Oddbox: Voodoo, Sir Richard?

Baron Samedi

Oddbox: Voodoo, Sir Richard?

Barra Ó Séaghdha finds a disapproving account of paganism and the occult

In 1959, St Paul Publications (‘Toronto – Montreal – LONDON – Sydney – Athlone (Ireland) – Bombay – Staten Island, N.Y. – Manila’) issued not just an insult to Athlone but a slim paperback called Introducing Jazz – Talks to a Catholic Youth Club. A newly arrived American priest turns out to have been a jazz musician. Soon, he’s explaining the history of jazz, showing both up-to-date knowledge (Lee Konitz and the English sax-player Tubby Hayes are mentioned) and a surprising sensitivity to racial questions. It wasn’t always thus, as can be seen if we turn to Sir Richard Runciman Terry, whose Voodooism in Music was issued in London (no mention of Athlone) by Burns Oates & Washbourne Ltd, Publishers to the Holy See, in 1934.

In fairness to Sir Richard, it should be said that he had been instrumental (the wrong word, perhaps) in resurrecting both old folk carols and the Catholic Latin-rite choral music of Byrd and other great composers of the Tudor period. Sir Richard was also dismissive of ‘stuffy musical practitioners denouncing jazz composers’ who were their superiors in knowledge and technique. On certain points, however, he was emphatic. ‘Negro Spirituals’ were not an African import:

Stripped of the glamour of mass-suggestion, shorn of the high-falutin flapdoodle about ‘noble’ music welling forth from captivity’s tortured souls, this so-called negroid music stands up in its nakedness as a commonplace American commodity, eagerly assimilated by commonplace British minds.

His time in Haiti and San Domingo as a younger man had left Sir Richard with a horror of paganism and the occult. He now saw ‘the white races of two continents’ in thrall to imported bizarrerie – animal noises, languid dancing, voluptuous atmospheres – which would lead to deterioration and ultimately to ‘degeneracy all round’. Clearly no friend of, or influence on, W.B. Yeats, he saw the vogue for automatic writing and spiritism in a similar light: from the thrill of spiritual uplift, to passivity, the victim found himself, ‘willy-nilly, writing foul things.’ The final stage was ‘complete moral degeneracy or the lunatic asylum.’ Hence the vigour of Sir Richard’s response to, amongst other phenomena, ‘the crooner with his nasal delivery of cheap sentimentality and masochistic ululation.’

Published on 1 October 2009

Barra Ó Séaghdha is a writer on cultural politics, literature and music.

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