The Fire Spreads: Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South
By Randall J. Stephens
Harvard University Press (January 31, 2008)
416 pp., $27.95
Pentecostal music for both black and white listeners broke many boundaries. In the early 20th century, Sister Arizona Dranes, Eddie Head, and other black sanctified performers employed the instruments and musical styles of the secular scene, broadening sacred music as a result. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a native of Arkansas, became so well known in the late 1930s for her guitar-accompanied gospel singing that she performed at New York's storied Cotton Club and landed a record deal with Decca. Tharpe and other black artists helped commercialize the new genre. In the 1920s and 1930s Okeh Records issued a flurry of releases by energetic black Pentecostal musicians and shouting preachers. Jazz trumpeters, boogie-woogie pianists, and jug bands led worship in Church of God in Christ churches across the South, while flat-picking white guitarists, washboard players, and fiddlers did the same in Church of God (Cleveland) congregations.
The influence of such mavericks extended well beyond the confines of churches. A host of first-generation rock 'n' rollers who grew up in Pentecostal denominations later gave much credit to church music. They would also claim that the unrestrained style of the sanctified, tongues-speaking faith had a lasting impact on them.
As a boy in the 1930s Johnny Cash attended Church of God (Cleveland) services in Dyess, Arkansas, where local initiates held unfettered meetings in an old schoolhouse. Years later the Man in Black recalled scenes of religious mayhem. The "writhing on the floor, the moaning, the trembling, and the jerks" left a deep impression, ...1