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Preacher-Artist Gertrude Morgan, Remixed
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Preacher-Artist Gertrude Morgan, Remixed

Performing Arts

Preacher-Artist Gertrude Morgan, Remixed
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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Here's a story about a woman who's been somewhat overlooked in all the recent coverage of New Orleans music and culture. Sister Gertrude Morgan set out to be a preacher, but it was her paintings that made her a star in the world of visionary or outsider art. Sister Gertrude was also a singer, and when she died in 1980, she left behind only one recording. A new CD is bringing her music to a wider audience. From member station WHYY, Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE reporting:

Sister Gertrude Morgan was preaching on the streets of the French Quarter one day in the early 1960s when she met an art dealer who was taken by the hand-painted signs she used in the ministry. He started selling her paintings in his gallery, then he took her to Preservation Hall to record an album.

(Soundbite of song "Let Us Make a Record")

Sister GERTRUDE MORGAN: (Singing) Oh, let us make a record for my Lord. Let us make a record for my Lord. Come on, let's make a record for my Lord. Let's make a record for my Lord.

ROSE: The current director of Preservation Hall is Ben Jaffe.

Mr. BEN JAFFE (Director, Preservation Hall): I estimate that they probably printed about 500 copies of the record, just to distribute maybe amongst friends. There wasn't a real market for a cappella voice and tambourine.

ROSE: The LP quietly went out of print. It was eclipsed by Morgan's career as a painter. Brooke Davis Anderson is a curator at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City.

Ms. BROOKE DAVIS ANDERSON (Curator, Museum of American Folk Art): She didn't set out to be an artist or a musician for that matter. She set out to be a missionary and a preacher. And the music and the paintings really were only tools for her ministry.

ROSE: Anderson says Morgan painted scenes from the Bible and from her own life. Morgan was born in Alabama in 1900. She was 39 years old, says Anderson, when she received the call to carry God's message to what Morgan called `the headquarters of sin.' She set up shop in New Orleans and never left. Morgan dressed in white and called herself `the bride of Christ.' Anderson says Morgan started painting when she was in her 50s. She had no formal training.

Ms. ANDERSON: She had no regard for perspective or depth or dimension, so it wasn't important to her to create a convincing landscape. Her work and her forms are very flat on her surface. But there's nothing flat and one-dimensional about her paintings because of her palette: hot oranges and spicy yellows and really sexy reds. And this combination of these intense colorations caused the whole surface to pulsate and come alive.

ROSE: Gertrude Morgan painted into her 70s, and museums and collectors around the world bought her work. Last year the American Folk Art Museum organized a traveling exhibition. That prompted Preservation Hall to re-release Sister Gertrude Morgan's album.

(Soundbite of song "If You Live Like Jesus Told You")

Sister MORGAN: (Singing) If you live like Jesus told you, everything will--will be all right. If you live like Jesus told you, everything will be all right.

ROSE: The album caught the ear of a New York producer who, in turn, gave it to Philadelphia deejay and producer King Britt.

Mr. KING BRITT (Co-producer): You feel her soul, basically. It's coming from somewhere else. It's just very kind of haunting and intense, the recording.

ROSE: Britt started tinkering with it, adding instruments to the bare-bones recording of Sister Gertrude Morgan's voice and tambourine.

(Soundbite of song "If You Live Like Jesus Told You")

Sister MORGAN: (Singing) If you live like Jesus told you, everything will be all right. It'll be all right. It'll be all right. Everything will be all right. He will make sure you're quite easy and your burden will be light.

ROSE: Britt and his producing partner, Tim Motzer, spent months trying different drums, keyboards and guitars.

Mr. TOM MOTZER (Co-producer): It's kind of like a jamming with her, like she was in the room, like you're in a band. And you're kind of playing off of her and trying to feel what that sound's going to be, what kind of guitar sound, is it going to be nasty and distorted or clean or whatever. And you're trying to find, like, the drum beat, and you wanted to establish the groove with her, basically.

(Soundbite of song)

Sister MORGAN: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible).

ROSE: While they were working on the record last winter in Philadelphia, King Britt flew down to New Orleans. Preservation Hall's Ben Jaffe showed him the sights, including the house in the Lower 9th Ward that served as Sister Gertrude Morgan's Everlasting Gospel Ministry.

Mr. MOTZER: Her entire front lawn was four-leaf clovers, and it ended at her property line. When I brought King to New Orleans and brought him to her house, it was raining outside, and I made him get out of the car to come look at her front lawn. And, lo and behold, it's still four-leaf clovers.

ROSE: The plants, whatever they are, may or may not grow back when floodwaters from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita recede. The yard, the house and much of the 9th Ward were all submerged. King Britt and Tim Motzer says that makes the optimistic message of Morgan's music and painting seem especially important now.

Mr. BRITT: With all the tragedies in the world, not just Katrina but tsunami and what's going on in Iraq and just all over the place, we need some sort of spiritual calling. We need some sort of sign of hope. And her message coming from New Orleans, it's even more powerful, I think.

Mr. MOTZER: When you hear her, it makes you feel like if you're suffering that you're not by yourself, that a lot of people are suffering all over the world, but we'll get through. And she gives you that. She gives you a solace.

(Soundbite of song "Precious Lord Lead Me On")

Sister MORGAN: (Singing) Gracious Lord, take my hand, lead me on and let me stand. I am tired, I am weak, I am ...(unintelligible) through the night, lead me on to the light. Take my hand. Praise the Lord. Lead me on. When the day is growing drear and the night draws near, my life is almost gone, almost gone, then my cry and my call, hold my hand lest I fall. Take my hand. Praise the Lord. Lead me on.

ROSE: Tim Motzer and King Britt are putting together a live band to take Sister Gertrude Morgan's message on tour next month, including a hurricane relief concert in New York City. For NPR News, Joel Rose in Philadelphia.

(Soundbite of song "Precious Lord Lead Me On")

Sister MORGAN: (Singing) Praise him. Through the storm, through the night, lead me on...

NORRIS: You can explore Gertrude Morgan's colorful art and hear her music, originals and remixes, at our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of song "Precious Lord Lead Me On")

Sister MORGAN: (Singing) When the dark disappears and the night draws near and the day is past and gone ...(unintelligible) I stand ...(unintelligible) my hand. Take my hand. Praise the Lord. Lead me on. Let the Lord take my hand, lead me on and let me stand. I'm tired. I'm weak. I'm worn. Hallelujah.

NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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