Outsider Art and The Sister Gertrude Morgan Experience

The world-class Philadelphia Museum of Art now has a few outsiders in the house. Unless you’re familiar with the unfamiliar, don’t expect to see the work of anyone whose name you know in “Great and Mighty Things”: Outsider Art from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection.

At least, that’s what I thought. A child-like painting of boxy buildings with square windows, swirling with angels in hot oranges and reds caught my eye. It was the work of street preacher Sister Gertrude Morgan. I have a book of her paintings, along with a copy of the one gospel album she recorded in the 70’s, and a remix of that record later produced by the Philadelphia-based DJ King Britt. This was the first time I ever came face to face with her paintings. A book does not compare.

Sister Gertrude Morgan Singing and Playing the Tambourine on the Front Gallery of the Everlasting Gospel Mission, c. 1974 Joshua Horwitz (American, born 1955).

Sister Gertrude Morgan Singing and Playing the Tambourine on the Front Gallery of the Everlasting Gospel Mission, c. 1974 Joshua Horwitz (American, born 1955).Sister Gertrude was a preacher by calling. Like many of the outsider artists in the exhibit, she received directives from God to create (why hasn’t this happened to me?). Born in Alabama in 1900, Morgan was 39 years old when she was summoned to deliver God’s message to “the headquarters of sin.” That would be New Orleans, Louisiana. She left her husband behind and soon became a regular in the French Quarter, living in the Lower Ninth Ward – a neighborhood later devastated by Hurricane Katrina – until she died in 1980.

As it goes with outsider artists, Morgan had no formal artistic training of any kind. She began painting in her 50s, working with whatever she had around, adding color and divine messages to lamp shades and pieces of cardboard. Though she received recognition for her artwork during her lifetime, Morgan had little interest in pursuing a career as a painter.
Around 1970, Sister Gertrude laid down the tracks to Let’s Make A Record in New Orleans at Preservation Hall, her first and only foray into the recording business. She had no interest in being a musician either, but you can’t tell that from the raw gospel album she created. Morgan’s fiery vocals, the frenetic shake of her tambourine, and the occasional sound of a stomping foot together make an intense collection of sounds, full of transcendent moments and a kind of voodoo spirit.

The album cover for King Britt Presents: Sister Gertrude Morgan shows one of Sister Gertrude’s colorful self-portraits.That the obscure record would attract the attention of an electronic music DJ years later now seems like part of some divine plan. In 2005, King Britt released a remix of Let’s Make A Record. Layered with kinetic beats, King Britt Presents: Sister Gertrude Morgan brought a new energy to Morgan’s solo verse. The addition of electric basslines, lap steel slide guitar, percussion, piano, and other instrumentation add depth to Morgan’s rhythm.

I’m not a religious person, but I find catharsis in music, and there is plenty of that in gospel and electronica.

Touring as “The Sister Gertrude Morgan Experience,” King Britt and co-producer Tim Motzer turned World Cafe Live in Philadelphia into Morgan’s Everlasting Gospel Ministry, where even after death, she possessed the ability to physically move believers and non-believers.

And that is how I was first introduced to Sister Gertrude.

“Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light.”

My favorite track on the album is “Precious Lord Lead Me On,” a rendition of the 1931 gospel song “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” written by the Reverend Thomas A. Dorsey, based on an old hymn by the American composer George Nelson Allen. Dorsey wrote the song as a way out of his own inconsolable grief after the death of his wife and infant son.

What attracts me most about “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” is the incredible sense of self-awareness in the lyrics and of the moment.

I give pause whenever I hear any version of it. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Godmother of rock & roll, sings the song in 1941 with a rebellious spirit, lightness, and her signature electric guitar – you just know she’ll make it through. Elvis Presley croons sweetly with The Jordanaires in 1957 in an endearing ‘put your head on my shoulder’ kind of way – a reminder to ‘love the one you’re with,’ to borrow from another song. Mahalia Jackson will make you want to go to church, or walk into the sea depending on your mood.

A favorite hymn of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., there are reports that it was the last song he requested moments before he was shot to death at the Lorraine Motel. Mahalia sang it at his funeral in 1968.

Imagine the song’s meaning bending during the civil rights movement, reaching deep into crowds to inspire perseverance and courage, a vocal balm soothing broken spirits.

Just three days after King’s assassination, the great Nina Simone wrapped listeners in the song quietly, bidding adieu at the end of a live performance at the Westbury Music Fair. “Goodnight, everybody,” she whispered at the end of her set.

“I sing God’s music because it makes me feel free,” Mahalia Jackson once said.

Why did Sister Gertrude choose to sing? Was it freedom? Or, just another way to spread the Word?

Though the song comes from the black hole of grief, I can’t help but feel a renewed sense of promise after listening, especially in King Britt and Sister Gertrude’s version, with the soaring strings and light tambourine tap.

The exhibition “Great and Mighty Things” left me with similar feelings of promise. Outsider artists are often poor or marginalized, yet here they are on display in the Parthenon on the Parkway. (And would that matter to any of them?)

What I admire about the Bonovitz’s collection is that they don’t see a difference between outsider art and mainstream work. There is only good and bad art.

It matters not that Sister Gertrude painted on toilet paper rolls, used ballpoint pen, or even cared about her art at all. At the end of the day, she was a preacher by calling. Her paintings, like the record she recorded, were merely tools of her ministry.

In an interview with culture critic Stephan Salisbury, exhibition co-curator Sheldon Bonovitz said:

“There’s no fence around genius. It’s just available. People are creative given the opportunity. Given the opportunity, they can succeed.”

Something to think about, and hope for.

Sister Gertrude Morgan

Additional Listening and Viewing: 

For the quickest intro into the art and music of Sister Gertrude Morgan, listen to Joel Rose’s report on NPR:Preacher-Artist Gertrude Morgan, Remixed.

Watch King Britt and Tim Motzer discuss what it was like “collaborating” with Sister Gertrude.

Thomas A. Dorsey tells the story behind “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” in the great documentary, Say Amen, Somebody – jump to the 5:09 minute mark. I likely never would have seen this film had I not begged my way into Professor Gayle Wald‘s English course on identity and popular music at the George Washington University. Was this also part of some divine plan?

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