Sister Gertrude Morgan
Even in New Orleans, a city known for its tolerance for the exotic and eccentric, Sister Gertrude was impossible to ignore.
For more than twenty years she roamed the French Quarter, dressed in a nurse's uniform -- her mission was to heal the sinners; the Word of God was her medicine. Planted at some street corner, she shouted or sang the Gospel through her megaphone and kept time with a tambourine -- or, more accurately, battered Time itself with rhythms that intensified as the spirit took her.
She sang the old praise songs but more often she extemporized sermons around themes that she would chant again and again -- "I Got the New World in My View," "I Am the Living Bread," "God's Word Will Never Pass Away" -- as her tambourine rattled and snapped. She admonished everyone within earshot to surrender, right then and there, to the Lord. Some did. And nobody, not even those in a more leisurely pursuit of salvation, forgot her.
It's been a quarter-century since Sister Gertrude Morgan breathed her last. Yet farfrom the city she'd left behind, her name is being spoken again, and in the most unlikely circles.
In 2004 her paintings -- technically primitive, with bold colors and totemic figures -- drew crowds into New York's American Folk Art Museum. Cultural arbiters have scribbled their praise. Describing her pictures as "painted epiphanies" and "hugely endearing," Michael Kimmelman in The New York Times advised readers that "you don't have to be religious to appreciate the inborn eloquence ... You only have to accept that painting, when it comes from the heart and is so clearly genuine, can lift the soul." N. F. Karlins, writing for Artnet magazine, more succinctly called it all "terrific."
But as its wonders spread to bookstores and coffee tables in William A. Fagaly's hardcover folio book Tools of Her Ministry: The Art of Sister Gertrude Morgan, and as the works themselves ship from New York later this year to the New Orleans Museum of Art and to Chicago's Intuit Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in 2005, ropeadope reminds those who once heard her summons to repent, and those who came too late to hear her at all, that there was power in her voice as well as in her paintbrush.
Her only recording, Let's Make a Record, reveals Sister Gertrude Morgan in all her power. Recorded in a bare bones setting, with only her tambourine and the Holy Spirit at hand, these fourteen tracks -- not quite songs, not quite sermons -- stir the soul more deeply than most musicians could manage when playing together. But there's a story behind these performances, one that traces back to Sister Gertrude's remarkable life and to the ties that would bind her to a pivotal figure in the history of Preservation Hall.
She was born Gertrude Williams in 1900 and raised in Lafayette, Louisiana, about 130 miles west of New Orleans. The seventh child of a poor farmer, Gertrude left school in third grade to work the fields with her family. Her ties to the Baptist Church endured, however, through her youth and after her marriage in to Will Morgan in 1928. And her fascination with art, which began when she used to draw figures in the dirt outside her home as a child, never diminished.
The Morgans settled in Georgia, where in 1937 she experienced an epiphany that instantly transformed that relationship and forever altered what she saw as her purpose in this world. While sitting one day in her kitchen alone she heard a voice from an invisible source summon her to "go and preach -- tell it to the world!" With that she committed herself to doing the Lord's will with the best available tools: her painting and her singing.
In 1939, feeling perhaps that she could make her greatest impact in the city that most desperately needed divine intervention, Gertrude moved to New Orleans. Beginning on the streets as a preacher, she eventually was able to open an orphanage, which she ran until 1965, when Hurricane Betsy blew it to the skies. Undaunted, she and two partners, Mother Margaret Parker and Sister Cora Williams, opened a new center, the Everlasting Gospel Mission, at her home on Dorgenois Street, a dirt road in the Ninth Ward; worshipers passed through a yard filled with four-leaf clovers to reach the front door. There Gertrude continued to preach and to supervise charitable activities that included childcare and food distribution to the poor.
As Sister Gertrude's zeal grew, her earthly binds dissolved. Somehow -- it's not clear how -- her husband eased out of the picture, which was perhaps just as well, given Gertrude's conviction that in 1957 God had called her to become the bride of Christ. With that she abandoned the black dresses with white collars that had been wearing and switched to wearing a nurse's uniform, white and pure, filled her house with white furniture, and began painting even more prolifically.
Her depictions of Biblical scenes mixed elemental images, lines of Scripture, and contemporary metaphors: The sky above an urban scene might be filled with passages from Revelation, hovering angels, and an airplane piloted by Jesus en route to Heaven. Inevitably they caught the attention of Larry Borenstein, a local art dealer, who started exhibiting her pictures at his gallery on St. Peter Street – the same facility that he would soon turn over to Allan and Sandra Jaffe, under whose management it became Preservation Hall in 1961.
Borenstein and his family, along with the Jaffes, involved themselves in Gertrude's life, bringing groceries as well as art supplies to her Mission. Where formerly she had painted on practically any object she could get her hands on -- pieces of wood, lampshades, Styrofoam trays -- she now had quality materials on which to bring her visions to life. At the same time, recognizing her charismatic gifts as a performer, Borenstein invited her sing and preach to her own accompaniment on guitar, piano, and tambourine in his gallery.
In April 1970 Borenstein recruited British sound engineer Ivan Sharrock to capture Gertrude's perorations on tape. Sharrock, who was in town to work with producer Philip Johnson on Till the Butcher Cut Him Down, a documentary about trumpeter Punch Miller, brought his gear to her "Worship Room" for the session. Some confusion lingers as to where this was; it was
identified as "511 Royal Street" on the LP cover, but Sacha Borenstein Clay, Larry's daughter, noting that this was her father's office at the time, suggests it more likely took place at Gertrude's house.
In any event, what they recorded was of an epic scale: Gertrude's singing, laced with excerpts from the New Testament and framed by exhortations to come to God, was like a counterpunch to Hurricane Betsy -- in fact, it's easier to imagine her orphanage standing through the gale than the Devil making it through her excoriations unscathed. These performances, remastered by Benjamin Jaffe, son of Allan Jaffe and current head of Preservation Hall, enjoy their second coming on Let's Make a Record.
"The album is very typical of how Sister Gertrude sang," Jaffe says. "As they got ready to roll the tape, she said to Larry, 'Let's make a record for our Lord' -- and on the spot, she made up a song based on that idea. She could take a verse from the Bible and turn it into a song. That's really what this record is: a series of sermons, with her preaching and improvising."
The album, along with exhibitions of her work during the seventies at the Museum of American Folk Art and at Washington's Corcoran Gallery, stirred interest in Sister Gertrude beyond the borders of New Orleans -- but by that time she was already scaling back her activities in favor of a more subdued service to the Lord.
Around 1974 she announced to Borenstein that God had ordered her to stop painting -- a command possibly coincident with her failing vision. From that point Gertrude focused on writing praise in the form of poetry.
At the age of eighty she passed away in her sleep. Following a traditional New Orleans parade and funeral, she was laid to rest beneath an unmarked grave in a pauper's cemetery near the airport, which may have made it easier for Gertrude to catch that flight she foresaw toward a better world.