Katie Foss, Sarah O’Brien and Charlotte Parker of ENGL 471 at Queen’s University discuss James Baldwin’s novel Go Tell It on the Mountain while illustrating songs that underscore the book’s major themes.
The title of the image is “James Baldwin 2 Alan Warren” and the creator is Alan Warren. The source of the image is Wikimedia: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:James_Baldwin_2_Allan_Warren.jpg
Song segments for this educational podcast include:
Welcome Lewis – Watching My Dreams Go By Metallica – The God That Failed Mississippi Bracey – I’ll Overcome Someday Drop Me off in Harlem – Adelaide Hall Mahalia Jackson – Precious Lord Take My Hand
Florence + The Machine – Bedroom Hymns Bill Withers – Let It Be
Paul Simon – Graceland Audrey Hepburn – Moon River Sam Cooke – Peace In The Valley
James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain discusses conversion, religion and familial relationships in the South and New York in the early 1900’s. Baldwin divides the story by character, each having a different relationship with God, a unique narrative style, and a different cross to bear. This podcast will discuss these unique representations of initial conversion to Christianity and the subsequent relationship with God, and how they might either be compared to songs of the time, or fresher, more modern takes. John’s songs play on his questioning his belief, feeling devoid of this power that God seems to possess in everyone around him; Florence sees God as unfair, and believes in her own agency to make changes in her life; Gabriel finds God early on in his journey but does not grow beyond that; and Elizabeth seeks God in the form of Gabriel, who she believes will help return her to the spirituality from which she strayed. The songs chosen are meant to make listeners think deeply about how the characters would display their individuality and unique internal struggles, primarily with their beliefs.
Welcome Lewis – “Watching My Dreams Go By”
Welcome Lewis’ song “Watching My Dreams Go By” offers a depressed tune and a lack of hope regarding love and the future. This reflects John’s feelings in Part One as he struggles with his sexuality and experiences lust for his new Sunday school teacher, Elisha. Furthermore, Catherine Waitinas argues in her article “Gay and Godly: coming to Jesus in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain” that “Elisha charms and unsettles John, and he embodies a beautiful form of masculinity that John admires as a powerful alternative to his father’s.” There is a strong tension in John’s life between his expected behaviors for conversion, and his inner feelings, which is strongly present in his interaction with Elisha at church (Baldwin 48). John’s eroticized vision of Elisha demonstrates his inability to overcome these feelings, as John stares at him throughout the entire lesson “admiring the timbre of Elisha’s voice” (6). Similar to Lewis’ song, John watches his dream of Elisha go by as he struggles to find a place in the church and in his own body. The final verse of Lewis’ song reads, “But one day love came my way and then/ Went on its way once again,” which strongly connects to John’s feelings for Elisha, as the church prohibits him from ever outwardly loving another male.
Metallica – “The God That Failed”
Metallica’s song “The God That Failed” is not a song against religion; rather it is a song that details the feelings that one can become too focused on religious concepts that they become blinded. This connects with Johns as he enters adolescence and begins to question religion partially due to his sexuality, but also as a result of the way his father treats him. John begins to estrange himself from the church as he enters a crisis of faith in questioning whether his father is a good man or not. His father, being a preacher, should be the ideal figure of religion, however John detests him. John states “He lived for the day when his father would be dying and he, John, would curse him on his deathbed.” (13). Furthermore, “John’s heart was hardened against the Lord,” (14) like the deceit and betrayal of promises that Metallica sings in their song. John’s God failed him via his father’s actions and treatment toward himself, John, and his family, yet his family is encouraging him to follow the God that failed.
Mississippi Bracey – “I’ll Overcome Someday”
Charles Albert Tinley was a pastor who is recognized for his influence in the gospel genre, being considered one of the founding fathers of the style. His hymn “I’ll Overcome Someday” which is cited as the basis for the song “We Shall Overcome”, the U.S. Civil Rights anthem, speaks to the hardships African American people faced, with rich vocals covered by an array of people- the most popular rendition being by Mississippi Bracey. This song mirrors one of Florence’s main motivations, to escape from her family and move to New York. Florence is led by her own will, and a song such as this would be present at the time, inspiring listeners to seek a better life for themselves, while also pushing for social and systematic change. However, this song almost fits into Florence’s story ironically, as her faith and spirituality is constantly questioned, which is her cross to bear. This is well documented, but this quote “But Florence remembered one phrase, which now she muttered against the knuckles that bruised her lips: ”Lord, help my unbelief ” ” (61) solidifies this image. Because Florence’s spiritual journey is greatly influenced by her own life, which she had little control of, religion is not something she chooses to claim easily. In “A Reader’s Response to Go Tell it on the Mountain” by Sally Higby, she writes of Florence and the way she presents this skepticism with religion, saying “[She] may look penitent, singing the right words, but what goes on in her mind is not the petition traditional within churches of American cultural backgrounds” (51). With the distrust of those around her, not excluding those who exist within the church, Florence becomes her own agent. “I’ll Overcome Someday” works as both the anthem of the political and social climate, as well as Florence’s own mantra within the story.
Drop Me off in Harlem – “Adelaide Hall”
What stands out most in Florence’s Prayer is Florence’s cynicism towards religion, society, and gender issues. Harlem was not regarded as a nice place to be, and yet this song is more than just about the location, but the culture, people and atmosphere- Hall singing as if she would only ever belong there. To Florence, her home in the south seems like a bottomless pit which she cannot escape- which leads her to get up and move to New York. When paired with Adelaide Hall and Duke Ellington’s song “Drop Me Off in Harlem ”, there is both the idea of what home is, while also touching on the overwhelming influence of New York and the potential big cities seem to hold. Halls chirpy and spirited vocals speak of wishing to be nowhere else but Harlem, even if that meant moving to China if the neighbourhood was relocated. Hall sings of belongingness and home, despite being around the time of the book, which describes New York rather negatively. Florence wishes for the exact opposite of what Hall wishes for- she wants nothing more than to escape from what her home is, both her family, and the pressure to be patient and wait for God to step in and change her life. She is followed by the choices she made within her life, and she does not feel any anchor to any specific place, because she has never been comfortable before. As her mother’s life is ending, Florence buys a ticket and says to her “I’m going, Ma. … I got to go.” (73), and set out to find if New York can be her home.
Mahalia Jackson – “Precious Lord Take My Hand”
Mahalia Jackson’s rendition of “Precious Lord Take My Hand” reflects the hollow nature of Gabriel’s moment of conversion. The plea found in lyrics like, “Through the storm, through the night/ Lead me on through the light” (Jackson) literally reflects Gabriel’s walk home after a night of sin, but the overall simplicity of these lyrics reflect the hollow and insincere nature of his conversion: “He wanted to be master, to speak with that authority which could only come from God. It was later to become his proud testimony that he hated his sins—even as he ran toward sin, even as he sinned” (Baldwin, 89). Unlike the other characters, Gabriel’s conversion comes at the beginning of his section of the novel. This highlights how Gabriel, although sincere in the moment of his religious coming-to, does not have a healthy relationship with religion, and rather uses it to deflect on while reconciling his mistakes. Andrew Connolly argues that, “[although] Gabriel experiences a brief period of elation after his conversion, the religious system ultimately fails to deliver on its promises. It is the lingering sense of guilt and fear, combined with a growing sense of disappointment, that motivates Gabriel to commit acts of physical and emotional violence” (121). This notion becomes more apparent later, when Gabriel expresses his attitudes towards the women in his life.
Florence + The Machine – “Bedroom Hymns”
Florence and the Machine’s song “Bedroom Hymns” reflects the frantic, passionate nature of Gabriel’s relationship with Esther, and his relationship with women in general. The tension between the religious and the sexual in the song’s lyrics reflects Gabriel’s relationships with the religious, “sexless” (94) Deborah and the sexual, non-religious Esther. This tension increases during Gabriel’s sexual encounter with Esther; she calls him “Reverend” (123) during their first encounter, and Gabriel prays at the same time that he pulls her towards him (123). Paradoxically, Gabriel hates Deborah for being “wholly undesirable” (115), but also hates Esther for being a “wicked woman” (130) and tempting him into sin. Connolly argues that “Gabriel’s belief in his own sanctification is compromised because he can no longer deny his persistent sexual desire” (131); his conversion does not solve his inability to express his sexuality in a healthy way. He cannot be happy in his marriage to Deborah because he does not find her sexually appealing, and he cannot accept blame for his extramarital affair because he views Esther as too provocative and sinful.
Bill Withers – “Let It Be”
Bill Withers’ cover of “Let It Be” relates to Gabriel’s attitudes towards his son, Royal, and the relationship he could have had with him. Gabriel “[watches] this son grow up, a stranger to his father and a stranger to God” (Baldwin, 137); he sees Royal every day but thinks of him as a secret he must keep hidden, and decides to simply “let it be” (Withers) and, according to Connolly, “[sacrifice Royal] in order to preserve his own sense of sanctification” (131). He finds himself “wishing to smile down into the boy’s face, to pause and touch him on the forehead” (Baldwin, 138), but he chooses to ignore his son and only speaks to him once before he dies. Deborah’s admission that she would have raised Royal as her own son (148), and that Royal’s death may have been avoided in this way, shows that Gabriel’s pride overshadows his desire to have a relationship with Royal. Instead of admitting the truth to Deborah and protecting his son, he allows Royal to live his life without parental guidance.
Paul Simon – “Graceland”
In Paul Simon’s “Graceland”, he affectionately sings of Memphis Tennessee with rich texture and description. The song mirrors the longing for the same sort of saving grace that Elizabeth is looking for when she meets Gabriel. Not sure of her love for him, but believing that his spirituality and position in the church will positively influence her life, she takes a chance. In a similar sense, Gabriel also feels a need to become better and find some comfort in another person. Brought together they wish for something better, in the hope of finding their own Grace, Elizabeth says “Yes, she thought, a sign- a sign that He is mighty to save.” (191), as they make their vows to each other. In the end she both has renewed vow with God, as well as venturing onward with Gabriel. Paul Simon touches on this idea of the search for happiness and comfort, and that being a main driving force in human nature.
Audrey Hepburn – “Moon River”
In the song “Moon River” by Audrey Hepburn, she is reminiscent of both the past and the present simultaneously. The river represents the fluid journey of life from start to finish, which culminates at the rainbow. Throughout Elizabeth’s life she is constantly moving and changing where she lives, which is reflective of the never-stopping river that is always flowing and changing. The song details a dream maker as being a heartbreaker, which connects to Elizabeth’s relationship with Richard. Although Richard gave Elizabeth a child and a dream, he also represents a heartbreak due to his tragic death. Elizabeth remembers her past with Richard and the events leading up to his death, but she also looks forward to a life with Gabriel whom will love Elizabeth’s son as if he is his own.
Sam Cooke – “Peace in the Valley”
Sam Cooke’s “Peace In the Valley” reflects the moment of John’s conversion in the final scenes of the novel. At first, it is a moment of “anguish” (195) and seems like a nightmare deriving from his fear of his own perceived sins. Nagueyalti Warren argues that “thinking himself sinful is the focal point of John’s identity crisis” (2); however, when John hears the voice of the Lord “for the first time in all his terrible journey” (205), his fear dissipates, and he cries out to Him. This rebirth is reflected in the line of the song that states, “I’ll be changed from this creature that I am” (Cooke); John no longer fears retribution for his sin. John’s dream sequence mentions the “lion’s jaws [being] stopped” (Baldwin, 208), similar to how the song references the taming of the lion as it “[lies] down with the lamb” (Cooke). This Biblical notion of predator animals becoming harmless from Isaiah 11:6 represents the fearlessness one may find through conversion, which is how John feels in the novel’s final moments. However, “not only does the novel offer little insight into what happens to John after his conversion, whereas it provides details of Gabriel’s life long afterward, the descriptions of John’s conversion are somewhat vague” (Connolly, 136). We do not know if John’s conversion is going to benefit him, or if he will repeat Gabriel’s mistakes; the novel ends with this ambiguity.
Each chapter in Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain features the unique experiences of a particular character. In the latter four chapters of the novel, each of the characters – Florence, Gabriel, Elizabeth, and John – experience a moment of calling out to God that results in overt or implied religious conversion. In Florence’s case, this moment comes at the end of her journey as a culmination of the weight of her actions. For Elizabeth and Gabriel, these moments are different. Elizabeth sees Gabriel as a beacon which calls her back to her faith; she goes towards him out of a desire to return to the person she used to be, rather than out of love. Gabriel’s conversion comes very early on in his chapter; although it is a pure moment of admitting his faults, he does not continue this pattern of humility, which indicates that his conversion does not perform the same function that it does for the other characters. The struggle to maintain a certain moral code is not a one-time action, but rather a series of lifelong choices that Gabriel refuses to act upon. That John’s conversion is the final one we see in the novel suggests that John’s conversion is the most significant; he has seen the result of conversion in Elizabeth, Florence, and Gabriel, and he sees positive and negative representations of living life as a Christian. Although each character experiences a moment of humility at their point of conversion, it is different for each of them and comes at a different point in their life; John observes the effect of conversion of the adults around him and converts for a similar reason: he desires to absolve his guilt. Whether his conversion will result in the same circumstances as the adults’, and Gabriel’s in particular, is left ambiguous.