[Editor’s Note: This post is in response to “Vinyl Prayers,” John Modern’s portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]
In 1935, Samuel Saia, a garbage collector from Buffalo, New York, and a devout Jehovah’s Witness, purchased an electroacoustic loudspeaker and affixed it to the roof of his Studebaker automobile. On a weekly basis, he would drive up and down the streets of upstate New York, using a portable phonograph to broadcast the recorded sermons of “Judge” Joseph Rutherford to all who could hear. Saia’s practice was common among Jehovah’s Witnesses of his time, who took advantage of all sorts of media and auditory technologies to spread the word of God. But it is inadequate to think of their use of “sound cars” as merely instrumental. Instead, Saia and his co-religionists practiced what I have described elsewhere as “sound car religion.” That is, their choice of media was inextricably entangled with their message: sound cars and loudspeakers materialized their imperative to preach the gospel as loudly and widely as they could, their rejection of a popular inclusionary ideology that assumed sectarian differences were best kept to oneself, and their refusal to abide by the liberal norms of civil restraint that often seemed to govern American public spaces.
I thought of Samuel Saia and his sound car religion as I read and listened to John Modern’s extraordinary portal on vinyl prayers. Modern’s wonderfully evocative selections, reflections, and meditations redirect our interpretive energies “from the analysis of objects or sources to the encounter with processes of rather hazy origin.” By attending to “the mediated expanse of sound,” to the ways that modern sound-reproduction technologies, in Jonathan Sterne’s words, turn “sound into something else and that something else back into sound,” Modern offers us remarkably suggestive language for thinking about the phenomenon of prayer. His portal makes evident prayer’s ineluctable materiality, its entanglement with its modes of mediation, its practice as itself a complex form of mediation. These are not prayers recorded on vinyl, we come to understand, but vinyl prayers—skips, snags, and all.
These themes were best exemplified for me by my favorite song in the portal, the Prodigals’ recording of “This is the Way I Pray.” “This is the way I pray,” the prisoner choir sings, not to whom or for what, but how, bringing to the fore matters of form, style, and even volume (“this is the way I shout…this is the way I sing…”). As verse follows verse, the choir’s repeated invocation of how it prays gradually comes to constitute a prayer in itself.
Yet I found the second half of the song’s lyric just as suggestive: This is the way I pray / in my home / in my home. In his curatorial introduction, Modern never actually tells us where to listen to these vinyl prayers, despite his explicit instructions about how to do so, but the Prodigals offer us a clue. Leaving aside the question of what “home” means to a choir of medium security prison inmates, their words implicitly locate vinyl prayer in the realm of the domestic. Indeed, when Modern encourages us to “consider…those who spend their days listening to long playing records,” I immediately pictured someone, probably bearded, hanging out in their living room or study, lounging on a comfortable couch or “surprisingly solid Ikea chair.” Gustavus Stadler’s thoughtful response confirmed my impression, as he specifies that the process of listening he had in mind was precisely this practice of “indoor, solitary listening to recorded music.” If, as Modern suggests, listening to vinyl promises an encounter with otherness, an experience imbued with the possibility of transcendence and transgression, then it seems a possibility most fully realized in the privacy of one’s own home, far removed from the city streets on which Samuel Saia broadcast his recorded sermons. “When I’m alone I pray,” Irma Glen explains in another of the portal’s selections. Have these vinyl recordings returned us so quickly to “the feelings, acts, and experiences, of individual men in their solitude”?
Perhaps not. For when we listen to these records, we also enter into a relationship, of sorts, with those to whom we are listening. Irma Glen, after all, moves seamlessly in her invocations from “when I’m alone” to “when you’re alone” to “when we’re alone.” Which of course means we are not alone at all. Yet even as we expand our imagination beyond the solitary individual at prayer, there remains a presumption here of deep intimacy, between listener and performer, and between listener and material product (the record itself and the processes that have produced it), which we might attribute generally to those who listen to vinyl. In our case, we might also note the surprising intimacy that can develop between listener and compiler, between us and our omnipresent guide who assembled this fantastical “virtual mix-tape” in the first place; that is, a surprising, and perhaps discomfiting, intimacy between us and John Modern.
Indeed, there is something inescapably intimate about a good mix-tape, whether virtual or not. The first mix-tape that I ever made was for a girl who I dated in high school. I carefully selected each song, plotted their order, and meticulously timed it all out, making sure to avoid excessive amounts of blank space on each side of the cassette tape, as if afraid of what overly long silences might signify for the status of our relationship. In those days, when, as Modern puts it, “our listening choices were not [yet] subject to real-time assessment and display,” you could not make a mix-tape without it being a mix-tape for someone. Others might have listened to the tape that I produced, but they would not have been able to understand it properly—they wouldn’t really have been able to hear it, you know?
I think this explains, in part, the awkward, or even indecent, sense of discomfort that I felt as I listened to Modern’s mix-tape while sitting at my desk at work. It was not just that I was concerned about what my colleagues would think of the repeated admonitions to pray emanating from my computer’s speakers, but that I felt inappropriately intrusive or even invasive. It was as if I was not just listening, but listening in on a conversation, on a relationship, of which I was not sure I was a part. Why had Modern selected these songs, in particular? Did they have special significance for him, or for others, that he was not telling us about? For whom else had he played them in the past? Was it possible that he had assembled these recordings with me in mind? Did I really know him well enough for him to make me a mix-tape? (No.)
Domestic, personal, intimate—these were the connotations that kept coming to mind as I followed Modern’s disciplined instructions for listening to vinyl, as I hit play, listened, read, and repeated. And then I thought of Samuel Saia and his sound car religion. I thought of the radically different way that Saia made use of phonograph records, of how he blasted recorded sermons indiscriminately outward to unwilling listeners who did not want to hear, to anonymous audiences who could not choose whether to hit play or stop. This was not the act of trained listening to vinyl that Modern had in mind, yet I would argue that it was a form of vinyl prayer nonetheless. A vinyl prayer that was aggressively public, militant, uncivil, even deliberately alienating to those on whom it hoped to have an effect. Saia and his co-religionists did not just pray in their homes, but also on the streets and in your face. They did not just pray when they were alone, but when they were with others who just wanted to be left the hell alone.
I use this example only to make the simple point that, yes, medium matters, but it is never determinative, at least not in any neat or directly causal sense. We may not be able to transcend the material, nor can we escape our positionality. Modern’s portal is extraordinarily evocative, but it demands greater attention to social context and historical particularity, to what Jonathan Sterne describes as “the social and cultural grounds of sonic experience,” to the conditions that make certain kinds of listening experiences possible in the first place. As I have tried to suggest, even a vinyl record has been used in different ways, has been heard and listened to in different ways, by different communities, in different times and places. From African American families in the 1920s to Jehovah’s Witnesses in the 1940s to hippie communalists in the 1970s to urban hipsters in the 2010s, vinyl prayer has enabled and constrained different kinds of social relationships and exchanges. It has given rise to different kinds of religious experiences, for reasons that have as much to do with history as with technological modes of mediation.
This is the way I pray, then. In my home and on the street. Alone and with others. Face to face and on vinyl. Quietly and out loud. These are the ways I pray, that is. Hallelujah.