Mark Burford

Mark Burford is Assistant Professor of Music at Reed College. His work on European art music and popular music of the Americas has been published in various journals and edited collections. His current research focuses on the circulation and reception of black gospel singing within U.S. popular culture during the 1950s and early 1960s.



"Swing Low: The Rise and Fall of the Sweet Chariot"

In June 1963, Mahalia Jackson, “Queen of the Gospel Singers,” threw down the gauntlet in what some observers dubbed a “Holy War.” Dedicated efforts by the music industries to market black gospel singing in popularized form reached a climax in April with the opening of the Sweet Chariot nightclub at 225 West 46th Street in New York’s Times Square. The club’s celebrity-studded audiences and crowd-pleasing kitsch—restrooms labeled “Brothers” and “Sisters” and waitresses dressed like winged angels serving cocktails on tambourines—could not, however, distract from the intense nationwide debate sparked by its rollout. “Pop gospel” at the Sweet Chariot, industry trendsetters boldly predicted, was the next big thing, heir apparent to the formerly raging Twist scene at the Peppermint Lounge.

But to some African American church constituencies, the club and its affiliated LP releases were nothing short of blasphemous opportunism, crass prostitution of black cultural heritage, and, as Jackson charged, an affront to “the voice and sentiments of the American people.” Following rebukes by Jackson, black gospel promoters, and picketing clergymen, the Sweet Chariot closed its doors in October 1963. Yet just beneath the surface of pop gospel’s apparent flash-in-the-pan gimmickry lie inter- and intra-community concerns of long vintage and lasting implications. The story of the Sweet Chariot still resonates, not only in such present-day forms of popular culture as the gospel brunch and Harlem church tours but also in ongoing scholarly conversations about the intersecting politics of race, belief, citizenship, performance, cultural commodification, and individual socioeconomic desires.

My Speakers Sessions

Saturday, March 24

11:15am EDT