Nothing Music: the Hammond B3 and the Centrifugitivity of Blackpentecostal Sound



[this paper was originally presented at the EMP Pop Conference 2014]

Winds of 53mph crashed against the lakeshore of Chicago for five days by October 29, 1929. It was fateful and fatal, indeed, but not simply for Chicago residents. Wall Street also felt its own tumult October 29, 1929, the day marking Black Tuesday, the beginning of the Great Depression. Violent wind was blowing over and economically destabilizing the country and Chicago was hit hard. Imagine, then, the resolve necessary to organize a choir during that fateful period in the face of such economic and ecological tumult. The First Church of Deliverance’s choir, which would go on to international fame, held its first meeting that very day. Five years later, at 6:00am in 1934, First Church of Deliverance aired their first radio broadcast, becoming the second radio broadcast of a “colored” congregation in Chicago. And a few miles up the road in Evanston, Laurens Hammond was busily putting together the plans for a cheap organ that churches and novices could purchase. He and his lawyers walked the patent to the office themselves, him promising that – during the economically disastrous period – he was ready to put hundreds of people to work, manufacturing the instrument that would come to bear his name. The patent was approved that very day and they went to work.

In 1939, music director for the church Kenneth Morris conferred with Father Clarence Cobb in order to purchase one of those very new Hammond organs. “No church had had a Hammond organ prior to this, and people came from everywhere to hear First Church’s revolutionary new instrument.”[1] Because of the radio broadcast that already garnered popular appeal by 1939, with the sounds of the Hammond organ, people came from far and wide to see what they experienced sonically: just what was this instrument with its, at times, “human-like” voice?[2] “Cobb was able to attract to his congregation people from the ranks of the city's black middle and even elite classes because of his flashy personal style and promises of prosperity, but it was the emotionally demonstrative worship of his live radio broadcasts that made him a ‘mass hero’ among Chicago's poor and working class.”[3]But lest we think that it was only the sound of the Hammond and the demonstrative mode of worship that attracted visitors, “Former members of the First Church of Deliverance on Wabash Avenue remembered it as a major stop on the gay nightlife circuit in the 1930s and 1940s. The church welcomed gay people and Reverend Clarence Cobbs, along with many of his staff, was rumored to be gay” and “After attending the live broadcast at the church, which ran from 11:00 P.M. to midnight, club goers would simply walk from First Church of Deliverance to one of the area nightspots, usually the Kitty Kat Club, the Parkside, or the 430.”[4] Eventually, the convergence of sound, subjectivity and sexuality as a force of Blackpentecostalism would become a contentious, contestable debate. But even as late as 1971, Anthony Heilbut wrote about how it was generally noted and accepted that, “most immediately striking about many of the larger Holiness churches is the inordinate number of male and female homosexuals. As one singer bluntly put it, ‘There’s more sissies and bull daggers in the Sanctified churches, and they all think they’re the only ones going to Heaven.’” and Heilbut otherwise noted that “the Holiness church maintains a discrete and at times impenetrable mystique. It may be the blackest of institutions…”[5] The proliferation of the sound of the B-3 in Blackpentecostal spaces emerged from a queer sociality, from underground and otherworldly friendships and erotic relationships. Were musicians visiting the church before going to the Kitty Kat down the street, then telling their pastors about this object and the way it moved congregants?

Organ and Organization

In my first manuscript, almost completed, titled Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility, I consider categorical distinctions and how these distinctions are the grounds for racism, sexism, homo and transphobia, classism and the like. I do this by considering the categories of theology and philosophy to ask: what counts, and who decides what counts, as a theological and/or philosophical thought? I look at Blackpentecostalism, the aesthetic practices of, for example, speaking in tongues and whooping during preached moments, to urge against these categorical distinctions. The theologian and philosopher grounds their identity in the capacity to produce categorically distinct modes of thought as theological, as philosophical. And what then obtains as theological thought, as philosophical thought, is decided by the would be theologian, the would be philosopher. This seems patently normative and problematic. Blackpentecostal aesthetics, I argue, are against such distinctions grounded in the identity of the one making such a claim for thought.This paper is the beginning of a second project that will be about the place of the Hammond B-3 organ in black religiosities, in black social life, and is built upon the first. I consider the question: what does it mean to be black, to exist in blackness, when the categorical distinction as an imperative modality of thought itself has been interrogated? To do this, I investigate the Hammond B-3 organ and its ubiquity in modern charismatic, evangelical Christian tradition. It is used in storefront churches in impoverished inner cities and in new, modern megachurches. The Hammond B-3 can be found in churches across the United States, in various countries in Africa, in England. It is a sound that has, in other words, spread. My goal is to think about why this has happened.The Hammond B-3 organ has been taken up in Blackpentecostal spaces as the instrument, as the sound, of the movement. The Hammond B-3 organ’s sound is an instance of BlackQueer sonic presencing and enacts the politics of avoidance when the musician and instrument come together, sounding out in the space of congregations. The Hammond instrument is known as a “tonewheel organ” and tone wheels are “a system of spinning, steel, silver-dollar-sized” discs with “notched edges,” resulting in “output [that] is more alive [and] organic…than what electronic organs can produce.”[6] Though the Hammond instruments have sound presets that change the timbre and quality of the organ sound, there are also drawbars that allow musicians to instantly change and control sound quality. Drawbar settings affect the loudness, the tones, the percussiveness of the instrument. “By pulling or pushing their drawbars, you could instantly sculpt your sound. If you want more high harmonics, just tug on the upper drawbars. To deemphasize the fundamental, shove in the white drawbars” (35). But the manufacturer warned against pulling out all the drawbars as a setting musicians should never use. However, in much Blackpentecostal performance with the B-3, particularly during moments of intense emotionality in church services, musicians often use that very setting, pulling out all the stops, so to speak, in order to be as voluminous as possible.

Though Laurens Hammond had specific desires for the decorous use of the instrument, Blackpentecostal aesthetics not only obscured but popularized the unwanted. Drawbars “offer real-time control of the sound” and that real-time is generative for reconceptualizing temporality and spatiality.To amplify the B-3 model, an external speaker cabinet has to be utilized. Though the Hammond Organ Company manufactured their own model, it was Don Leslie and the Leslie Company that had the best “fit” for the sound the Hammond attempted to produce. “The most popular Leslie speaker cabinet contains a high-frequency horn driver and a bass woofer, both of which are combined with rotating components. […] The rotary components can rotate at high and low speeds, which adjustable ramp-up and –down times” (12). At the level of the machine itself, there is a necessarily sociality: for the machine to be heard, it necessitates some outside object to make the chord changes and progressions audible.Most fundamentally, the Hammond instrument differs from pipe organs because “the pipes themselves are spread out across a fairly wide range when constructed” (13). Pipe organs, in other words, are fashioned by the amount of room they require from any given space. For this reason, there are no pipe organs in domestic spaces; one would need cathedral-like space for such an instrument. In contradistinction, the Hammond organ was able to be compact and, in a way, portable (at 400 or so pounds), such that the achievement of the Hammond organ with the attendant Leslie speaker, we might say, is spatiotemporal compression, about which more soon. As a substitute for the pipe organ – because of the drawbars, the Leslie speaker cabinet and the touch-to-response ratio – the Hammond’s “fast attack” made it a poor substitute (14) but this failure, as its quick response to touch, would be its crowning achievement, making it perfect for the intense and quick “movement of the Spirit” in Blackpentecostal spaces.  In the following clip, you will hear the changes in volume, quality of sound and the varied speeds of the Leslie speaker.The sound of the Hammond organ, particularly the B-3 model, would come to be the sound of Blackpentecostalism particularly and how the Black Church as an institution with historical force is imagined.

Described as sounding human, the Hammond organ offers a way to think about the breakdown between human and machines. In a Testimony given at Rev. F.W. McGee’s Blackpentecostal church, January 28, 1930, one brother asks the saints to pray, “that I may be used as an instrument in his hand.” This desire for instrumentality, I argue, structures the Blackpentecostal imagination such that any object can be sacrelized, made holy. People not only beat tambourines and stomp feet, but play washboards with spoons and blow whistles. The Hammond organ is in this tradition, the utilization of any object for sacred possibility. And in such making sacred of objects, the instrument is not the Hammond on the one hand or the musician on the other: the instrument is the sociality of the Spirit Filled musician with the musical object working together. This sociality of instrumentality is a respiratory performance. Listen as it breathes.

The Hammond organ breathes on multiple levels: at the level of the musical object, the Leslie speaker gathers up and displaces the air within space in order for the object to be audible; it literally inhales and exhales air; it is, in other words, a breathing machine. The changes in speed of the Leslie speaker make such mechanical respiration audible; listen closely and you can hear the chop-chop-chop smooth out and speed up again. And on the level of the human and machine breathing together, what is it to be Spirit Filled? It is to be filled with breath, filled with air, filled with wind.Given its prominence in the sound culture of America – heard not only in churches but in Rock and Roll, Rhythm and Blues, Jazz, Funk, Soul – given its ubiquity, given the debates about authenticity and sound musicians have about the instrument, given the language used to describe its sounds, it is not merely odd that there is nothing written about this mechanical device's relation to Black religiosity. The omission seems to be audibly deafening, an aversive modality of thought that is the grounds for theology and philosophy. The aversion to discussing the instrument may perhaps be linked to its queer historicity within Black Christian traditions. The proliferation of the sound of the Hammond B-3 in Blackpentecostal spaces emerged from a queer sociality, from underground and otherworldly friendships and erotic relationships. Rumors and gossip about the queerness of musicians of these particular instruments within the space of the church abounds. There is, within this religiocultural space, a thinking together of the concepts of sound and sexuality.

Nothing Music

SoMusician and critic Salim Washington offers that one way to think about sound in the Blackpentecostal tradition is as a technology: “Music in the Holiness churches can be used simply as a transformation of the mood and/or mind-set of the participants, but in the case of the ‘shout,’ music is used as a technology, through which a direct cause and effect takes place.”[7] Technologies can be used as outlined in user manuals or can be used otherwise to create new moods, new meanings, with the same apparatus. The sound of the B-3 is ever present, and with the musician, complicates the generally accepted notion that Pentecostals are simply loud. The virtuosity of the musician allows us to overhear the ways the space is dynamic, that there are moments of quietude and others of cacophony, but always intense. The seeming omnipresence of the sound of the B-3 during church services, then, draws attention to what Avery Gordon calls the “seething presence” of all matters ghostly, the force of “the seemingly not there” that is perceptible, that is felt, that animates and is the foundation for movement, for behavior, for life and love.[8] The seemingly there and not there, faith as the substance of hope and as the evidence of things not seen – so the biblical book of Hebrews says – is on the edge. We wait and anticipate that something will happen, some mode of relationality enacted, some music played. I listen, I incline my ear towards the sounding and sounding out – from the first note to the last chord – of the B-3, “setting the atmosphere” for a particular kind of knowing, a certain modality for experiencing the world.Victor Zuckerkandl is correct, I think, when he says, “We are always between the tones, on the way from tone to tone; our hearing does not remain with the tone, it reaches through it and beyond it” (137). Attention to Blackpentecostal uses of the B-3 moves us further still by stopping short of Zuckerkandl: what if tones weren't reaching for resolution or completion but were perpetually, ongoingly, open? Whereas Zuckerkandl believes that notes resolve to completion, I argue that Blackpentecostal engagements with the Hammond B-3 make evident what I call the centrifugitivity of black social life.

What we have, in other words, are tones that are not simply moving toward resolution but are on the way to varied directionality – not simply in a linear, forward progression but also vertically, down and up, askance and askew. What if, as open to openness, the sounds of the B-3 prompt in its hearers an intellectual practice of a reaching toward the beyond? Would not this reaching, this movement toward without ever seizing the beyond, instantiate ongoing anticipatory posture, an affective mode of celebratory waiting?What is inherent to the sound of the mechanical object – throwing around its organic quality, converging with and putting to question the relation between the human and the machine – is the conception of Being as irreducibly, anoriginally anticipatory. As a concern about being, about existence, the B-3’s sonic thrownness – through the centripetal and centrifugal spins of tone wheels and drum speakers – whether reaching toward the high ceilings and spacious layout of formerly Jewish synagogues in neighborhoods like Newark, Detroit and Brooklyn or in the tight quarters and suffocating walls of storefront churches like those in which Helga Crane in Quicksand hearing congregants sing “Showers of Blessings” or John, Elizabeth and Gabriel in Go Tell It on the Mountain find themselves, allow us to reconsider the concept of origin. In James Weldon Johnson's The Books of Negro Spirituals, Johnson outlines the ways in which the authorship of Spirituals was constantly queried: just who came up with such musical genius; who authored such songs?[9] Implicit in such a question about authorship is the concern about ownership that is grounded in the textual, in a worldview wherein reading is coeval to literacy, and textual-grammatical literacy is the privileged mode of thought and communication. This question of authorship, in other words, emerged in the same world that touted reading as the privileged practice toward freedom. Thus, when Spirituals could be transcribed and written are the moments when concerns of authorship emerged as a concern with urgent force. But what at times is called “soft chording,” “padding,” “talk music” or – most intriguingly for me here – “nothing music” dislodges notions of authorship and genius as individuating and productive of enlightened, bourgeois, liberal subjectivity from the capacity to create, to carry, to converge, to conceal. The music in this clip will demonstrate “nothing” to which I attend. 

Nothing music is the connective tissue, the backgrounded sound, of Blackpentecostal church services heard before and after songs, while people are giving weekly announcements, before the preacher “tunes up” and after the service ends. Ask a musician, “what are you playing,” and – with a coy, shy smile – they’ll say, “nothing.” These are examples of what Samuel Delany says about the word: “The word generates no significant information until it is put in formal relation with something else.”[10] Delany argues that with the introduction of each new word in a sentence, it acts as a modifier of everything that came before; such that meaning is emergent, meaning is of and toward the horizon. Meaning is made through relationality such that what Delany says about words in a sentence is consistent with what Zuckerkandl contends about tones in a sonic statement: to make meaning is to be in-between, in the interstice. But more, meaning is made through the inclined ear, through the anticipation of the more to come that has not yet arrived; this more to come is ever in relation to that which is now and that which has passed “into the ago” (perhapsHeidegger would say). And we hear this in the musician’s virtuosity: he upholds, he carries, he anticipates, through the performance of “nothing” – it is not a song, it is not a melody; we might call it improvisation, though that implies a structure upon which he is building; it’s not like rhythm changes – the difference between “I Got Rhythm” and “Flintstones…meet the Flintstones”: perhaps we can call it playing. I think the difference – musically – between playing “nothing” and improvisation, jamming or noodling is that perhaps with the playing of “nothing music,” there is a certain lack of attention, a sort of insouciance with which one plays, a holy nonchalance: being both fully engaged in the moment while concentration is otherwise than the music, a nonchalance that is part of, while setting, the mood of the service. Playing as a performance of conviction that is not reduced to the serious, decorous or pursuit of perfection. Playing is to anticipate change.

In this playing of “nothing,” it is not that nothing is played, that nothing is heard, it is that what appears is the sound of the gift of unconcealment. Heidegger’s understanding of Being and Time, perhaps through the theorizing of a gift, is animated by a Blackpentecostal anticipation of a sonic sociality. Anticipation is a sort of Heideggerian gifting that always retains – in its enactment – its force of foresight, foreboding. Heidegger says, “the gift of unconcealing…is retained in the giving.”[11] Musicians unconceal – and uncompress – the play and the playing of nothing but retain, in the very playing out, the nothing from which the sounding out emanates. And when the drawbars are fully extended, perhaps we have a moment of “uncompression,” of de-compression. What one hears, what one anticipates, with each new chord and arpeggio is the movement toward the next chord and arpeggio, one hears the meaning of “I ain’t got long to stay here,” what it means, in other words, to “steal away.” This is centrifugitive performance, criminal displacement of the concepts of genius and scholar because what these musicians play – and what we hear – they, and we, do not know though we certainly feel it, feel it pulling and tugging on us, at us, feel it attempting to move us toward some other mode of relationality.

Toni Morrison has written about playing in the dark, how there is an Africanist presence in American literature;[12] and Judith Butler began her discussion of gender performativity in Gender Trouble by bespeaking how kids play and in such playing get in trouble:[13] So what is the relationship of play to presence, of play to performativity, that the organist, that the organ itself, furnishes forward for our consideration? To uphold, to carry, and to anticipate and move. These musicians organize sound in space in such a way as to produce three-dimensionality. Aden Evens would, I think, agree:

[E]very sound interacts with all the vibrations already present in the surrounding space; the sound, the total timbre of an instrument is never just that instrument, but that instrument in concert with all the other vibrations in the room, other instruments, the creaking of chairs, even the constant, barely perceptible motion of the air.[14]

They are playing the air, gettin down with the handclaps, gettin into trouble with the talking preacher, they gather the varied vibrations and channel them out through the sound of the B-3. But the thing they play, the thing with which they move congregants, is nothing at all. The musicians construct a narrative about and from nothing, through the available air compression and changes in the environment. No tone is excess, no harmony too egregious; each allows for discovery. If the presence that figures itself as “nothing” has the ability to move, to undergird, what does this mean about the ontological status of the claim for being, for coming from, nothing? Perhaps lacking spatial and temporal coherence is a gift. It is to anticipate that there is, even in nothing, a multitude, a plentitude, a social world of exploration.“[T]o hear a pitch that does not change is to hear as constant something that is nothing but change, up-and-down motion. To hear is to hear difference.”[15] If what one hears is difference itself, then what one anticipates is the means through which difference shows itself, the routes through which difference announces itself, not as a moment for denigration but as a showing, as an appearance, worthy of celebration, praise. And this difference that is felt, that is heard, through anticipation, calls forth a sociality. Thus, the sound of the B-3 participates in a relationship with the other sounds in the space, that the musician enacts – along with the architectonics, the noise and murmuring, the conversations and glossolalia, the foot stomps and vocable expirations – and this participation is the horizon-al emergence for, and the grounds of, queer relationality, Foucault’s friendship as a way of life, an inventional A thru Z mode of coming together in new, uncapturable, anti-institutional configurations with each sounded out chord.[16] What is desired from the playing of chords, I think, is to have the congregants scream in ecstasy, to yelp in pleasure, because of the anticipated but unexpected, anticipation as surprise and astonishment. What the sound of the B-3 us hear, then, is that Blackpentecostal aesthetics, black pneuma, the politics of avoidance, are all illustrative of the anoriginal density, un-compressed compression, that is fundamental to any creative practice, any form of life.


In her book Saints in Exile: The Holiness-Pentecostal Experience in African American Religion and Culture, Cheryl Sanders theorizes that the “saints” can be understood by way of the motif of an exilic community, those forever searching for home after having been pushed out, those who – by way of force – have been separated from the thing with which they desire most: grounding. The utility of exile as a motif for considering the relationship of Holiness-Pentecostal religious life to mainline African American religious organizations such as the National Baptist Convention and the African Methodist Episcopal church is understandable: during the “birth” of the modern Pentecostal movement at the turn of the twentieth century, individuals were banished from families for joining the “holy rollers,” shunned by friends and lampooned in the media for glossolalia, those strange utterances that are not given to coherent rational thought.

And in nineteenth century New Orleans, there were the ciprieré communities – maroons of Africans and American Indigenes who escaped conditions of enslavement, existing in the cypress swamps. The ciprieré communities were secreted from local plantations, maintaining a relationship to those spaces from which they escaped, but established new patterns of behavior and aesthetic interventions for protection and peace. I consider Blackpentecostalism not to be exilic but marooned like so many secreted folks in swamplands. Timothy James Lockley argues about maroon communes that “The Spanish first had to find the maroon communities, and since[they] were usually secreted away in remote and inaccessible areas this was not easy.  The Native Americans present among the maroons provided vital local knowledge as to the best locations for settlements that were both defensible and had ready supplies of fresh water.”[17] Maroons, in other words, secreted into the external world against the plantation world; they secreted out of the internal world and logics of racial capital. This movement of and towards the swamp was a release and letting out into, interrogating notions of directionality. The ciprieré communities secreted from local plantations, maintaining a relationship to those spaces from which they escaped, but established new patterns of behavior and aesthetic interventions for protection and peace. Setting traps, navigating the waters, having sex, singing, raising children, eating – all these were aesthetic practices that were likewise practices of preparation. Maroons needed be ready at a moment’s notice for encounter, not with the divine, but with the world of the normative otherwise that would bear down on them and produce violence against them. Each practice, therefore, was a preparation for the possibility of the threat of violation; each practice, thus, highlights the ways in which interventions always have an aesthetic quality and theoretical underpinning.Centripetal and centrifugal movements at one and the same time, the secretion of aesthetic modes of existence as preparation for battle is centrifugitivity.

The sound of the Hammond B-3 is centrifugal, dispersing its force throughout the congregation within its particular space in time. But the sound is centripetal, gathering up the resources of the congregation, gathering them together in moments of praise and quietude. This obliteration of the distinction of push and pull, of fugal and petal is, however, always towards and away from centeredness. This dissolution of the distinction, of the categorical distinction, is the centrifugitivity of blackness, of black sound. The sound of the Hammond B-3 both pushes while it likewise pulls, ebbs while it flows. A rejection of linearity, a movement in varied directions coterminously, the music of the Hammond B-3, enacted by Blackpentecostal musicianship, is inventional, it manifests the ongoing openness that seeks to create other modes of relationality.


[1] W. K. McNeil, Encyclopedia of American Gospel Music (New York: Routledge,, 2005), 264.


[3] Wallace D. (Wallace Denino) Best, Passionately Human, No Less Divine: Religion and Culture in Black Chicago, 1915-1952 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,, n.d.), 115.

[4] Ibid., 188.

[5] Anthony Heilbut, The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times - 25th Anniversary Edition, Anniversary (Limelight Editions, 1997), 183, 173.

[6] Mark Vail, The Hammond Organ: Beauty in the B, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Backbeat Books ;, 2002), 10.

[7] Salim Washinton, “The Avenging Angel of Creation/Destruction: Black Music and the Afro-Technological in the Science Fiction of Henry Dumas and Samuel R. Delany,” Journal of the Society for American Music 2, no. 02 (2008): 239.

[8] Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,, 1997), 195.

[9] James Weldon Johnson et al., The Books of American Negro Spirituals [printed Music]: Including The Book of American Negro Spirituals and The Second Book of Negro Spirituals (New York: Da Capo Press,, 1969).

[10] Samuel R. Delany, “About 5,750 Words,” in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction, Rev. ed. (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press,, 2009), 2.

[11] Martin Heidegger, On Time and Being. (New York, Harper & Row [1972], n.d.), 6, 7.

[12] Toni. Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, William E. Massey, Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization ; 1990. (Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1992., n.d.).

[13] Judith. Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York : Routledge, c1999., n.d.).

[14] Aden. Evens, Sound Ideas: Music, Machines, and Experience, Theory out of Bounds ; v. 27. (Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, c2005., n.d.), 6.

[15] Ibid., 1.

[16] Michel Foucault, Robert Hurley, and Paul Rabinow, “Friendship as a Way of Life,” in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth (New York: New Press,, 1997).

[17] Timothy James Lockley, Maroon Communities in South Carolina: A Documentary Record (Columbia, S.C. : University of South Carolina Press, c2009., n.d.), iii.