"He instinctively can find the shining greatness of our American culture and does a good job of highlighting it (although he also does have those rare lapses when he writes about hockey, but that is something caused by impurities in the Eastern waters or something)." Erik Keilholtz
Under the patronage of St. Tammany
Mark C. N. Sullivan is an editor at a Massachusetts university. He is married and the father of three children. Email
Friday, July 18, 2003 It's So Nice to Be Nice: Singing the praises of the vernacular
I've been rethinking the cover of the July 18 Commonweal. While the idea is clever, in billing an article on liturgical reform, to juxtapose Gregorian chant with the lyrics of a seemingly dippy hymn titled, "It's So Nice to be Nice," it makes a difference if the latter song is not actually a Catholic hymn of the St. Louis Jesuit school, but indeed, a sample of black Gospel music, for the same reason that "Whomp-bomp-a-loo-bomp-a-lomp-bam-boom" doesn't work from Pat Boone, but does from Little Richard.
Listen to some of the tracks from this recording of Rev. Louis Overstreet with his sons and the congregation of St. Luke's Powerhouse Church of God in Christ, and you'll agree that "Yeah, Lord! Jesus is Able" wouldn't fly if rendered in Marty Haugen style – and more to the point, would never be represented as an example of Marty Haugen style, as King Louis H. Narcisse's "It's So Nice to Be Nice" apparently is on the cover of Commonweal.
Not that this is a big thing. But I've enjoyed the excuse for an online immersion in black Gospel, a fine selection of which can be found in the catalogue of the Arhoolie Foundation, which seeks to preserve American roots or "vernacular," music.
Oakland had its own rather colorful contribution to the early years of prosperity preaching. From 1943 to his death in 1989, King Louis Narcisse fused Baptist, Pentecostal, and gris-gris traditions into a gumbo of ritual and hagiography at his West Oakland church. Narcisse set about inculcating an entrepreneurial spirit in his parishioners by demonstrating that spirit in the many ways he exploited them. Stories abound of his elaborate rituals to browbeat his flock out of donations as high as $500, or of his practice of buying stale loaves of Wonder Bread for ten cents a pop, blessing them, and reselling them for a dollar. Narcisse's feet never touched the pavement -- an assistant always rolled out a red carpet before he set foot outside his car -- and visitors had to approach him on their knees. Rings and furs adorned his body, his house near the Piedmont border was equipped with a spotlight to announce to his flock whenever he was home, and his service was a favorite of black drag queens throughout Oakland.
For more on King Narcisse's unique approach to religion, see two colorful articles that ran in the San Francisco Chronicle before and after his grandiose funeral in February 1989.