Rev. Emmett Dickinson

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Between 1929 and 1931, the Rev. Emmett Dickinson recorded over 20 sermons, primarily for the Paramount label, and though little else is known of his life, these recordings offer a remarkable glance at…
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Between 1929 and 1931, the Rev. Emmett Dickinson recorded over 20 sermons, primarily for the Paramount label, and though little else is known of his life, these recordings offer a remarkable glance at one of the most intriguing and elusive figures of early race recording history. Dickinson's sermons are less significant for their delivery or style than for their subject matter, most notably their surprising, recurring references to the blues. Dickinson addressed this subject directly in his first recording, a sermon entitled "Is There Harm in Singing the Blues." Rejecting the dominant stance of the black church, Dickinson proclaimed: "You don't know the meaning of the blues. The blues is only an outward voice to that inward feeling; the blues is holy," he insisted, offering Biblical and historical justification by tracing the form from the outskirts of Eden, through the New Testament, and into the more recent years of American slavery. The B-side to this first record, recorded in late 1929 in Grafton, WI, resumed the blues theme, if on a more subtle level: labeled a "Sermon on Tight Like That," the record reworked the title of a popular song into a metaphor for hard times. Dickinson returned to the blues throughout his career: in the spring of 1930 he recorded the fascinating "Death of Blind Lemon," which eulogized the recently departed Blind Lemon Jefferson and drew a lengthy parallel between the popular musician and Christ. Later that year, he reported the struggles of his profession under the title, "The Preacher's Blues." Eschewing the legendary dichotomy between the church and the supposed "devil's music," Dickinson articulated a rare theology of the blues, rejecting and refiguring the cultural stereotypes of black music and religion.

Rev. Dickinson was obviously unafraid of going where no other preacher had gone before, particularly on a commercial record. Besides the blues, he candidly addressed other contemporary subjects of Southern black culture, from the numbers game to the "boogilie-woogilie," and euphemistically approached topics rare among other recorded sermons of the period, such as miscegenation and lesbianism. Unfortunately, two of his most intriguing and sexually charged titles -- "Sermon for Men Only" and "What the Men Wanted the Women Was Settin' On" -- remain undiscovered. Although his vocal endorsement of blues culture is unusual, much of Dickinson's work fits firmly within the traditions of other recording preachers, and some of his sermons borrow from contemporaries such as the very popular Rev. J.M. Gates; Gates himself was certainly aware of Dickinson's work, and recorded "These Hard Times are Tight Light That" shortly after Dickinson introduced that expression into the repertoire of religious recording. Another preacher, Rev. A.W. Nix was the first to borrow from Dickinson, recording "It Was Tight like That" within three months of the original "Sermon on Tight Like That," and adopting blues themes into others of his sermons as well.

Unlike the recordings of many contemporary black evangelists, Dickinson's records were all preaching with no musical accompaniment. A small congregation added vocal interjections on most sides, and several of the later recordings featured a woman moaning beneath the sermon. On other tracks, the congregation included a man impersonating a woman in a shrill falsetto. Dickinson recorded his final side in 1931, and his obscure identity continues to elude blues and gospel historians today.