As I continue to make my way at a snail’s pace through Clinton Heylin’s Can You Feel the Silence,1I find myself wondering which biographical details might be important. For instance, Heylin makes much of the fact that Van Morrison’s father was an atheist, while his mother was (at least for a time) a Jehovah’s Witness, and points out that the same was true of Patti Smith (whose first well-known song was a cover of “Gloria”).
A big book could be written (maybe one has, I’m not sure) on the intersection between the Witnesses and popular music. Michael Jackson was brought into the church as a child and left it as an adult, while Prince was converted by Mighty Titan of Bass Larry Graham in the early 2000s and stayed in for the rest of his life. (Donald “Childish Gambino” Glover, Thelonious Monk, and metal legend Dave Mustaine were also raised as Witnesses.) Van Morrison attended meetings with his mom and even wrote a song about it, 1978’s “Kingdom Hall”:
In this portrayal the meetings sound fun, almost like services at a Black gospel church:
We can clear inhibition away
All our inhibitions
Throw them away
And when we dance like this
We will dance like we’ve never before
Oh, they were swingin’
Down at Kingdom Hall
Oh, bells were ringin’
Down at the Kingdom Hall
A choir was singin’
Down at the Kingdom Hall
One wonders about the ethnic makeup of that crowd. In the USA, according to Pew Research,
Jehovah’s Witnesses are among the most racially and ethnically diverse religious groups in America. No more than four-in-ten members of the group belong to any one racial and ethnic background: 36% are white, 32% are Hispanic, 27% are black and 6% are another race or mixed race.
And also all of the musicians I named above are African-American (except for Dave Mustaine, who is extremely white).
There’s no way of knowing what it might have been like in Belfast. But in any case, the meetings seem to have been an early exposure of young Morrison to the kind of religious ecstasy in music that would inform a lot of his work. I think this qualifies as important, and from here one could continue down the deep rabbit hole that is the strange and fascinating world of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Take a spin, if you wish, through the tangled, almost painfully balanced Wikipedia coverage thereof; but that’s not how I choose to spend my Sunday. Over and out for now.
When I was about 9 years old my sisters and I attended attended a Kingdom Hall for a summer, it didn’t take.
What was the music like?