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From the YouTube Music Video Archives: Take My Hand, Precious Lord, as sung by Mahalia Jackson

The most abstract idea conceivable is the sensuous in its elemental originality. But through which medium can it be presented? Only through music. Kierkegaard, Either/Or

There’s a great moment in Selma when MLK is up in the middle of the night, anxious about a speech he has to give the next day, or maybe the march. So he does what many of us might do, which is listen to music. Except instead of putting his earbuds in and queueing up the iPod, he calls up Mahalia Jackson at 4AM and asks her to sing a spiritual for him. She accepts this as a perfectly normal thing to do, or at least something that makes perfect sense, given the times. So she sits up on the edge of bed and sings Take My Hand, Precious Lord. It’s quite the moment, so much so I assume it has to be true. Apparently a vocalist named Ledisi actually sings it in the movie, which I have to say is pretty amazing too. Don’t want to say it’s more amazing than Mahalia, but it’s worth a listen. Lastly, here is the studio version by Mahalia Jackson, which is … something. Seems like a good song for the first Friday of Lent.

Comments

  1. Rufus McCain says:

    Beautiful … and fascinating in relation to that SK quote. That’s something of his I’ve never really been able to wrap my mind around.

  2. Quin Finnegan says:

    Yes, it is an interesting conjunction. It was first made in Either/Or, about Don Giovanni specifically, which makes perfect sense given the Don’s erotic proclivities.

    What I think he means by “the sensuous in its elemental originality” is longing or even appreciation, not yet described or perhaps even consciously understood, and fundamentally erotic in nature. The “sensuous”, or the source of feeling—waves on the beach, a bird in flight, the opposite sex—is certainly physical, but the feelings aroused are abstract. Even if science now teaches us that these feelings are basically material, the rush of blood and chemicals in the brain, they are initially felt as something that beyond their material being.

    Music is the medium that seems least material and is therefore best suited to express the abstract. And this makes sense if we consider that, even if music has a material basis in acoustic vibrations, it is for all intents invisible—the mathematical nature of rhythm, counterpoint, melody, harmony and all the rest are often described as form, but what the content actually is is a little more mysterious. With lyrics there are at least images inferred by words, and the nature of those images is the subject of much debate these days. For Kierkegaard, it was enough for the libretto to match “the sensuous in its elemental originality”.

    The sensuous is most strongly felt as an erotic force, and Kierkegaard’s point, I think, was not only that music was ideally suited for Don Giovanni, but that Don Giovanni as a subject was the highest expression for music. Whether it’s the Don singing finch’ han dal vino or Taylor Swift singing Style, the love song is primal because it’s about love and ideal because it is a song.

    What then do we make of Mahalia Jackson singing Take My Hand, Precious Lord, much less I Know that My Redeemer Liveth or Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme? There’s a tendency now to emphasize the essentially erotic nature of religious feeling, and I think because Kierkegaard was similarly trying to sublimate his own erotic longing to attain the sublime, he tended to emphasize the destructive side of that longing. Somewhere else on this blog I wrote that Kierkegaard would have been an entirely different philosopher if he had take Le Nozze de Figaro as a model instead of Don Giovanni. It’s no less concerned with the havoc wreaked by the erotic, but much, much more forgiving of the human actors so tangled up in blue.

    And in the same way Le Nozze is forgiving, Wachet Auf might be in search of something much different than the erotic. Or it might just be an entirely different order of sublimation.

  3. Quin Finnegan says:

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