SeeingBlack.com Oh Brother Issue: 2005
Dance for My Father
By Mark Anthony Neal
SeeingBlack.com Cultural Critic
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
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.
about Neal's essay and Black fatherhood! Click here.
— November 4, 2005
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