The Como Mamas
Gospel Music as Sacred Text
Introducing Gospel singers from Como, Mississippi
in service to the Widening the Circle Initiative of the Center for Process Studies
The Como Mamas: A Vocal Trinity
I had the same conversation over and over again when I was conducting research for my doctoral dissertation on contemporary black gospel music. When I spoke to older churchgoers—dozens of them, in central North Carolina and Houston, Texas—they always told me the same thing. It went something like this: “Contemporary gospel is OK. It’s exciting, uplifting. It’s inspirational. But, the older stuff, see, it could get you through.” Almost always, it was that same phrase, “get you through.” The more time I spent with these folks, the more I understood what they meant. If you find yourself in a place that seems impossible—a situation that you can’t understand, or don’t have the financial or emotional resources to handle, a moment of existential paralysis—the older gospel music can save you, it has the power to move you out of that situation.
The Como Mamas sing the get-you-through kind of gospel. These three women from Como, Mississippi—Ester Mae Smith, Angelia Taylor, and Della Daniels—sing with no instrumental accompaniment, just a vocal trinity delivering the encumbered message of good news, the gospel.
Mostly they sing what gospel music scholar, Civil Rights activist, and vocalist Bernice Johnson Reagon calls “‘I’ songs”—“God is Good to Me,” “I Know it Was the Blood,” “Soon I Will Be Done.” “In the black community” Reagon explains, “when you want the communal expression everybody says ‘I.’ So if there are five of us here and all of us say ‘I,’ then you know that there’s a group. The ‘I’ songs are very important. It really is a way of saying that the life that I have, I will offer to this thing [communal goal].” Ultimately, for Reagon, the group is more powerful because each individual member retains a distinctive identity.
The Como Mamas demonstrate this kind of unity that has been so central to the development of African American history. Their three voices do not merge indistinguishably into one, but rather create a collective sound all the more moving because each individual voice remains clear. In a review of the Como Mama’s record Get an Understanding, ethnomusicologist Fredara Hadley celebrated the “imperfectly harmonic” relationship between their voices. And it is in this perfect imperfection, this slippage, this coming together of three individual voices each singing the song and not just the notes, that a vector of energy is created. This energy is what moves people. This is the energy that “gets you through.”
This Black History Month, it’s worth taking the time to listen to the Como Mamas. The way they sing has something important to teach us about how to come together as a group—“on one accord,” as church folks say—without sacrificing our individuality. And the sound they produce has something to teach us about the will to thrive, no matter the circumstances. In this time when bad news is all too easy to come by, let the Como Mamas bring you the good news.
Gospel Music as Sacred Text
Ethnomusicologists remind us that sacred texts are aural as well as textual. Consider the sounds of the Qur’an as recited. The very meaning of the Qur’an lies partly in the sweetness of the sound, as received and interpreted by listeners.
In our time these aural texts – these sonic sacraments -- include gospel songs and popular music. The reception of the sounds depends on the agency of the listener: that is, on what he or she can hear in the sounds as presented, either live or in recording. In process (open and relational) theology, context is everything. Different songs mean different things to different people, relative to their social locations, race, gender, ethnicity, personality, and outlook on life. There can be no isolated meaning of a sacred text.
How, then, might we listen to the gospel music of Como Mamas? Ethnomusicology can help. In Coco Mamas we hear what one ethnomusicologist, Fredara Hadley, calls imperfect harmonies in relations between their voices, where each person has a distinctive voice that does not get absorbed in the whole but nevertheless makes the whole so much richer. The whole of the song begins to have an energy of its own by means of the imperfect harmonies of their voices. Without the imperfection there could be no song.
There is a theological lesson in this, also implicit in so much gospel music. It is that the individual “I” needs to have a voice and story of its own, if the harmony is to be complete. In gospel music songs that highlight the experience of the individual are called “I” songs. I was wandering in the wilderness. Jesus called me. Individual identity is not negated; instead it is affirmed.
Process (open and relational) theologians believe that the very song of God is, in its way, an I song. God has a life of God’s own, distinguishable from other lives. God has an individual identity: a divine story that includes all stories.
This inclusion is God's listening, God's prehending, God's feeling of the feelings of all living being. Thus, the song of God is partly composed of the billions upon billions of voices in the universe, who also have their I’s. God longs for is that they learn to sing together, imperfectly, in the form of a collective song with energy of its own.
We process theologians think of this collective song as the just and sustainable community: that is, the community that is creative, compassionate, diverse, and ecologically healthy, with no one left behind. Those of us who are Christian see Jesus as a window for this hope. We seek to walk in his footsteps and share in his journey. He is a window through which we hear the I of God, calling us to persevere, to thrive, to love.
You hear all of this in the Como Mamas. They sing many, many songs. Always they are to help us hear the call, each in our own way. It's Gospel Music as Sacred Text.
-- Jay McDaniel