“The Living Myth – Mr. Ree”:

Sun Ra and The Search for The Sacred

Due to the ambiguous and often comical or seemingly ridiculous nature of Sun Ra’s persona and statements/claims (one of the most notorious being that he was not from this planet but outer space), many critics, writers and musicians have deeply misunderstood or dismissed him. As cited in Graham Lock’s Blutopia, following his death in 1993, Benny Green in the Daily Mail referred to his ideologies as “Galactic Gobledegook”[1]. Although opinions on Sun Ra may have been re-assessed within academic writing since the 90’s (with the support of writers such as Szwed and Lock), he has still continually been portrayed as a “nutter” within mainstream culture. The problem then has sometimes been of an abstraction from the music to the phenomenon that is the man himself - that is, when his contribution to music (often confined to the “Avant-Garde”/ “Free” jazz traditions) is appreciated.

The article by Benny Green in the Daily Mail however shows no such appreciation. Titled “Angel in a Noddy Bonnet Wanted to Save the Planet”, he elaborates further: “The trouble has always been to know where to draw a firm line between the tomfoolery of an entertaining Charlatan and the sincere missionary beliefs of a considerable musical pioneer.”[2] Interestingly, the type of attitude and language used in this comment alludes to certain conservative religious ideals of what is considered to be “sincere” and sacred, opposed in its polarity to notions of secular.

The boundaries between the Secular and Sacred have always been blurred within African American church and musical traditions making the drawing of a “firm line” indeed always troublesome. However, Teresa L.Reed in “The Holy Profane: Religion in Black Popular Music” argues that this dichotomy did not always exist: “Sacred and secular were entirely foreign concepts to African slaves arriving in the Colonies. They did not distinguish between music for secular use and music for sacred consumption.”[3] Often scholars have pointed the reason for this towards original African “Animist” traditions and practices. Taking Levine’s indication of the spirituals as evidence for this lack of distinction,[4] Reed paraphrases his words: “They (the slaves) did not confine their religious singing to the church, but used the spirituals as rowing songs, field songs, work songs, and social songs”.[5] It seems to Reed that only after a process of absorption and participation in Western/European modes of worship (such as church attendance) did tendencies arise to make distinctions between the “sacred” and “profane”. [6]

Reed’s use of “profane” here implies behavioral codes towards the sacred. From the Latin, “sacer” (“set off”/restricted”)[7], church would have “maintained a clear line of separation between practices that were either appropriate or inappropriate for church use”. [8] This is probably the case (at least partly) because while Christian worship was confined to the time and place of Church services, the spirituals remained “appropriate to almost every situation”[9]. Other practices and beliefs independent of what Levine deems the slaves “formal” (Christian) religion, were often considered as being “superstitious”. But Levine argues for the validity of those “folk beliefs” (notably using the word “sacred” to describe them), by saying that while they may not have been part of the slave’s “formal religion”, “they were still religious beliefs nonetheless.” He uses Alexander Krappe’s definition of superstition to support his premise: “any belief or practice that is not recommended or enjoined by any of the great religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism.” [10] Conclusively, notions of secular and sacred within African American worship are complex due to the nature of cultural assimilation.

The spirituals did however offer re-occurring ideas of a heaven separate and transcendental of the world. Levine describes some of the songs as reflective of a “desire to release their hold upon the temporal present”,[11] with lyrics such as “why don’t you give up de world?” Consequently, feelings of alienation were prevalent as well: “This world is not my home”. Levine summarises the role of spirituals: “The slaves created a world by transcending the narrow confines of the one in which they were forced to live. They extended the boundaries of their restrictive universe backward until it fused the world of the Old Testament, and upward until it became one with the world beyond.” [12]

Although Sun Ra criticized many aspects of the Christian tradition in general and the Judeo-Christian ideologies, he took the ideas of the spirituals, and their “mythic past” and transcendental “future” in heaven, as a template for his “space chants”[13]. His appropriation stylistically involved call and response patterns between members of his Arkestra, “brief, repetitive”[14] melodic patterns in the framework of phrases, dancing and clapping, and an intense involvement with audience members. It seems that there is something inherently resonant in the ideas of the spirituals to Sun Ra. Szwed writes of Sun Ra’s experiences as a young musician in the 1930s, in heavily segregated Birmingham in Space is the Place. The other musicians on tour with him recall him “writing down his thoughts on segregation and the indignities he suffered” in a diary. One of the musicians, J. L. Lowe, comments: “We were not bitter and didn’t carry a chip on our shoulder. But it didn’t sit well with him.”[15] Sun Ra’s constant claims of not being of this earth reflect the ideas of alienation presented in Levine’s cited spiritual (“This world is not my home”). However, in my opinion Sun Ra did not want to accept his lot by placing himself in a position of helplessness and sorrow. In a booklet of notes alongside a record (under the title “The Aim of My Compositions”), he explains that: “All of my compositions are meant to depict happiness combined with beauty in a free manner... The mental impression I intend to convey is that of being alive”.[16] As Lock demonstrates, “it is worth noting that Ra’s space chants often explicably disavow sorrow” (one of the chants lyrics being “we sing this song for a new tomorrow / we sing this song to abolish sorrow)[17]. The “chant” as it appears in the Sun Ra film, Space is the Place[18] (1974) and as sung by June Tyson, offers some interesting resemblances to spiritual melodic patterns. The most obvious of these being a descending minor pentatonic scale on the phrase “abolish sorrow”. Interestingly though, the phrase preceding it (“we sing this song to”), ascends from the root note - to the fourth - then to the major sixth, which doesn’t follow the normal modal conventions. The last interval therefore, being a major third, really sticks out and breaks out of the minor feel (perhaps this can be taken as breaking out of the sad feel these spirituals often had).

Beyond these “space chants”, Sun Ra offered an “Astro-Black mythology” as referred to by Lock in Blutopia (originally taken from one of his song titles). His reasoning for using this conception as representative of Sun Ra’s narrative is that: “it emphasizes Sun Ra’s conscious creating of a mythology, and it conveniently encapsulates the two dominant facets of that mythology, the Astro of the outer space future, and the Black of the ancient Egyptian past.”[19] .

His interest in ancient Egypt can be seen in a multiplicity of ways. If his Astro-Black mythology is seen as a template taken from the spirituals, Sun Ra seems to have replaced the Exodus myth with an Egyptian one in the act of reviving its significance. Lock speculates that for Sun Ra, the slaves’ identification with the Israelites as a chosen people to be saved into a promised land was based upon their “common heritage of enslavement”.[20] Also his interest in revisionist ideas of Black history as represented by “white cultural and academic establishments”[21], (not Ancient Egyptian, but Greek and Roman civilizations were normally revered at the time) and attacks on the hypocrisy of Moses as held as a heroic figure,[22] aim to disclaim the historically held truths. The mythological significance of a “common heritage of enslavement” for Sun Ra didn’t “deal with progress”; “They back there in the past, it’s not their history.”[23] The resurgence of the Exodus story as a metaphor for social freedom in the times of the Civil Rights struggle[24] in particular probably provoked Sun Ra’s cynicisms further. Therefore, Ancient Egyptian mythology specifically replaced Judeo-Christian ideals, that for Sun Ra were limited. However, ancient Egypt also became symbolic in that it represented a Black civilization that had art, culture, beauty and specifically “truth”[25] (their mathematics were advanced – only now are we unraveling the mysteries in their building of the pyramids in alignment of the stars[26]). Tyrone Hill (trombonist in the Arkestra) sums up the cultural significance of learning about Egypt: “Knowing about Egypt makes me feel better as a person, ‘cause those were black people. Our race don’t know very much about ourselves. In America, education and the mass media tell you black people got nothing to offer, but we’ve done many beautiful things. Sun Ra made me aware of this.”[27] 

If Sun Ra replaced the Exodus myth with an Egyptian one within his “Astro-Black”

Template, it can be educed that a transcendental “heaven”, once representative of the slaves’ salvation, was replaced with the space metaphor that Sun Ra countlessly drew on. Szwed summarises it significance well: “Space was another one of Sonny’s efforts to relocate himself so as to embody all time and nature and to escape the confine and limits of life on earth.” I’d like to draw a parallel here with the sacred and secular ideas of what is earthly and what is a part of the divine, as I feel that these notions held some meaning for Sun Ra. He showed aspirations towards divine ideals (in the forms of the eternal, pure and truth) and was unarguably dissatisfied with the ways of the world in that it showed no or almost little reverence to these.

In the entry on Sacred in the Encaeclopidia Britannica (and under the subtitle “Ambivalence in man’s response to the Sacred”) one of the ambiguities expressed is that: “The sacred manifests itself in concrete forms that are also profane. The transcendent mystery is recognized in a specific concrete symbol, act, idea, image, person, or community. The unconditioned reality is manifested in conditioned form.”[28] When Sun Ra challenges ideas of righteousness and un-righteousness (in A Joyful Noise) it is exactly the attitudes of the Christian church in their fixation of a heaven and hell (and it’s correspondence to moral behaviour) that he is coming up against. He jokingly contests: “They can’t get into my band that way” and says “that won’t help them with me”.[29] It is my opinion here that space as a metaphor offers a notion of “Sacred” that is beyond even our understandings of Sacred, leading us then completely into the “unknown” regions of space (representative of a metaphysical realm as well as an “unimaginable” one).

Sun Ra’s representation of himself as a living myth is probably one of the most complex or as Lock describes “evasive” aspects of his character. As Lock admittedly states towards the end of the chapter in Blutopia, that he has attempted to trace some of his mythology and ideas back to African-American tradition, but much still “awaits further elucidation.”[30] I would argue that much of his “self-made mythology” defies “elucidation”, especially from the perspective of rational reasoning. At the most basic level of his mythology, one might ask how can he be from Saturn? It is all too easy to take a skeptical approach either of a type of escapism on Sun Ra’s part from a dire reality or one such outlined by Benny Green of an “entertaining Charlatan” when his claims and comments seem purposefully either contradictory or so irrational. Szwed writes bluntly: “He seemed to be flirting with non-sense, but it could worry you for days.”[31] 

James Jacson seemed to recognise a Zen-like quality to Sun Ra’s “paradoxical communication”[32] in his teaching. Particularly in his poems did his writing seem to adhere to the koan’s role of provoking doubt and of being a “mind exercise” to exhaust the “analytic intellect” and “egoist will”.[33] As cited by Szwed, “Art Jenkins recalls one day, Sonny said something like: “Sometimes you could be someplace and be out of place. But when you’re somewhere you don’t have to be out of place because you might lose your place, and be last, or be left out.”

I would disagree with Benny Green’s doubting of Sun Ra being sincere in his music and spirituality. He lived for much of his life with his Arkestra under the same roof almost like a religious commune, dedicating whole days to rehearsing and hearing Sun Ra talk about his ideas. In A Joyful Noise, the musicians comment of giving up pleasures or social enjoyments (any ”social life” elsewhere from the house) and one of them comments that: “Sometimes it’s tough but the sincerity of wanting to be a part of the music really matters.” He goes on further saying: “But once you get into the music, you forget about the other thing that was happening. Because the music has you so into it – it doesn’t matter.”[34] The concept of being so entwined with the music at a level of egolessness (“losing oneself” and losing track or having warped perceptions of time), I would argue is not an entirely foreign concept to most musicians (even those who do not see themselves as particularly religious). Also, plenty of people have decided to take the course of being a musician vocationally, despite the promise of any money or of money having any direct relation to creating music of personal/artistic “worth”; this again does not seem to be because of any religious persuasion to give up “earthly things”, but is more inherent with the nature of music. Szwed presents an approach to music: “Music could provide a metaphysical experience through which one could enter the sublime, and come to know the cosmos.”

One of Sun Ra’s statements about music in A Joyful Noise seems to allude to music as serving a sacred purpose as opposed to the secular: “The chaos on this planet is due to the music that musicians are playing – that they’re forced to play… by some who just think of money and don’t realise that music is a spiritual language and it represents the people of earth.” However, what he says next; “When musicians are compelled to play anything, it goes straight to the throne of the Creator of the universe and that is how he sees you – according to your music”, does not seem to allude to ownership or a setting aside of music as sacred and untouchable. Instead it’s as if music can offer a bridge between the gap of the humanly and the divine.

Here, music in terms of a bridging a gap between the humanly and divine can be seen in terms of mystic commune with the Creator. Within the confines of monotheism (where often there is a personal God) notions of sacred and secular can be divided, whereas mysticism tends to involve almost pantheistic ideas of God/ the cosmos and everything being one and all, allowing not a division but a humanly connection with the sacred in the ideas of the “absolute”, “eternal” and “order”/harmony/unity. This idea of the absolute and eternal can be seen as reflected in Pythagorean mathematics, especially of “the music of the spheres”.[35] Sun Ra was undoubtedly aware of a connection between music and mathematics. His was widely read and had a fascination with knowledge in a holistic view. “Sonny thought of his conceptions not as a matter of religion, philosophy, or politics, for they were not about belief, but a kind of science”. [36] In Space Is The Place there’s a monologue that seems to almost directly refer to the “music of the spheres” and the idea of music and sound being ubiquitous with constant movement: “Why doesn’t the earth fall? How can you walk upon it? It’s the music. It’s the music of the earth, the music of the sun and the stars, the music of yourself, vibrating. Yes, you’re music too. You’re all instruments. Everyone’s supposed to be playing their part in the vast arkestri of the cosmos.”

In A Joyful Noise Sun Ra exclaims: ‘Those of the reality have lost their way. Now they must listen to what myth has to say. Those of the reality have been bruised and beaten by the truths. Those of the reality have been slaves of a bad truth. The myth is neither bad nor good – its potentials are unlimited.”[37] It is hard (or impossible) to understand what Sun Ra’s mythology actually was, apart from his direct personification of the “impossible” and of being a part of the bigger “Mystery” (his story being a play on history and my story being a play on mystery). His preference of myths over fixed truths was evident, as absolute and self-evident truths don’t mould around our imagination to rediscover knowledge and understandings of the world around us (and our relationship with it) as myths do. Our realities get stuck within historical timeframes and the possible and therefore do not live or have potential to develop. Sun Ra’s cynicisms of white narratives of history (with their “self-serving myths that were enveloped in the name of scientific fact) and their limitations for Black people perhaps first provoked him to create his own mythology in response to these fixed truths. However, towards the 80s, his disillusions towards Black people increased as they accepted their “given” reality: “I couldn't approach black people with the truth because they like lies. They live lies.. At one time I felt that white people were to blame for everything, but then I found out that they were just puppets and pawns of some greater force, which has been using them … Some force is having a good time [manipulating black and white people] and looking, enjoying itself up in a reserved seat, wondering, "I wonder when they're going to wake up."[38] 

So in Sun Ra’s search for the Sacred, he was not interested in defining things or setting things within earthly realms and limits but much more interested in the metaphysical, the impossible and irrational. (His constant statement always being that “it’s the need unknown we need to know”). But I think he had a concept of Sacred and an ideal of the Creator as a supreme and pure force that went beyond normal/traditional notions of God. Szwed remarks: He preserved a few absolutes from attack: beauty, discipline, space, the Creator, infinity, even while he left them undefined and empty of fixed meaning, floating independent of each other, and in any case always in a kind of future with a dreamlike horizon.” Music seemed to be the only way of bridging the planet and humans with these absolute ideals.

 

Bibliography

Films

Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise. DVD. Directed by Robert Mugge. Los Angeles: Direct Cinema Limited, 1998.

Space is the Place. DVD. Directed by John Coney. Rhapsody Films, 1998.

Books:

Szwed, John F. Space Is The Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra. Edinburgh: MOJO books, 2000.

Lock, Graham. Blutopia: Visions of the Future and Revisions of the Past in the Work of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington and Anthony Braxton. Durham; London: Duke University Press, 1999.

Reed, Teresa L. The Holy Profane: Religion in Black Popular Music. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2004.

Levine, Lawrence W. Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought From Slavery To Freedom. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Articles:

Flow Motion. “Astro Black Morphologies: Music and Science Lovers.” Leonardo 29 (2006): 23-27.

Websites

New Scientist. “Pyramid Precision.” Accessed January 13, 2014. http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn174-pyramid-precision.html

Encyclopædia Britannica. “Religious Experience.” Accessed January 13, 2014. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/497327/religious-experience/38355/Sacred-and-secular.

Encyclopædia Britannica. “Sacred.” Accessed January 13, 2014. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/497327/religious-experience/38355/Sacred-and-secular


[1] Graham Lock, Blutopia: Visions of the Future and Revisions of the Past in the Work of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and Anthony Braxton. (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1999), 13.

[2] Ibid, 13.

[3] Teresa L.Reed, Holy Profane: Religion in Black Popular Music. (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2004), 5.

[4] Lawrence W. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought From Slavery To Freedom. (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 30.

[5] Reed, Holy Profane, 5.

[6] Ibid, 5.

[7] “Sacred,” Encyclopædia Britannica, accessed January 13, 2014.

 http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/515425/sacred

[8] Ibid, 6.

[9] Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness, 30.

[10] Ibid, 31.

[11] Ibid, 32

[12] Ibid, 32-33.

[13] Lock, Blutopia, 34.

[14] Ibid, 34.

[15] John F. Szwed, Space Is The Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra. (Edinburgh: MOJO books, 2000), 23.

[16] Szwed, Space Is The Place, 155.

[17] Lock, Blutopia, 37.

[18] Space is the Place, 1998

[19] Lock, Blutopia, 14. 

[20] Ibid, 21.

[21] Ibid,16.

[22] Ibid, 21.

[23] Ibid, 20.

[24] Ibid, 20.

[25] Lock, Blutopia, 20.

[26] http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn174-pyramid-precision.html

[27] Lock, Blutopia, 16.

[28] http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/515425/sacred/66484/Ambivalence-in-mans-response-to-the-sacred

[29] A Joyful Noise, 1998

[30] Lock, Blutopia, 73.

[31] Szwed, Space Is The Place, 386

[32] Ibid, 385

[33] http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/320734/koan

[34] A Joyful Noise, 1998

[35] Flow Motion, “Astro Black Morphologies: Music and Science Lovers,” Leonardo 29 (2006): 23-27.

[36] Szwed, Space Is the Place, 131

[37] A Joyful Noise, 1998

[38] Szwed, Space Is the Place, 313.