Luther Barns is not a household name . . . at least not in the households I spend much time in. But in some circles, he is not only a household name, he is a source of joy.
Luther Barnes is a gospel singer. Gospel music is the hand-clapping music of the Black church in America. None of that toe-tapping stuff! If you don’t clap your hands when Luther Barnes and the Sunset Jubilaires are singing, you’re either deaf or an amputee.
I got to hear them at an annual festival held in the town of Villa Rica, Georgia, 30 minutes down the road. Villa Rica is the birthplace of Thomas A. Dorsey, the man more than any other who was responsible for the development and spread of gospel music. Every year, the town honors him. On one night, you can attend a jazz concert. Dorsey was a great jazz piano player, “Georgia Tom.” The next afternoon, you can attend church to hear Dorsey’s gospel music. Then the crowd adjourns to the park for an evening of blues, capped by fireworks. Dorsey was a pioneer blues player.
I attended church on Saturday afternoon. My soul was lifted up.
How do we combine blues and gospel music? Blues is about embattled resilience against overwhelming despair. Gospel music is about replacing despair with hope. That inherent schizophrenia was in Dorsey’s life. He played both. He shifted increasingly to gospel music in response to a family tragedy: the death of his wife and daughter in childbirth in 1932. He went into depression. He came out of it with a song — a song that remains one of the most beloved gospel songs, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” If you ever are in a Black church with several hundred people singing it without hymnals or an overhead projector, you will know why. I now speak from experience.
The first Dorsey song that grabbed me was “Peace in the Valley.” When I heard it on Elvis Presley’s EP (extended play, 45 RPM) album of gospel songs in 1957, I thought it was his finest song. I still do. When I heard his voice on that song, I thought: “The guy really can sing.”
This brings me to the musical ministry of Luther Barnes. He enjoys that marvelous advantage: his job is his calling. A job puts food on your table. A calling is the most important thing you can do in which you would be most difficult to replace. Few people ever combine both in one lifetime task.
Within Christian circles, there is an abiding suspicion of profit. The phrase “full-time Christian service” generally means non-profit service. It means low income, unless you pastor a large congregation. Luther Barnes is living proof that this attitude is wrong-headed.
He makes money the old-fashioned way: by pleasing customers. He pleases a lot of customers.
In the performance, he repeatedly asked the assembled crowd to sing. People sang with enthusiasm. They did this from memory. They knew his songs. I don’t mean “recognized”; I mean knew. They sang with enthusiasm.
They could do this because they owned his CDs. They had paid good money to buy them. Barnes made a profit on every sale. The more sales, the more money.
This creates an analytical problem for Christians who think that profit is somehow tainted. Barnes gets out a message of personal hope. He packages that message in musical notes and lyrics. Then he transforms these into digits on round pieces of plastic. The more people who buy these pieces of plastic, the wider his influence. The more money that rolls in.
How many people have you heard of who can go into a building full of strangers and seriously ask them to sing songs he has written — sing them from memory? His songs have touched the lives of many thousands of people. Not many people ever get this opportunity. Of those who do, not many follow through, year after year.
The show-stopper was his father’s song, “The Rough Side of the Mountain.” Every person in that building knew it, except for me and an infant in a portable cradle.
Luther Barnes is able to minister to people because of the freedom of people to contract with each other. He sings; they pay. He sings gospel songs. They sing right along with him.
I think of the Beatles in Shea Stadium in 1965. They could not hear themselves play, the screaming was so loud. None of the attendees could hear the concert. They finally stopped touring because of this. They knew their music was having no direct effect. It was just an excuse for screaming. Luther Barnes does not have that problem.
Christians make an exception for entertainers who sing Christian material. They admit that singers are involved in full-time Christian service. They grudgingly accept that the laborer is worthy of his hire. But they do their best to build walls around this kind of service.
Jesus told His disciples that they should serve others. This also is the fundamental principle of the free market. Profit comes from efficient service.
Why shouldn’t effective service be profitable? Why should the rule of profit be excluded from that which Christians call the kingdom of God? When Christians dismiss profit as not being a legitimate aspect of the kingdom of God, they relegate the vast productivity of the modern free market society to the nether world. Profit is seen as prima facie evidence of the kingdom of Satan.
This presents a theological problem. Everyone benefits from the vast productivity of the modern free market, which is governed by the twin sanctions of profit and loss. Are we to explain this as the result of full-time Satanic service? No? Then what is wrong with profit?
If Christians would look at the ministry of Luther Barnes, who is worthy of his hire, they might begin to re-think their hostility to the profit motive. Barnes keeps singing because he does not lose money. If he ever loses money, he will have to turn to begging or else go into a new line of work.
To all the skeptics in the churches regarding the legitimacy of the profit motive (and also the legitimacy of avoiding-a-loss motive), I recommend attending a performance of Luther Barnes and the Sunset Jubilaires.
May the money roll in and the music roll out!