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Mark Anthony Neal

MAN

SeeingBlack.com Oh Brother Issue: 2005
Dance for My Father

By Mark Anthony Neal
SeeingBlack.com Cultural Critic

Talk about Neal's essay and Black fatherhood! Click here.

I've listened to Live at the Concert Hall hundreds of times, many of those
times while sitting on the living room floor, not far from my entranced father.

Two years ago my mother asked for one of those favors that you really don't want to do but you know you ought to, particularly when you're an only child. For the last seven years, my father has suffered from a degenerative disease that has left him paralyzed from his waist down and with limited movement of his arms. Though my father has nursing assistants with him for up to ten hours a day, his health has also paralyzed my mother by limiting the amount of time she's able to spend outside of their home to trips to the store or visits to the doctor. Thus I really couldn't deny her request that I make the drive from upstate New York to spend the day with my father in their Bronx apartment — the same apartment I grew up in — while she took a trip to Baltimore Harbor to spend the day with some family and friends.

Though most of the time he listened to his music in a sorta gangsta-lean, with a cigarette dangling from the ashtray, whenever The Mighty Clouds sang "I Came to Jesus" he was up on his feet.

As a kid my father and I were reasonably close. Willie Mays was his favorite ball player, so when Mays was traded to the New York Mets in 1972, Mays became my favorite ballplayer and I've been a Mets fan ever since. But as I ventured into adulthood I can't say that our conversations ever broached subjects beyond sports, music and the more than occasional query about how much money I make. Understanding that I'd be spending some ten hours with homie, I copped some music for the day — The Best of The Dixie Hummingbirds, The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi and The Mighty Clouds of Joy — and though we talked very little that afternoon, my father shared with me a lifetime of joys, pains, and hopes simply in the way he listened to the music. At one point as we sat there, he stopped me mid-sentence, so that he could hear Archie Brownlee, the original lead-singer of the Blind Boys of Mississippi, sing a riff. It was a reminder that with my father, it has always been about the music.

Indeed my earliest memory of hearing music came with my father sitting shotgun in my uncle's car while Junior Walker's "What Does it Take (To Win Your Love)" blared on the radio. That would have been the summer of 1969 and I would have been three. Most of the time that I spent with my father as a child was on Sunday mornings, his day of "rest" — he worked 60-hours a week, Monday through Saturday in Brooklyn — and I had to share him on those mornings with his music. Thus by the age of eight-years-old, I had already acquired a taste for black gospel quartets like the Highway QCs, The Swanee Quartet, The Pilgrim Jubilee Singers, The Soul Stirrers and of course Joe Ligon and The Mighty Clouds of Joy.

While my father clearly dug all of the quartet groups, including the Sam Cooke version of the Soul Stirrers, by far his favorite was The Mighty Clouds of Joy. It resulted in much of the Sunday music being devoted to them, most notably their recording In Concert: Live at the Music Hall (1966) which was recorded in Houston, TX. Founded in 1960 in Los Angeles, The Mighty Clouds of Joy quickly became the standard bearers of the quartet tradition, in large part because of their ability to bridge the gap between the black secular world and the black sacred one. That was undoubtedly part of the appeal they held for my father, who was never a religious man and who, as I recall, has been in a church less than ten times in my lifetime. Within the tradition of black vocal groups the legend of the Mighty Clouds of Joy rivals that of The Temptations and The Dells, and during their peak in the late '60s and '70s, The Mighty Clouds even shared a tailor with The Temptations. Their lead singer Joe Ligon, still with the group after 44 years, belongs to a small group of black male singers whose voices should be regarded as national treasurers — Marvin Gaye, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Donny Hathaway, Sam Cooke, Al Green, Marvin Junior, Teddy Pendergrass, Walter Jackson, Jerry Butler, Luther Vandross, Russell Thompkins, Jr., David Ruffin and Jeffrey Osbourne.

I've listened to Live at the Concert Hall hundreds of times, many of those times while sitting on the living room floor, not far from my entranced father. And of course this was back in the day when folks didn't have turntables, but record players, so my father often let that first side of Live at the Concert Hall play over and again. He listened to the first side so much so that when I hear that album today, it recalls a singular memory in my mind — that of my father getting up to do his version of the "holy dance." Never the most agile of men (something he definitely passed on to his son) my father's version of the "holy-dance" — a one-footed stomping affair, with almost Frankenstein-like finger-snapping gestures — was barely different than the dance he did while listening to Jimmie Smith, B. B. King and Jimmy McGriff (his listening pleasures, once he put the quartets to rest). Though most of the time he listened to his music in a sorta gangsta-lean, with a cigarette dangling from the ashtray, whenever The Mighty Clouds sang "I Came to Jesus" he was up on his feet. Years later, I can still hear the searing falsetto of one of the Mighty Cloud members —"I came…I came…I came" — while Little Joe begins to hoot and holler — "when I get happy, I do the Holy Thing! Hey!"

With my father in his current state, I think often about The Mighty Clouds of Joy and Joe Ligon singing "I Came to Jesus." The memories are bittersweet. Those days watching my father, my hero, were some of the best times of my childhood — what son didn't love the times he could share the world with his father? But I also realize that my father will never again dance to the Mighty Clouds of Joy, and that my daughters will never fully understand where their father gets his sense of rhythm from. Every once in awhile when I'm by myself, I'll put on Live at the Concert Hall and when "I Came to Jesus" comes on, I get up and dance — for my father.

Talk about Neal's essay and Black fatherhood! Click here.


— November 4, 2005

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