The Sacred Music Festival features spiritual musical traditions from around the globe. The all-day event, which takes place Saturday at the New Orleans Healing Center, features reggae rhythms, Hindu mantras, Southern spirituals and other genres that bridge sacred and secular musical traditions. While New Orleans has a reputation as one the nation's great party towns, festival organizer Sallie Ann Glassman believes the spiritual diversity of New Orleans deserves more recognition.
"It's such a devout place in its own way, and there's so much great music," Glassman says. "Everything is transforming and re-growing, and there's something that is so expressive of the sacred in all of that."
Dr. Michael White, a jazz historian and professor of music history at Xavier University, says New Orleans is central to the confluence of sacred and secular music in America.
"There's always that use of sacred music as part of collective celebration in New Orleans," White says. "That's part of the culture. I don't think there's anywhere else where parading with hymns has been as important in terms of the community as it has been here."
In New Orleans, spiritual music was traditionally a function of funerals and neighborhood church parades before it crossed over to the mainstream. The first commercial recordings of church hymns were in 1927 by Sam Morgan's Jazz Band, White says. The group recorded eight songs for Columbia Records and three of them were hymns, including "Down by the Riverside," which brought the city's sound to a wider audience.
As jazz and blues increased in popularity, juke joint styles became more ingrained in religious music. Thomas A. Dorsey, a piano player better known as "Barrelhouse Tom," got his start with Ma Rainey's blues band in Chicago, but soon he struck out on his own to promote gospel singers and concerts. One of his earliest artists was Mahalia Jackson, a young singer from the Black Pearl neighborhood of New Orleans, who went on to become the undisputed queen of gospel, but she also stirred controversy.
"Most gospel singers were singing in churches, but it was not associated with money or being a profession or anything like that," White says. "Some people were against it because they felt like [Dorsey] was bringing blues into the church; some people think it's blasphemous."
When Ray Charles recorded music in New Orleans in the early 1950s, he worked with a local trumpet player named Renald Richard. Richard pitched a song to Charles that became a signature tune and a No. 1 R&B hit for Charles, White says. The song was "I Got a Woman," and it was heavily influenced by the gospel song "It Must Be Jesus" by the Southern Tones.
"They took almost the exact same melody and just changed the words, and they made it a little more upbeat," White says. "When that kind of thing happened, that was still a problem."
Touro Synagogue's cantor Jamie Marx, one of the performers at the Sacred Music Festival, says the mixing of sacred and secular music in 20th century America — and the backlash it inspired — wasn't limited to gospel and blues.
"When the 1960s came about, and the counter-culture revolution, those musical stylings quickly came into Reform synagogues as well," Marx says. "That's what I'll be singing at the Sacred Music Festival, the kind of worship music you would hear in my synagogue today, a lot of guitar, folk styles, what you might call the classic 'boom-chick' with kind of a klezmer rhythm to it."
Marx credits composer Shlomo Carlebach with the move toward more popular music in Reform synagogues. Carlebach hung around with Greenwich Village's famed folk singers in the 1960s, including Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger. Later that decade, he moved to San Francisco and founded a youth center called The House of Love and Prayer in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood.
"His music has had a huge influence," Marx say. "It was in this old style, but it was with guitar and was very, very accessible."
The move toward more accessible music, and the inevitable grumblings from synagogues' elders, are nothing new in the Jewish tradition, Marx says.
"Jewish worship music has a long history of influence by secular styles, and we have great quotes from the 14th and 15th centuries of rabbis complaining about cantors singing tunes that are from secular melodies or drinking songs," he says. "It's very similar centuries later where we have borrowed contemporary stylings as well."
The Sacred Music Festival aims to bridge the worlds of secular and sacred music.
"If you think about it, the most popular song in New Orleans throughout the 20th century is a hymn," White says. "We named our football team after it."