The Rhythm of God
“The Rhythm of God”: The Backbeat in the Black Pentecostal Church
Among the pleasures of doing musicological research is finding long-forgotten gems buried among the millions of records that have been made since the dawn of recording. My research tracing the history of the backbeat, which has involved a survey of over 8,000 recordings (so far) from the turn of the century through the 1930s, has rewarded me with many such discoveries. It has also made clear that the backbeat, which shocked American audiences when it entered the cultural mainstream in the 1950s with the rise of rock-and-roll, had been a vital feature of several African American musical traditions long before rock-and-roll was a gleam in Chuck Berry’s eye. I would like to take this opportunity to consider early appearances of the backbeat in one such tradition, the music of the black Pentecostal church, and share some relatively obscure recordings that establish the centrality of African American sacred music in the development of rock-and-roll.
It will be useful to first define the backbeat by way of an example from the early days of rock-and-roll. The backbeat refers to emphatic percussive accents on the so-called weak beats of the measure, typically played on the snare drum. In 4/4 meter, the most common meter in rock-and-roll, the 2nd and 4th beats are defined in standard music theory textbooks as the weak beats, while the 1st and 3rd beats are considered the strong beats. The backbeat is an inversion of this fundamental convention of Western music as the nominal weak beats are emphasized. During Little Richard’s performance of “Tutti Frutti” in Alan Freed’s 1956 film Don’t Knock the Rock, the drummer’s consistent snare drum backbeats are aided by the handclaps of audience members, who continue clapping out the backbeat when the band drops out for Little Richard’s vocal breaks.
(For readers non-conversant in the basic metrical organization of Western popular music, this lighthearted instructional video illustrates the placement of the backbeat on the 2nd and 4th beats of the measure.)
Of course, Little Richard’s primary musical schooling came from the black Pentecostal church, a primary locus for the early development of the backbeat. To date, the earliest recording I have found featuring a consistent backbeat is “Way Down in Egypt Land” by the Biddleville Quintette, about whom little is known other than that they were from Biddleville, a historically black suburb of Charlotte, North Carolina, and that they recorded 36 sides for Paramount Records between 1926 and 1929. Songs referring to the Biblical story of the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt are among the most powerful and subversive songs in the black sacred music tradition insofar as they address the legacy of slavery head on and, in many cases, invoke the Old Testament story as a means of protesting the condition of African Americans during slavery and its long, violent aftermath. Recorded in 1926, “Way Down In Egypt Land” features clapped backbeats (starting at:25 into the recording, then sustained throughout) in addition to rhythmic vocal shouts common in Pentecostal sacred music.
The Biddleville Quintette’s second version of “Way Down in Egypt Land,” recorded in 1929, is among the earliest gospel recordings to feature actual percussion instruments in addition to handclaps, including a tambourine and drum (or perhaps a washboard), most likely played by members of the quartet. This percussion ensemble enters during the first refrain and plays exclusively on the backbeat until midway through the second verse (at roughly :49 seconds into the clip) when a steady pulse on all four beats gradually establishes itself underneath the forceful backbeat accents. The tempo gradually increases, and by midway through the song, the group has settled into a remarkable backbeat-based groove. By the end of the song, one can faintly hear what modern day drummers would recognize as a “ride” pattern, that is a continuous flow of notes that defines the rhythmic feel of the song, and, in rock-and-roll drumming, fills in the space between backbeats.
Of the Biddleville Quintette’s 36 recordings, only 3 feature percussive accompaniments of any kind. The fact that 2 of those 3 recordings are versions of “Way Down in Egypt Land” suggests that the Quintette may have associated percussive backbeats with the subversive strain of sacred music represented by the Egypt songs. The song’s refrain repeatedly invokes the darkest depths of slavery — “way down, waay down, waaay down in Egypt land” — but the exuberant, rhythmically charged performances on both recordings, fueled by the backbeat, convey a prophecy of overcoming and a celebration of freedom, a kind of “beating back” against a history of violent oppression, to employ cultural theorist John Mowitt’s phrase.
The “ride” effect—the presence of a continuous rhythmic flow sustained on a percussion instrument—is more prominent on Elder Richard Bryant’s 1928 recording of “How Much I Owe for Love Divine,” which, like the Biddleville Quintette’s 1929 recording of “Way Down in Egypt Land,” is a rare early instance of percussion instruments being used on a gospel recording and, like the Biddleville Quintette’s recording, employs the ride effect in the context of a backbeat based groove. Here, an unidentified washboard player lays down a swinging ride pattern underneath accented backbeats, which are amplified by group handclaps. This compelling, uplifting groove enlivens this powerful celebration of gratitude for divine salvation and unifies the congregation in embodied solidarity.
Elder J. E. Burch’s 1927 recording of “Love Is My Wonderful Song” is perhaps the earliest gospel recording to feature both a snare drum and a bass drum, which, in conjunction with tambourine and congregational handclaps, propel the song with a relentless, driving beat. The groove emerges gradually, but within the first minute of the track, the percussion ensemble has settled into a powerful “train” groove, a fixture of subsequent country and rockabilly rhythmic accompaniments, featuring a continuous flow of “chugging” snare drum notes with accented backbeats (here reinforced by group handclaps) over steady bass drum downbeats. The potent rhythmic complex helps induce the embodied spirituality central to Pentecostal worship and central to the survival strategies of many African Americans in post-Reconstruction America. Chicago based preacher and prolific recording artist Rev. D. C. Rice, underscoring the urgency of this aspect of Pentecostal musical practice, insisted in an interview with blues historian Gayle Wardlow, “People need to feel the rhythm of God.”
While many have acknowledged the profound influence that gospel music had on the stylistic development of numerous vocal stars of the rock-and-roll era, from Little Richard and Ray Charles to Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin, these recordings demonstrate that rock-and-roll owes much of its distinctive feel to the rhythmic accompaniments developed in Pentecostal churches as early as the 1920s. Though decried by many as the devil’s music in the 1950s, early rock-and-roll was clearly infused with the rhythm of God.