Worried that this weekend's meeting of the American Musicological Society will interfere with your religious observance? I have a solution for you! This Sunday morning, instead of going to church you can come hear me talk about church, or at least, about somebody crying in a church.
Crying in the Chapel:
Religiosity and Masculinity in Early Doo-Wop
In the early 1950s, as a diverse assortment of African-American musical styles began to coalesce into the category of “rhythm and blues,” one small subset of this new genre began to strike into unusual terrain. Vocal groups, rooted in the pop quartet tradition of the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots but inflected with a new post-war sensibility that would later be called “doo-wop,” went through a short fad of singing on religious, or at least pseudo-religious, lyrical topics. The most famous such example was the Orioles’ “Crying in the Chapel,” which made it to number thirteen on the pop charts, but the Cadillacs, the Drifters, and many others contributed similar songs as well. It might be easy to associate this fad with the contemporaneous popularity of gospel quartet singing, but these R&B musicians were performing in avowedly secular context, and from their own perspective there was little confusion between gospel music and their own pop creations.
This paper therefore attempts to understand the popularity of religious subject matter in early doo-wop. I approach the question from two angles: first from the songs themselves, showing the important musical differences between these pop numbers and similar songs understood as being “actually” religious. Secondly, however, I look more broadly at one important market for this music, the so-called “black bourgeoisie” of the United States prior to desegregation. Examining magazines, fanzines, and oral histories, I argue that rather than a statement on religion—even in the heightened discourse of religiosity in the early Cold War—this use of spiritual topics was a means by which some African-American men constructed for themselves an alternative masculinity, differentiated from the more overt sexualization of others on the R&B charts.
Ultimately, I find that the use of religious topics in this early doo-wop is a precursor to a more well-known later fad—the adoption of de-sexualized lyrical subjects and increasingly younger singers as a means by which to counter public fears of African American masculinity. This topic is important not only in and of itself; it also address one of the major points of inquiry in post-war African-American music—the shifting duality of the secular and the sacred. It also provides insight into the relationship of music and politics in the early Cold War, and the complex cultural work behind the famous push for desegregation triggered by Brown v Board of Education in 1954.
This will be an an open and affirming presentation.