Jennifer Ryan’s 2008 dissertation, “‘Can I Get a Witness?’ Soul and Salvation in Memphis Music,” offers a window onto the Memphis blues scene of the mid-2000s. I say blues, but I could have easily said soul or rhythm and blues or rock or even rock and roll, for as the writer discovered in her interviews, musicians play fast and loose with the terms they use to identify the genre of music that they play.
Ryan, who completed her dissertation as a PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania, explains that there are essentially two kinds of clubs in Memphis in which soul (or blues or R&B) music is played: “juke joints” and “tourist clubs.” For her fieldwork, she spent a lot of nights in one of each: the Blue Worm, a juke joint in Orange Mound, a black, working-class neighborhood in Memphis; and B. B. King’s, a popular tourist club on Beale Street. She reports that the songs the house bands played at both places “overlapped to a significant degree” and that many musicians played in both clubs.
Her fieldwork also involved visiting a number of black churches in Memphis, including several COGIC (Church of God in Christ) churches, and interviewing musicians who are active in the Memphis blues scene. We learn about some of the most important Memphis-based musicians playing today: saxophonist Lannie McMillan, who, in addition to playing in churches, juke joints, and Beale Street clubs, has worked as a studio musician for B. B. King, Al Green, and Aretha Franklin; Preston Shannon, a guitarist who is the front man for the B. B. King All-Stars, who perform at B. B. King’s three nights a week; Jackie Clark, a bass player with perfect pitch; and Renardo Ward, a drummer with a bachelor’s degree in music education from the University of Memphis.
The stated topic of the dissertation is the way in which present-day soul musicians in Memphis, most of whom, Ryan reports, have a religious worldview and attend and often perform in church, negotiate their faith with respect to the secular music that they play and the secular venues in which they perform. Fifty years ago, musicians played either gospel music or secular music—but usually not both, at least not without paying a price. (Ryan opens her dissertation with a story about Sam Cooke, who began his career as a gospel musician but who was shunned by the gospel community when he recorded the secular “You Send Me.”) What about today? How do musicians explain or rationalize the fact that they play at the Blue Worm or B. B. King’s on Saturday nights and at church on Sunday mornings?
Perhaps not surprisingly, each musician copes with the tension between the sacred and the secular in his own way—Lannie McMillan is perhaps representative when he says that “God’s everywhere,” in the juke joints and in the churches--and the level and degree of censure from their church communities vary. Yes, there are ministers and other church leaders and family members who refuse to step foot in nightclubs and who disapprove of those who do; but even if some of the musicians in Ryan’s study feel that “the path to secular music” has to be traveled alone, none has apparently been disowned by his church or his family. Perhaps for that reason, it is not clear to this reader just what is at stake for the musicians. How delicate is the balance between the secular and the sacred? What do they stand to lose if they mismanage it?
One thing they gain from having to manage it is a deeper personal relationship with God and an opportunity to be a light in the darkness. As Renardo Ward explains, his faith teaches him that his musical talents are not just for his benefit but for the benefit of others. God has “entrusted” them with him, “and with that entrusting of that there’s also some accountability.”
One can find many interesting details and elements in Ryan’s dissertation, including a discussion of the meaning of soul and the origins of soul music. This very secular white boy learned that black churches provide to children from an early age (sometimes as young as two) formal training in music, training that more or less follows a certain procedure. Youngsters who are learning to play an electric instrument, for instance, are not allowed to plug the instrument in “for several years,” and even then the volume is only “slowly turned up over the course of years or months as young musicians gain skill and independence.”
Given the tremendous fieldwork and research that Ryan did, it is all the more unfortunate that her advisers did not insist that she draw any grand conclusions from her study. Perhaps the last two paragraphs of her final chapter, which examines the fascinating relationship between soul music and the Sunday sermon by way of Otis Redding, Al Green, and the late J. Blackfoot, will suffice:
Throughout my fieldwork in Memphis I found that religious musicians returned over and over to the same questions as they negotiated the role their faith should play in secular music. “What repertoires and venues are appropriate for a Christian?” “How can I be an example of a Godly person in a club?” “How do I avoid negative influences?”The answer for some is to embrace the secular—even carnal love—as part of God’s creation. They bring the trappings of worship to the club, but they carry along with them the meanings of worship, of sermons, and of the whoop [a preaching technique in which speech and song come together]. Religious musicians—and some of their audience—can “have church” in the most secular of places.
Today, Jennifer Ryan is an assistant professor of music at Indiana State University, and judging from her CV she appears to be preparing her dissertation for publication as a book. I look forward to reading the book and seeing how her understanding of her complicated topic has deepened over the years.