I ducked inside and found a darkened yet cozy hideout. It had enough elbow room for a dozen or so lost sheep like me to find refuge from the stampede of students in “Faith Over Fear” T-shirts. Cooke’s voice, backed by the ethereal harmonies of his gospel group, the Soul Stirrers, pulsated along the curved walls of acoustic tiles from a surround-sound system. Above, a pair of small TV monitors on opposite sides showed a close-up photo of a beatific Cooke and subtitles of the lyrics he was singing: “There was a woman in the Bible days, she had been sick, sick so very long / But she heard ’bout Jesus was passing by, so she joined the gathering throng.” At the bottom of the screen was the citation of the relevant passage from the Gospel of Matthew.
This mysterious “Sound Shell” (the name I gave it, since there was no sign to identify it) had me transfixed, and it was only the beginning of my immersion in the river of sacred song. After a few verses by Cooke, there was a moment of silence, and then the room filled with the Tennessee mountain trill of Dolly Parton, telling the story of “John Daniel,” a logger preaching salvation. A couple of verses, another fade-out, then a snippet from the stark ballad “Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen, his solemn voice deep as a well — “Jesus was a sailor when He walked upon the water” — followed by the operatic thunder of Queen’s “Jesus,” with Freddie Mercury (who was a Zoroastrian) proclaiming the miracle of Christ and the lepers.
I was hooked. I hunkered down on a bench along the wall. Snatches from more than two dozen songs streamed on a 12½-minute loop. Each segue was a jolt, and the selections ranged across genres and eras, from rock gods (the Rolling Stones’ “Prodigal Son”) to country outlaws (Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around”), from pop troubadours (Coldplay’s “Moses”) to spectral bluesmen (Son House’s “John the Revelator”), from ’80s bar bands (the Hooters’ “All You Zombies”) to rappers (Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks”).
The song fragments — carefully pieced together, balancing tempos and musical keys and biblical themes in the lyrics — are a reminder of the profound and fundamental human needs that only spiritual music can fully satisfy. As neuroscientist Daniel Levitin notes in his 2008 book, “The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature”: “I believe that a particular kind of music — songs associated with religion, ritual and belief — served a necessary function in creating early human social systems and societies. Music helped to infuse ritual practice with meaning, to make them memorable, to share them.” Or, as Anthony Heilbut writes in “The Gospel Sound,” a definitive history of the golden age of black gospel music: “For those who saw them, the greatest gospel performances became moments that could haunt or even change their lives forever. ... One didn’t have to be saved to be haunted by the sheer generosity — vocal, emotional, physical — of those moments.”
Those moments still happen. By the time I left the Sound Shell — with the Clash’s “Four Horsemen” ringing in my ears — I was reeling and my spirits were lifted. Jonathan Alger of C&G Partners, who headed the design team behind the second-floor exhibits, told me later: “The thing we really sweated was building that playlist. We didn’t want the obvious stuff. We wanted to shake people up, so that whether you’re an atheist or you’re a preacher, you’d get something out of it. We’re trying to show how the Bible is everywhere — love it or hate it — and it’s still being quoted in pop songs today. It’s not like, ‘It was Mozart and then done.’ It’s like, ‘Kanye just did it.’ ”
Such a playlist called for an exhibit space as enigmatic and captivating as the song fragments, Alger explained, something with the ambiance of a studio, but one-of-a-kind, so much so that it still doesn’t have an official name. The paint job on the fiberglass shell was meant to evoke the glossy sunburst finish on a Fender guitar, or the polished woodwork on a vintage Wurlitzer organ. “It’s a very out-of-the-ordinary sculptural form that immediately says to you: ‘I’m a really interesting space that you can come into and get comfortable,’ ” Alger said.
The shell has an open entrance so visitors can wander in and out with minimal disruption to those inside. On recent visits, I saw some patrons — less enamored with the shell than I was — stay only briefly, sometimes for a single music clip. One family clad in Nike gear walked in on Mick Jagger singing, “Kill the fatted calf, call the family ’round” — and walked straight back out. An elderly woman in a wheelchair commandeered by her husband rolled in expecting to hear Elvis after seeing the King’s Bible by the entrance. She suffered through a dose of metal (Avenged Sevenfold’s “Beast and the Harlot”) and the Clash to finally hear a clip of Presley’s “Hard Headed Woman” (“Now Adam told to Eve, ‘Listen here to me, don’t let me catch you messin’ ’round that apple tree’ ”) and was wheeled away with a joyful whoop.
Others settled into the shell for the entire loop. Blake and Connie Stiles were in town for work and took an afternoon off to see the sights. He had on a Georgia Bulldogs cap. “We’re from Fort Worth,” he said, “the buckle of the Bible Belt. I’m Georgian by birth, Texan by choice.”
The couple counted themselves fans of the Sound Shell. “They threw some curveballs at us. Queen is one of my favorite artists and I didn’t know the song ‘Jesus’ at all. So, I’ve got to go look it up,” said Blake, who majored in music in college and plays trumpet. “I think God uses all sorts of genres and people and experiences to let His presence be known.”
“I love music,” Connie said. “If God can use music, any kind of music, to help point somebody to the Lord, that’s great.”
The Stileses both noted a glaring omission from the playlist: the Byrds’ epochal ’60s hit, “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” whose lyrics were adapted from the Book of Ecclesiastes. I agreed. It felt good that a cranky old music head like me and a pair of heartland churchgoers could find common ground thanks to the Sound Shell.
I wished them well and headed out. It didn’t take long for my rock snobbery to shift into overdrive: What about “People Get Ready” by the Impressions? Or “Jesus” by the Velvet Underground? What about “Wholy Holy” by Aretha Franklin? Or “Angel Band” by the Stanley Brothers? May there be no end to the heavenly hit parade of sacred songs. Amen.
Eddie Dean is a writer in Maryland.