Angel Band

(At various points, there will be moments of plain talk about men’s genitals and man-on-man sex, so this posting is dubious for kids and the sexually modest.)

Yesterday in my posting “Joyous praise”, about joyous praise of God, joyous praise for military victory, and joyous praise for victory over death:

in this vein [of joyous praise of God] … is this exulting carol by Jeremiah Ingalls, “Glory to God on High”, Andrew Parrott leading the Taverner Choir and the Taverner Consort (Warner, 1989), link here. And it has angels: give me angels (muscular angels, angels of power, not delicate or cute angels) or trumpets (equally powerful) or both, and I’m in

The angels and trumpets then took me from the music of joy to music expressing a quite different emotion through similar means: the music of hope. Such music expresses longing for the release of death — release from the pains and tribulations of earthly life — and for the reward of eternal life in heaven with Jesus / God, this reward achieved by rebirth, by resurrection and transportation to heaven. This is gospel music.

And despite the fact that I don’t hold any of the beliefs that undergird gospel music, I am passionately attached to much of it, for reasons both narrative — the (metaphorical) stories that gospel music tells are wonderful stories, deeply satisfying emotionally (oh, to be carried away on the wings of angels to a world free from pain and full of delight!) — and musical — much of the music is fabulous, in both tune and text.

You get angels in both the music of joy and the music of hope, but they serve different functions: for joy, the angels announce the good news to you, as in the Ingalls fanfare; for hope, the angels provide a means for you to satisfy your longings, as in the gospel song Angel Band (which is what this posting is mostly about). In both cases, the angels are resplendent, bathed in light, and robust, loudly trumpeting the good news or sturdily bearing souls away. They are beautiful; they are powerful; they are intense, awesomely so. (Cue the archangel Michael.)

Which means that, in a side, utterly secular, development, they can become objects of desire. This is where I remind you that I am someone whose most potent sexual fantasy is being fucked in mid-air by a wingèd man — that is, a powerful male angel. (Michael morphs into Zeus, mounting his catamite Ganymede.) A fair number of men have some version of this fantasy — so many that there’s a whole genre of gay porn angels (angels on mortals, angels vs. demons, tough leather angels, angels contending with one another for dominance, cute angel twinks named Johnny, and so on).

I’ll get back to that. But first, a note on metaphors for transportation to heaven, and then Angel Band, where the tone of the music is aching desire to be released from pain and carried away, not celebratory at all, despite all the angels that come into it.

The transportation metaphors. Horizontal and vertical.

— horizontal: crossing the river Jordan, or merely crossing to, or reaching,  “the other side” (with what you cross left unspecified; metaphors are never fully specific, they can’t be)

— vertical:

either ascending, rising to heaven: spontaneously; by being drawn up by a force from heaven (an image that reappears in alien abductions); or volitionally, by flying up to heaven;

or by being lifted or carried up to heaven by some agent (angels!)

And then the idea of transportion to heaven links associatively to being transported in an experience, being “taken up” by religious or sexual ecstasy

Angel Band. First, the text, because I find it tremendously moving:

My latest sun is sinking fast
My race is nearly run
My strongest trials now are past
My triumph hath begun

Oh come, angel band
Come and around me stand
Oh, bear me away on your snow-white wings
To my immortal home
Oh, bear me away on your snow-white wings
To my immortal home

I’ve almost gained my heav’nly home
My spirit loudly sings
The holy ones, behold they come!
I hear the noise of wings

[CHORUS, twice]

(A lot of repetitions — but then each repetition is a chance for the singer to vary their performance in subtle ways, to riff on the tune.)

(You won’t be surprised that I’m especially moved by “Oh, bear me away on your snow-white wings”; meanwhile, “I hear the noise of wings”, with its sudden physical vividness, is positively spooky.)

Then, from Wikipedia:

“Angel Band” is an American gospel music song. The lyrics – a poem written in common metre – were originally titled “My Latest Sun Is Sinking Fast,” and were written by Jefferson Hascall (sometimes found as Haskell in hymnals). The lyric was first set in J. W. Dadmun’s tunebook The Melodeon in 1860, to a tune by Dadmun. These words, being in common metre, could be sung to many hymn tunes, but the tune now universally associated them is by William Batchelder Bradbury, and was published in Bradbury’s Golden Shower of S.S. Melodies in 1862. Bradbury’s song was originally titled “The Land of Beulah.” “Angel Band” became widely known in the 19th century, both in folk traditions and in published form, e.g. William Walker’s Christian Harmony of 1866, and has been recorded by many artists, probably most famously by the Stanley Brothers, Emmylou Harris, and by the Monkees. The Stanley Brothers version is included on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack album (2000).

You will appreciate my attachment to this gospel song when I give you this list of the 15 recordings I have of it on my Apple Music (under the title Angel Band), then a list of the 7 songs there with the title Beulah Land:

Angel Band: Anonymous 4, Carl Story & His Rambling Mountaineers, The Charles River Valley Boys, Dirk Powell / Tim O’Brien / John Hermann, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Emmylou Harris, Jean Redpath & Quicksilver, Joan Baez, Johnny Darrell, Kent Gustafson & Ruth Barenberg, The Monkees, The New Faith Trio, Norumbega Harmony, the Peasall Sisters, the Stanley Brothers

Beulah Land [some with a quite different song from Angel Band, though thematically related]: Bare Knuckles, Bessie Jones & John Davis, Burl Ives, Cherokee Nation Youth Choir, James F. Harrison, Mississippi John Hurt, Southern Journey

The range of singing styles is absolutely enormous, but almost all of them are full of hopeful longing. The Monkees, in particular, have clearly studied their country music and produced a moving, thoroughly reverential performance, not the slightest moment of snark in it. Norumbega Harmony, in contrast, is entirely reverential but verges on brightly celebrating the anticipated victory over death.

Three versions for you to listen to:

Ralph Stanley, from the movie: a thoroughly “country” performance: link here

Emmylou Harris: link here (I would happily listen to Harris singing her grocery shopping lists; I’m sure she would craft them into something remarkable)

Johnny Cash (not on my Apple Music, yet): link here (with Cash’s trademark fierce sadness; shivers down the spine)

The background on this blog. Maybe more than you wanted to know about the archangel Michael, Ganymede, ecstasy both religious and sexual, man-man sex, and Sacred Harp music (oh, so much about Sacred Harp music). But here it is, boiled down considerably, if you can believe that.

— from my 9/30/17 posting “The archangel Michael”:

The wingèd man as sexual predator has many pre-Christian antecedents, notably in the story of Zeus and Ganymede, in which the god, in the form of an eagle, a kind of angel, carries off the boy as his catamite.

— from my 10/1/17 posting “Ecstasy”:

Following up on yesterday’s posting “The archangel Michael” (focusing on the nature of angels and archangels, especially those represented in art as wingèd men), on to angelic music in the Sacred Harp hymnbook: on

angels, wings of love, robes of light, flying away, being carried away, ecstasy. With trumpets.

As before, I’ll start with the Christian context … and move to sexual, in particular gay, interpretations of these works, finding in them homoerotic elements that were surely never intended.  This move is straightforwardly sacrilegious, and therefore offensive to many

… The connection is the ambiguity of the word ecstasy, an ambiguity that is rooted in a significant similarity between religious ecstasy and sexual ecstasy: being transported or carried away, in mind and body, by an experience.

Natick 497: wings of love. … [an] ecstatic hymn to the power of Jesus to cleanse sinners …, with the chorus:

Sweet Redeemer from above, / Born on wings, on wings of love.

The image is of being carried away on the wings of Jesus’s love, as on the wings of an angel or a powerful bird.

Arnold 285t: eagle wings of love. … The relevant lines:

And on the eagle wings of love / To joy celestial rise

Carried away on those eagle wings to heaven and eternal life, free from our bodies and the pain of this world.

The Morning Trumpet 85: flying to Jesus on wings of love (with trumpets). … The relevant passage:

5 Through grace I feel determined
To conquer, though I die,
And shall hear the trumpet sound in the morning.

And then away to Jesus
On wings of love I’ll fly:
And shall hear the trumpet sound in the morning.

This time the speaker flies, rather than is carried, on wings of love — away to Jesus (as in the well-known spiritual “I’ll Fly Away”), to hear the trumpet sounds of the Last Judgment.

Chambers 120: arrayed in robes of light. Like the (arch)angels, God is bathed in light … The text:

The Lord Jehovah reigns,
And royal state maintain:
His head with awful glories crowned.

Arrayed in robes of light,
Begirt with sov’reign might,
And rays of majesty around.

… I am much moved by both Natick and Chambers. When I lead these songs, I tend to slip into an altered state, of passionate derangement, some might say ecstasy.

Ecstasy 106: fly away and be at rest. This one has it both ways: the speaker is carried away and flies away… the relevant text:

3 Gird on the gospel armor
Of faith and hope and love,
And when the combat’s ended,
He’ll carry you above.

O had I wings, I would fly away and be at rest,
And I’d praise God in his bright abode.

The crucial point is that the speaker transcends his earthly being.

The noun ecstasy and ecstasy as a state of consciousness. [NOAD2 senses: 1 an overwhelming feeling of great happiness or joyful excitement. 2 an emotional or religious frenzy or trancelike state, originally one involving an experience of mystic self-transcendence. … NOAD2 lacks the metaphorical extension of the noun from the religious to the sexual domain.]

… This is the point where I veer into sexual ecstasy in mansex — a topic not for kids or the sexually modest.

From my 8/23/13 posting “Given over to desire”

In writing about facial expressions during gay sex (especially, during man-on-man intercourse), I’ve remarked on an ecstatic expression often shown by one partner (usually, the bottom) or both of them. From a posting on “Captioned croppings”, [an] example of mutual ecstasy (mouths open, eyes narrowed or fully shut) … Ihe expressions are an outward manifestation of an inner state of mind (and body), an intense giving over of one’s self to, or losing one’s conscious self in, the sexual experience — an ecstasy or rapture

Most people find it easy to appreciate the ecstatic experience of the insertive partner in mansex, since it involves giving over his body and consciousness to the experience of orgasm. But the ecstatic experience of the receptive partner might seem inexplicable to many — yet I have described a number of times on this blog men I characterized as ubercocksuckers (given over to the rapture of sucking cock) and uberbottoms (given over to the rapture of getting fucked). In both cases, experiencing pleasure beyond pleasure.

Like religious ecstasy, these experiences of sexual ecstasy are both subjective and overwhelming, and don’t lend themselves to explanation. I can explain to another man the physical and emotional satisfactions of sucking cock and getting fucked — both are routine pleasures for a great may gay men — without expecting  that he would share in these satisfactions (he’s been trained to find the acts threatening, demeaning, and distasteful, after all). But I can’t explain what it’s like to be transported out of yourself in a sexual act.

— from my 2/23/18 posting “Death’s end”:

Mick Stevens in the February 26th New Yorker: [two Grim Reapers view the body of a third; one says, “You never think it’s going to happen to you”] I was immediately reminded of the 5th verse of the Isaac Watts 1707 hymn text “Lo! what a glorious sight appears”:

His own soft hand shall wipe the tears
From every weeping eye,
And pains and groans and griefs and fears,
And death itself shall die.

That is, through the sacrifice of his death and the miracle of his resurrection, Jesus Christ redeems the world and affords life eternal; death in this world leads to the splendor of life in the hereafter.


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