale, Mississippi, 1989. Another part is almost as easy—the chance meeting with Clay Graham in Philadelphia. But many other quartets were also at that convention, including the Canton Spirituals and the Mighty Clouds of Joy. Again, why the Jubes? Mainly because they are not like the biggest of the big-name groups. They've had hit records (and some misses), they've played the big venues like the Apollo Theater in New York, New Jersey's Meadowlands, and even once at Disneyland. But they've never had that lucky break or the adroit management that would put them up there with the Cantons and the Clouds. They've been cheated and manipulated; they've made mistakes and wrong choices. And through it all, they've stayed out on the gospel highway, doing the only thing they've ever wanted to do. Their story is the story of gospel quartet singing; their lives echo those of hundreds of other gospel quartets. They're more successful than most. But after more than half a century, they're still grinding out the thousands of highway miles as they travel from town to town, city to city, singing their message in churches, auditoriums, civic centers—and the Houlka High School gymnasium.
It is now almost three o'clock, the time the program is supposed to start. It won't, of course. Nothing in gospel music ever starts on schedule. In the gymnasium, a crew is starting to erect the sound system. The room doesn't have a stage, so all the artists will perform on a cleared area of floor at one end of the room in front of a black cloth backdrop nowhere big enough for the job. At 3:30, the first musician strolls through the back door, places a guitar case on the ground, and saunters out again. By 3:50, about forty people are in the room, but many more are outside where a trailer-mounted stall is doing stand-in-line business selling drinks from tubs of ice, and another stall is doing a much slower business selling meat and fish sandwiches from a gas-fired barbecue. A little before four o'clock, the first Pilgrim Jubilee arrives. Clay Graham is an urbane and quietly spoken man, six feet tall with broad-featured movie-star good looks. He's wearing a dark red satin shirt, and the gray in his hair and the closely trimmed beard he's recently grown has magically vanished. He's sixty-two but looks ten years younger. He also looks unhappy. The change of venue and the heat have robbed the program of more than two hundred potential patrons, he says. "They know about this hall in the heat." Tickets are twelve dollars in advance, fourteen dollars at the door. All the groups on the program—including the Jubes—are being paid a percentage of the door takings, so the loss of up to three thousand dollars will have a serious effect on everyone's payday.
But there is work to be done. Clay speaks a quick "Check one, check one" into a microphone to test the sound system, then starts working the room, shaking hands with friends and fans, signing autographs, and taking requests for songs to be sung this afternoon. It's all part of his job, the reason he's here early, and he does it with the ease and skill of a veteran politician, smiling and listening attentively, then choosing the right moment to smoothly disengage from the conversation and move to the next. He doesn't perform this ritual before every program, but today is the Pilgrim Jubilees' day, so the walk-around adds a personal touch—and establishes him and his group as the main artists. Out front in the small foyer, his wife, Hazel, is helping Joann Reel keep track of the customers, taking tickets from those who have paid in advance and selling tickets to those paying at the door. Quiet and reserved, Hazel Graham is a senior manager in charge of two departments at one of Chicago's largest hospitals, the Rush-Presbyterian St. Luke's Medical Center. She's ten years younger than Clay; they have been married for thirty-four years. She doesn't usually travel with the Pilgrim Jubilees, but like Clay, she's from Houston, so the homecoming is a chance to visit family and friends.
Next to appear is tenor singer Ben Chandler, sixty years old and a Jube since 1969. Like the other senior group members, he was born in Mississippi and moved to Chicago. But ten years ago, he remarried and moved to his wife's hometown, Atlanta, Georgia. Of medium height with a light brown complexion and hair not as plentiful as it once was, he has a jovial expression and is quick to point out that he is "the joker" of the group. When the conversation turns serious, he sometimes distances himself slightly by referring to himself in the third person—of his shift from Chicago to Atlanta, he says, "I moved because it was better for Ben." Casually dressed in a tan short-sleeved shirt, he sits at the end of the ticket table, ostensibly helping Joann and Hazel but mainly greeting and chatting as the flow of people into the hall increases.
Outside, the group's second-generation Graham is leaning against the handrail of the ramp leading to the hall entrance, talking to friends. It's not a homecoming for second guitarist Eddie Graham. He lives in Houston. His father is second cousin to Clay and Cleave, and it seems youthful looks run wide in the Graham family, as Eddie looks much younger than his thirty-eight years. Short and of blocky build, he's been with the group since 1987, although he didn't become a full-time member until 1989. He looks relaxed and cool in laundry-powder-advertisement-white shirt and trousers, but he's a little nervous. The group's main guitarist, Bobby McDougle, is absent, so the burden of delivering the Jube guitar sound will fall much more on Eddie than usual. It's a sound Bobby McDougle has refined over thirty-five years. Bobby is fifty-four and has been a professional gospel guitarist since he was fourteen, although he backed his first group when he was "about eight or nine." Before joining the Jubes in 1964, he played with three other leading gospel acts, Tommy Ellison and the Five Singing Stars, Edna Gallmon Cooke, and Rev. Julius Cheeks. He's a short, ebullient man with broad spatulate fingers that belie his skill as a guitarist. He's not at Houlka today because his mother has died at the age of ninety, and he's gone home to Valdosta, Georgia.
But Eddie won't have to carry the guitar chores alone. Fred Rice, at twenty-six the youngest and newest Jube, is a skilled guitarist. He can also deputize for the bass player, the drummer, or any of the backing singers. "I'm like a spare," he says. Tall and powerfully built, he has the look of an athlete; before he joined the Jubes in 1993, he worked at a steel plant. He's the other group member who lives outside Chicago. He's from Starkville, Mississippi, but now lives in Meridian, in southeast Mississippi. Nobody's seen Fred today, but he'll be around. "He stays off by himself," says Clay Graham. "You hardly even know he's at a program unless you run into him."
Another who's keeping to himself today is drummer Greg "Bobo" Harris. His status with the group is ill-defined. He regards himself as a member; it's a view not shared by the senior Jubes, and today Bo's future with the Pilgrim Jubilees is far from certain. A lean, gangling, slow-spoken six-footer with a short beard shot through with undisguised gray, forty-one-year-old Bo has impeccable gospel credentials. His father is Rebert H. Harris, a doyen of quartet singers who made his name with the Soul Stirrers in the 1940s and 1950s; his mother, Jeanette Harris, sang with the all-female Golden Harps. Bo spent seventeen years with the Violinaires, a top Detroit gospel quartet, then joined the Jubes in 1987. He stayed four years, then returned to the Violinaires. Now he's quit the Violinaires again and is looking to return to the Jubes. But he's still on trial, and his last two outings have shown that he hasn't completely recaptured the style the Jubes demand from their drummer.
The "style" is very important. It's the sound that defines the Pilgrim Jubilees' music and defines them as a group. Instrumentally, it's the foundation, the support on which the singers rely. At the heart of it are Bobby McDougle and bass guitarist Michael Atkins. Bespectacled and burly with short-trimmed hair and beard, Michael was born and raised in Chicago and can tell hair-raising stories of the gangs on the South Side and the impact drags have had on the area. In a suit, he looks like a prosperous business executive; in jeans and T-shirt, he looks a streetwise Chicagoan. In either guise he has the quiet self-assurance of a man who knows exactly what his role is and knows that he's good at it. He's forty-four years old and has been playing with the Jubes since 1970, when he was fifteen and going to school.
Outside the gymnasium, Cleave Graham's maroon Plymouth Grand Voyager is tucked into a parking spot handy to the door. The Pilgrim Jubilees' aged touring bus developed mechanical problems a while ago, and the Plymouth is now the main transport for the Chicago-based members. It has a bit more passenger room than a standard car, but its luggage space is limited, and it is not the ideal vehicle to take four or five men and their luggage on journeys that can cover hundreds of miles and several days. Clay Graham, in particular, is very keen to get another bus—for reasons of prestige as well as comfort. In the meantime, the Plymouth is performing another task as its air-conditioning unit hums at full blast, keeping the Mississippi summer away from Major Roberson. At seventy-four, he is the oldest Pilgrim Jubilee and, next to the Graham brothers, the longest serving. When the group first went on the road in the 1950s, Major was the manager and handled all the bookings. After Clay became manager, Major kept the bookings. Recently, Clay also took over this job when Major decided he needed a rest from it. His health has been troubling him—he has high blood pressure and a touch of emphysema—and often these days he doesn't sing a full program, performing on the first few numbers, then turning his baritone role over to Fred Rice and taking a seat at the back of the stage. But the years have not entirely vanquished the raffish good looks of his younger days. The once-sharp features have filled out, and the hooded eyes are now behind spectacles. But the pencil-line black mustache and the flashes of understated humor are still there, and he is still traveling with the group and writing songs for it, just as he has since 1952.
Excerpted from The Pilgrim Jubilees by Alan Young. Copyright © 2001 by University Press of Mississippi. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|1. Houlka, Mississippi||3|
|2. Got to Be for Real||15|
|3. Mississippi: Cleave Graham||29|
|4. Mississippi: Clay Graham||37|
|5. Chicago: Major Roberson||45|
|6. Stepping Out||52|
|7. Third Time Lucky||61|
|8. Stretch Out||73|
|9. The Drive||87|
|10. Bobby McDougle||99|
|11. Ups and Downs||106|
|12. Ben Chandler||118|
|13. Michael Atkins||125|
|14. "Please Don't!"||132|
|15. Cleave Graham: "Back Then"||144|
|16. Blazing in the Blizzard||149|
|17. "We'd Have Been Up There ..."||162|
|18. Houston, Mississippi: Eddie Graham||175|
|19. Meridian, Mississippi: FredRice||182|
|20. "That's the Way We Run It"||188|
|21. Burying the Goat||199|
|22. "I'm Not Perfect ..."||214|
|23. Today and Tomorrow||225|
|The Pilgrim Jubilees on Record||237|