My Grandmother had over two thousand records, eight tracks and cassette tapes. Though a fan of the Allman brothers and the occasional Hall And Oates single, her record collection ran as a history of black music in America before hip hop; ranging from Louis Armstrong’s singles with the Hot Five to Prince’s Sign Of The Times. She collected them between 1942, when she started making decent money working for the army and running a pool hall, and 1990, when her health started to go bad and my father relapsed for the final time. Industrious enough with cash, she bought a house in 1961 that had a remarkably decked out basement: A bedroom, bathroom, and a living room space that accommodated two beds, a card table, a stocked bar, and more than enough room for her records.
If you asked her on the right day who her favorite artist was, her answer would have been a myriad of people. On a great deal of those days, her answer would have been Inez Andrews. I remember early Sunday afternoons, when my dad would leave my brother and I at her house to roam the streets, and she would sit in the basement, draw in the windows, turn on a little light beige lamp and listen to this record. She would sit with my uncle Moe, smoke a pack of Kool’s, have me pour her two shots of gin and stare out into the brown and black of the room. She would not say a word, just listen and look the light and dark of a space that had so much history to her.
The thing that Christian gospel fans so easily forget is that Andrews, like almost all of the great gospel women, faced vicious opposition from the church until it was realized her talent could turn a profit. With its intensity and power, her contralto was considered improper for church ears, but if you listen to this, you can hear many of the other things that made black church patriarchy nervous. As much as any poet’s, Andrews’s art was almost exclusively in inference and metaphor. Her Mary, instead of a stock character in a bible narrative about Jesus, is placed at the center of the story. In Andrews’ hands, she is someone who is sick and tired of being sick and tired; who, in her shattering grief over her loss, is teetering between belief and heresy.
Andrews’ Mary doesn’t call on god, the stern god of the Old Testament who demands her endless sacrifice, nor does she call on god in generalities. No, Andrews’ Mary calls on Jesus, the son, the one that offers a progressive vision of faith, and she demands that he fix her brother’s death Now. And the man she imagine in that poetic hook (“ Mary don’t you weep/ Martha don’t you moan/Pharaoh’s army is drowned in the red sea”) is a comforter directly in the black church’s sense of the word, a healer, someone interested in her humanity. In other words, someone completely divorced from modern church culture. There is so much here, in both form and content; so much in relation to power, faith, and expressing oneself as an artist in a medium that doesn’t want you to, and I thoroughly recommend that all of the smart people I know check her out.
She passed away in December. I didn’t know she was from my grandmother’s hometown.