From Ephrata (F-Ra-Ta) to Arkestra

David Stowe

Michigan State University


He had . . . sat in English, French, and Italian opera houses; that had been music for the ear, but Beissel's rang deep down into the soul and was nothing more nor less than a foretaste of heaven. [1]

Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus


The earth cannot move without music.  The earth moves in a certain rhythm, a certain sound, a certain note.  When the music stops the earth will stop and everything upon it will die. [2]                                        Sun Ra


Scratch any musician and you find a crypto-Pythagorean. [3]   

                                                                                    John Szwed


            In 1952, Down Beat magazine published a special issue honoring Duke Ellington on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his historic Cotton Club debut; four years later, during a period when his band was struggling, he would be featured on the cover of Time.  Also punctuating 1952 was the election of President Dwight Eisenhower, the release of Hank Williams’s“Your Cheatin’ Heart,” the publication of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and the explosion of the first hydrogen bomb by the United States on Eniwetok Atoll.  Less than three weeks before the nuclear test, an obscure Chicago jazz musician named Herman Poole Blount changed his name to Le Sony'r Ra, registering the change at the Cooke County Circuit Court.  The newly christined Ra developed a new genealogy for himself, refusing to acknowledge any connection to his biological family or his upbringing in Birmingham, Alabama.  Long known by the nickname Sonny, the new name was taken from the Egyptian sun god, and the spelling was chosen to give the full name a complement of nine letters, for good luck.  In his new genealogy, Ra was a citizen of Saturn, birthdate unknown and irrelevant, sent by the Creator to redeem earthlings with a musical message.  He would go on to become famous in jazz circles under his stage name, Sun Ra, leading a big band called The Arkestra for some forty years, nearly as long as Duke Ellington kept his celebrated orchestra  on the road.

            Ra’s earlier life had been typical of many musicians of what has come to be called the Swing Era.  Born in 1914 into one of the most segregated cities in the United States, in a particularly harsh period of oppression of African Americans, Sonny grew up in a house across the street from the Post Office and within sight of an enormous sign that welcomed railway passengers to “The Magic City.”  From an early age he showed academic and musical talent both as a pianist and arranger.  Sonny read constantly, earned top grades, and soaked up the sounds of the Tabernacle Baptist Church his grandmother took him to along with the gospel quartets and nationally known big bands that regularly passed through Birmingham: Bennie Moten, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, and Fletcher Henderson, among others.  Alabama apartheid created a strong and self-reliant African American community, and Sonny received a good education from the city’s Industrial High School, and musical guidance from John T. "Fess" Whatley, the reigning patriarch of the Birmingham music scene, an exacting instructor and bandleader who mentored an entire generation of instrumentalists.  By the time he graduated from high school Sonny was subbing in local bands and immersing himself in the big band jazz recordings of the early 1930s, especially the Fletcher Henderson band.  In 1934 he took over an Alabama territory band that briefly made it as far as Chicago; known as the Sonny Blount orchestra, it lasted for a decade.  Meanwhile he attended Alabama A&M University in Huntsville, where he majored in music education for one year before funds ran out. [4]  


After a series of awkward run-ins with the draft board during the Second World War, Sonny bought a train ticket to Chicago and joined the tail end of the century’s second Great Migration of African Americans out of the South.  The first was driven by World War One and had spurred Thomas Dorsey and Mahalia Jackson to migrate from the Deep South to Chicago.  The Second World War encouraged even more migration to northern cities.  This second migration was twice as large as the earlier one, with some three million African Americans leaving the South between 1940 and 1960.  In Chicago alone, the African American population grew by nearly 80 percent—from 277,000 to 492,000, between 1940 and 1950, and another 65 percent over the subsequent decade.  Reactivating the union membership he established during his first visit to Chicago in 1934, he found work almost at once.  He traveled to Nashville with rhythm-and-blues singer Wynonie Harris for a time and then with a society band that wore Revolutionary War uniforms complete with wigs.  Almost before he knew it, he was playing piano for the bandleader he had idolized as a teenager, Fletcher Henderson, who was appearing at Club DeLisa, Chicago’s answer to the Cotton Club.  For several years he appeared with a number of bands at a variety of venues, backing rhythm and blues singers and other headliners, providing musical  backdrops for floor shows.  Sonny had become as securely established as most professional musicians ever do, with a respectable  if quirky reputation among his peers. [5]

            Sonny’s musical and intellectual bearings began to shift in the early 1950s.  Together with a precocious teenager named Alton Abraham, who maintained a long relationship with as booster and agent, Sonny became part of a loose-knit reading and discussion group.  He began to read exhaustively in alternative histories of Western civilization, books that questioned the primacy of Greek civilization, proposing instead Egypt as the original source.  One author led to another, and the titles give a sense of what Sonny was absorbing: The Egyptian Book of the Dead; The Children of the Sun (1918); The Ruins, or, Meditation on the Revolutions of Empires: and the Law of Nature (1791); The Anacalpysis, an Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil of the Saitic Isis; or an Inquiry into the Origin of Languages, Nations and Religions (1833); God Wills the Negro: An Anthropological and Geographical Restoration of the Lost History of the American Negro People, Being in Part a Theological Interpretation of Egyptian and Ethiopian Backgrounds (1939); Stolen Legacy, the Greeks Were Not the Authors of Greek Philosophy, but the People of North Africa, Commonly Called the Egyptians (1954).  The Nation of Islam was germinating  in Chicago during these years, and shared similar interests but drew different conclusions.  There was much overlap but also keen schisms among the intellectual  legacy Sonny was unpacking.  “Anglo-Israelites, Pyramidologists, Edomites, Pre-Adamites, Khazars, Pentecostalists—it was a maelstrom of rival ideologies like out of William Blake’s time,” observes Ra biographer and anthropologist John Szwed.” [6]


Sonny read tirelessly, annotating the texts “in copious notes of red, green, and yellow ink, circling, underlining, arrowing, echoing what he read with comments and cross-references, sometimes with arcane symbols from the world’s religions.”  He learned of the legendary Greek Gnostic thinker Hermes Trismegistus (“Thrice-great”),  founder of the Hermetic tradition, whose writings bridged religion and science, music and magic, and promised to reconcile the esoteric wisdom of Egypt and Greece.  In time the reading group discovered the work of Madame Helena P. Blavatsky—the dominant 19th century figure of the Theosophical Society—and people she influenced like the composer Scriabin, Rudolph Steiner and eurythmy (“visible speech and song”), Pyotr Demianovitch Ouspensky’s writings (A New Model of the Universe) and Georgei Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, who synthesized numerology, Pythagorian musicology, Kabbalah, physics, esoteric Christianity and Blavatsky’s theosophy. “The key ideas he received from his readings in theosophy were those which reinforced ideas he already held,” writes Szwed: “that the Bible must be demythologized, decoded, and brought in tune with modern life; that it was possible to unify all knowledge; that the universe was organized hierarchically, with forces or spirits which moved between the levels and affected life on earth; and that there were charismatic leaders who had the means to come to know these secrets.”  Twenty years later Ra was invited to teach a course at Berkeley, and his knowledge emerged as a kind of synthesis.  “In a typical lecture, Sun Ra wrote biblical quotes on the board and then ‘permutated” them—rewrote and transformed their letters and syntax into new equations of meaning.  His lecture subjects included Neoplatonic doctrines; the application of ancient history and religious texts to racial problems; pollution and war; and a radical reinterpretation of the Bible in light of Egyptology.” [7]

In a word, Ra was drawn to esoteric knowledge, a kind of parallel tradition to orthodox Christianity, a world of excluded knowledge and hidden teachings: mysteries revealed, intricate correspondences between individual and cosmos, body and spirit, a sense that everything is connected and ordered, provided one has the tools and sensibility to decode the world.  Music was the crucial key to understanding the universe, because the universe itself was musical: the planets and stars were governed by musical principles, vibrated with the “music of the spheres.”  He was fascinated by history, but believed it had been distorted or suppressed, whether by professionals or in the Bible, which he came to believe had been badly warped by its earthly compilers .  He liked to draw a contrast between history (“his story”) and mystery (“my story”).  At the same time, he showed a developing fascination with the utopian potential of outer space, with Afro-futurism—a technological future that explicitly included African America.  Numbers and letters were important clues to what held this ordered universe together.  Beginning in the early 1950s, Ra became a master of puns and word games.  They became the dominant method of his utterances: poems, liner notes, interviews.  “I’m very interested in names, and “Ra”  is older than history itself,” he reflected.  “It’s the oldest name known by man to signify an extra-terrestrial being.  It’s very interesting to note that there is “ra” in the middle of “Israel”: Is-ra-el.  Take away the “ra” [and] there is no more Israel.  It’s very interesting.  And there is “ra” in France as well.”  And, it’s worth pointing out, two “ra”s (the first running backward, the second forward)  in the new name he chose for his ensemble: the Arkestra.  With this new name and new forms of knowledge and meaning came a new sense of life mission: to be a “secret agent of the Creator.”  Writes Szwed:

With music he would reach across the border of reality into myth; with music he could build a bridge to another dimension, to something better; dance halls, clubs, and theaters could be turned into sacred shrines, the sites of dramas and rituals, and though people would be drawn to hear the music, it was they who would become the instrument on which I would resonate, on which he would create the sound of silhouettes, the images and forecasts of tomorrow…all of it disguised as jazz.” [8]


“Ancient Aiethopia,” a recording made by the Arkestra in 1958, suggests how Ra translated these ideas into music for a ten-man ensemble.  String bass and tom-toms maintain a steady swaying vamp throughout the nine-minute piece, which restricts itself to minimal chord changes.  After a percussive piano introduction played over drums and rolling cymbals sounds the theme: a foreboding four-measure phrase repeated six times by somber-sounding brasses, somehow evoking a caravan.  A few measures of drum segues into a flute duet played over a rocking tom-tom pattern, interspersed with percussion scratches played on a ribbed guiro.  Occasionally a gong sounds.  As the drums fade to a whisper, the flutes are replaced by a very deep, clean-toned trumpet that explores the opening theme above occasional gongings.  The piano reappears for a brief but densely played two-handed solo, which is followed by a percussion interlude of bells and guiro scratches over the continuing bass and tom-tom vamp.  After some tentative saxophone squawks in the background commences an interlude of spooky-sounding and wordless antiphonal chanting by two male voices.  The piano signals the return of the 24-measure brass theme, which comes to a slow ritard over repeated sounding of the gong. “Ancient Aiethopia” appeared on an early Arkestra album, Jazz in Silhouette, which billed itself as “Magic Music of the Spheres.”  The cover is a surrealistic painting of female figures hovering above one of Saturn’s cratered moons depicted from several hundred miles away.  “In tomorrow’s world, men will not need artificial instruments such as jets and space ships,” the liner notes declare.  “In the world of tomorrow, the new man will ‘think’ the place he wants to go, then his mind will take him there.” [9]




There is no indication that  Sonny had knowledge of the Ephrata commune formed near Philadelphia in the early eighteenth century by a German mystic named Conrad Beissel, but if he had he would have been delighted, and not at all surprised.  One can imagine what Ra would have done with the name itself.  “Ephrata” would yield up “Eph-Ra-ta,”  for starters.  Then musical puns—“Ephrat(a)” would suggest “E-flat,” a key signature dear to Freemasons, whose three flats represent the Triad, a number revered as far back as Pythagoras.  Or possibly “Ephrata” to “F-flat,” a way of naming “E,” third tone in the C major scale, which corresponds to the third planet, Earth.  Beyond this wordplay, there are a series of unlikely but uncanny congruences between  these two musical mystics, separated by two centuries.  Conrad Beissel and Le Sony’r Ra shared an intellectual heritage, a similar orientation toward what they considered a fundamentally musical universe.  They were propelled to their life work by analogous social forces and shared similar goals for the communities they established.  Beissel and Ra make for an unlikely historical linkage, but in doing so they illustrate a link between American sacred music (defined broadly as always) and one of the most ancient streams of thinking about music and the cosmos, of connecting the body and the spirit through the medium of sound.

            Both shared an experience of exodus.  Sun Ra had been both pushed out of Alabama and pulled toward Chicago, making an exodus to the known realities of southern Jim Crow to the unknowns of a northern city promoted by black newspapers like the Chicago Defender as a kind of African American Promised Land.  Likewise, Beissel had joined a substantial migration to Pennsylvania, a colony that under Quaker leadership was encouraging the immigration of religious sects persecuted in Europe.  Born about 1690, Beissel grew up in distressed circumstances in the Neckar Valley of Germany, a region deeply scarred by the Thirty Years War and conquests of France under Louis XIV.  His father drank himself to death shortly before he was born, and his mother died when he was eight or nine.  Beissel was taken on as a baker’s apprentice, where he developed some skill on the violin.  His credentials as a baker took him to a number of important German cultural centers in the 1710s.  In Strassbourg, Beissel imbibed the teachings of the great German mystic Jakob Böhme (1575-1624) possibly through the missionary efforts of the Philadelphians, a secret mystical society that had originated in England under the leadership of the visionary Jane Leade.   At Mannheim, after a sexual contretemps with his master’s wife, Beissel was forced to flee to Heidelberg, thereafter forsaking sexual congress with “mortal women.”  Beissel became active among radical Pietist groups that were flourishing on the periphery of the great university.  Appointed treasurer of the baker’s guild, he had a falling out over guild practices and, after a series of trials, was banished from the Palatinate.  With his Wanderbuch—the record of his baker’s experience—confiscated,  Beissel wandered adrift through the countryside, eventually landing in Schwarzenau and taking up with yet more underground sects, including the Baptist Brethren, the Inspirationists, and the Awakened.  One group of Baptist “Dunkers”  had embarked for Pennsylvania in 1719.  The following year Beissel and a group of like-minded spiritual dissidents embarked for the colony whose capital was actually named for the brotherhood of love. [10]

Conrad Beissel


            To confuse wartime Chicago with a city of brotherly love would be a huge stretch, but in fact it held some of the same possibilities for Ra that Philadelphia did for Beissel.  Both men were motivated in their movements by the desire to follow the route of a respected precursor.  For Ra, it was Fletcher Henderson, the bandleader who, along with Ellington, most inspired the fledgling musician in Birmingham (and whose compositions Ra would revive much later in his career as a bandleader of the Arkestra).  “Fletcher was really part of an angelic thing,” Ra would later say.  “I wouldn’t say he was a man.”  But he was pushed as well as pulled North. By 1946, he was finding the racial climate of Alabama intolerable .  Like any professional musician of color, he encountered his share of daily indignities and humiliations.  Along with a number of fellow jazz artists—Lester Young and Dizzy Gillespie come to mind first—his sense of extrangement was exacerbated by his encounter with the wartime state.  Between October 1942 and March 1943 he sought conscientious objector status, pleading his case in letters and hearings with various boards and officials.  He argued from the Bible he had studied so diligently

The judge granted Sonny his knowledge of the Bible, but found his lack of church membership all the more puzzling.  The outcome became clear within minutes, however, and so Sonny upped the ante, threatening that if he was forced to learn to kill, he would use that skill without prejudice, and kill one of his own captains or generals first.  The judge now grew tired of the byplay.  “I’ve never seen a nigger like you before.”  “No, Sonny said, “and you never will again.” [11]

He was held for a time in the county jail, and finally sent to a Civilian Public Service Camp run by the Church of the Brethren (descendants of the German Baptists Beissel had associated with) in rural northwest Pennnsylvania, where he was inspired by the interracial mix of principled objectors.  By March he was discharged 4-F on account of his hernia.  But the experience left him embittered, and he found it even more difficult to resume life with a family and fellow musicians that had trouble understanding his reluctance to serve.

            A number of religious groups that made important innovations in sacred music faced similar hardships for their resistance to the State, usually manifested in pacifism: the eighteenth century Moravians, German-speakers who found themselves caught in the crossfire of the French and Indian wars and the American Revolution; Shakers, whose unwillingness to serve in the Civil War generated hostility among neighboring “worldlings;” and Latter-day Saints intent on creating their own New Israel.  The problem was acute for Conrad Beissel and those who sought to follow him.  Negotiating a social space for survival was especially urgent for Protestant sects that faced the horrific confessionalized conflicts flashing through Europe beginning in the early seventeenth century, with state-sanctioned massacres of dissenting groups, repression by both Catholics and established Protestant churches that lasted well into the eighteenth century.  The trauma of religious civil war was long in healing in central Europe, inspiring dreams of a religious sanctuary in the New World, just as the dramatic failure of post-bellum Reconstruction created  a system that made life for African Americans nearly unbearable for decades around the turn of the 20th century.  Hence the appeal of Pennsylvania, advertised by William Penn as a sanctuary for religious dissenters, and Chicago, billed as a Promised Land.  Like Anabaptists and other spiritual forbears who modeled themselves after the early Church, Ephrata’s communalists understood themselves as existing apart from and above the state; they rejected  oaths, military service, land patents, and even the institution of the natural family.  Like the Moravian Unitas Fratrum, their pacifism was severely tested, first during the French and Indian War of the 1750s and later during the Revolution, when their neutrality was often construed as support for the opposition (a quandary that also afflicted the Moravians).  Perhaps because they were located further from the sort of backwoods anarchy that threatened the Moravians of North Carolina, the Ephrata Kloster faced less overt hostility.  But the Brothers and Sisters had no choice but to accept American survivors of the Battle of the Brandywine, fought in September 1777, an intrusion that greatly disrupted the small community. [12]


Entrance to Ephrata

When Sonny Blount left Birmingham and his wartime tribulations for Chicago in 1946, he couldn’t have known he would be playing with Fletcher Henderson within a few years.  Beissel, on the other hand, was clearly motivated by a desire to join cause with a like-minded group of mystics who in 1694 had migrated to to Pennnsylvania under the leadership of Johannes Kelpius.  Born in Transylvania in 1673, Kelpius was of a much more privileged background than Beissel, and had taken a Magister degree from University of Altdorf, in Bavaria.  But the two shared a set of spiritual convictions.  Kelpius had fallen under the influence of Edward Spener’s radical pietism (sometimes referred to a chiliasm, and also associated with Philadelphianism), with its emphasis on mystical knowledge, miracles, the impending millenium, and speculation based on numbers and letters.  “This Penn is to dull to express the Extraordinary Power the Pietists & Chiliasts among the Protestants in Germany,” Kelpius wrote in his enthusiasm before listing a series of preternatural manifestations:  “Ecstases, Revelations, Inspirations, Illuminations, Inspeakings, Prophesies, Apparitions, Changings of Minds, Transfigurations, Translations of their Bodys, wonderful Fastings for 11, 14, 27, 37 days, Paradysical Representations by Voices, Melodies & Sensations.” Especially powerful for Kelpius was the idea that God originally had contained both sexes, but that the divine feminine Sophia had been separated from the Godhead at the Fall, only to be received as a separate being in the form of Eve.  Reunion with Sophia was only possible through a life of rigorous devotion and celibacy.  Responding to the lure of Quaker Pennsylvania, Kelpius’s group sailed via England where they spent time with Jane Leade, whose ideas, developed through the Society of Philadelphians, had first reached the Beissel in Strasbourg, when he was a journeyman baker.  Departing from “these Babilonish Coasts, to those American Planatations, being led therunto by the guidance of the Divine Spirit,” Kelpius established a celibate commune on the Wissahickon River near Germantown; it became known as the Society of the Woman in the Wilderness. [13]   By the time Beissel arrived there in 1720, Kelpius (who is thought to have lived in a cave) had been dead for more than a decade and his commune dispersed.  As much as he might aspire to solitude, Beissel’s charismatic spiritual gifts attracted disciples.  The loose-knit settlement gradually evolved into a full-fledged Protestant monastery that somewhat resembled a Shaker community of a century later.  Though some of Beissel’s followers, called the Householders, lived with their families and owned property, a majority of the men and women lived separately and celibately, dedicated to spiritual perfection through collective labor and rigorous spiritual exercises.


Some Buildings in Ephrata

The complex history of Beissel and Ephrata is richly narrated in the Chonicon Ephratense, first published in 1786, two decades after Beissel’s death.  Given the challenges of physical survival let alone maintaining a spiritual utopia in the face of suspicious or hostile outsiders, the amount of attention Beissel devoted to music was extraordinary.  “All Ephrata endeavours were dedicated to the goal of perfect life lived in union with God in the image of the divine Sophia,” writes historian Erb; “and song was no exception.  Perfect song was the enactment of the union itself, for in it the singer was angelic, returned in his primal image to paradise to praise his maker in a perfect harmony of intellect and will.  The lyrics are not properly to be separated from the music, in fact, are subordinated to them.  The music dictates the thought.” [14]   It took time for Beissel to move beyond the Lutheran and Reformed chorales he had known in Germany, and the homophonic psalm-singing of pietists and Dunkers.  A musical watershed occurred in May 1727, when at a gathering of German Brethren, Beissel introduced antiphonal choral singing, probably polyphonic, in place of homophonic psalms.  Beginning in 1730, Beissel began to have hymnbooks printed, usually by Philadelphia printer Benjamin Franklin.  Göttliche Liebes und Lobes Gethöne (“Melodies of Love and Praise”) appeared in 1730, and two years later Vorspiel der Neuen Welt (“Prelude to the New World”) featuring dozens of mystical hymns, many by Beissel himself.  The first manuscript hymnbook, with its distinctive Frakturschiften lettering, was painstakingly illuminated by the Solitary over the winter 1733-34: Paradiesische Nachts Tropffen (“Teardrops of a Night of Paradise”).  The name “Ephrata” was first used to refer to the  Cocalico River commune in one of these hymnbooks, one printed by Franklin in 1736 under the title Jacobs Kampff- und Ritter-Platz (“Jacob’s Place of Struggle and Elevation”). “This Beisselian title in its curious way signified to Conrad that the birth struggle of his little Israel had ended in peace at last,” writes Altderfer. 

The imagery is suggestive.  One must remember that the Ephrata of the Old Testament was the pre-Israelite name for what became Bethlehem.  It was on the way to Ephrata that Rachel, wife of Jacob, died giving birth to Benjamin.  And it was Rachel who ‘did build the house of Israel.’  Perhaps Conrad Beissel dreamt that the Spiritual Virgins were building a new Israel in a new world in which the Brothers of Zion could find peace.” [15]


That much seems clear; Jewish language and images were crucial components of Beissel’s vision.  Likely he was exposed to knowledge of the Kabbalah during his baker’s Wanderjahre  in Europe; those notions had penetrated the secret societies that shaped his thought before he left Europe.  Though evidence is scanty, a small Jewish community was thought to have existed on the Pennsylvania frontier in the early years of the eighteenth century, with Orthodox Jews trading with Indians.  In any event Jewish ideas seem to have some currency among early settlers.  Soon after relocating to Pennsylvania Beissel decided to observe the scriptural Jewish Sabbath—Saturday rather than Sunday—as the commune’s holy day. “Judaic ideas played an important if secretive role in his spiritual development,” writes Aldefer, “and his decision regarding Sabbatarianism was of deep psychological importance to him—as it was to Boehme and many another mystic.” [16]   

It was not until the 1740s that Beissel fully synthesized his musical and spiritual strivings, in the first hymnbook published by the new press at Ephrata.  The decade was a particularly tumultuous period for the cloister.  A new hymnal, Zionitic Weyrauchs Hügel (“Zionist Hill of Incense”), published in 1739, generated conflict when its printer, Christopher Sauer, whose wife had left him for several years to follow Beissel, accused Beissel of heresy on the basis of new hymns that appeared to elevate him to the status of Christ.  The offending text was a complex weaving of Christian and esoteric imagery, including the astrological symbolism, and ran to 44 stanzas of Doctor Seuss-sounding verse.  Its thrust was to draw an analogy between the Israelites in Exodus and the Ephrata community.  The hymn begins:

While the cloud-like pillar gleams,

Which through God for Israel beams,

So that they may easily know

Where ‘tis time for them to go.


Leave your camp now out of sight

Fix your eyes upon the light,

Follow in your journey’s course

Promptings from the highest source.

The cautionary story of the Exodus and Aaron’s follows, then the lesson:

            This which happened long ago

            Is a warning for us now;

            An example that we may

            Show the Israel of today.


            How  he made a promise dear

            Which was made entirely clear,

            When he healed the serpent’s bit,

            When he raised within their sight.


Like Israel, Ephrata had frequently lost the way and fell short of their covenant.  But a messiah stood by to rescue its faithful. Seeming to equate Beissel with Christ, these were the stanzas that outraged Sauer:

            Look!—behold, behold the man!        Sehet, sehet, sehet an!

            Look!—behold him if you can!          Sehet, sehet, an der Mann!

He’s exalted by God’s word,              Der von Gott enhötet ist

He’s indeed the Christ and Lord!       Der is unser Herr und Christ.


He is saying constantly:

“Come you here and follow me;

I am your most helpful friend;

I can save you in the end.”


He is the uplifted snake

By the Way which we must take;

Through Him we may surely know,

How that we may better grow.


Only with a perfect cure,

Will the Camp be clean and pure;

And the presence of the Lord

On the Way will help afford.


Israel! Then rejoiced anew,

Steadfast be and good and ttrue

To this emblem hold you fast,

Canaan you will reach at last. [17]

The heresy controversy unfolded alongside many changes in Ephrata’s  social and economic organization during the late 1730s and 1740s. At this time the total population of the cloister probably numbered 200, with approximately 35 brothers, the same number of sisters, and roughly 40 families living as Householders.  Beissel found himself fending off Moravians, including David Nitschman and Count Zinzendorf himself (who would soon cross paths with the Wesleys further south), who were making aggressive efforts to recruit  the Solitary of Ephrata to the more family-friendly communes of the Unitas Fratrum.  A trained musician named Ludwig Blum arrived in 1738, with ambitions to form a singing school; Blum lasted only two years before the sisters pushed him out in favor of Beissel. The Sisters took over the communal structure where the Solitary of both sexes had lived, and males relocated to separate cabins on the periphery (where they would eventually organize their own communal building.)  A new three –story Saal, or chapterhouse, was erected.  A group calling itself the Zionitic Brotherhood, a coterie of zealous adepts influenced by Egyptian notions transmitted through Freemasonry, began rigorously uprooting any vestiges of private property in Ephrata.  Not long afterwards, a group of brothers named Eckerling attempted to remake the community as a sort of for-profit production factory based on essentially unpaid labor.  Beissel only managed to reassert his control and oust the Eckerlings in 1745, at which point Ephrata was rededicated to its original more spiritual purposes: the Way of Peace, based on rejection of unclean foods, commitment to poverty and celibacy, practice of the scriptural Sabbath, and the achievement of mystical states through singing of hymns. [18]  


Two years later, Ephrata’s press brought out Beissel’s musical masterwork, a collection titled Das Gesäng der einsamen und verlassenen Turtel-Taube (“The Song of the Lonely and Forsaken Turtle Dove, the Christian Church”)  containing 279 hymns, two-thirds by Beissel.  One of them is erhaps the best known of Beissel’s hymns: “Gott ein Herrscher aller Heiden” (God a ruler of all heathen), which appeared in Weyrauchs Huegel and Turtel-Taube, which can be heard in modern recordings (which do not of course provide a reliable guide to what Ephrata’s choir of the mid-eighteenth century sounded like).

Gott ein Herrscher aller Heiden,                     God a ruler of all heathen,

der sein Volk bald wird herzlich leiten,                       Who His people soon will lead,

und ihr recht lassen hoch hergehn.                  And let them claim their place on high

Wenn er Zion schön wird schmücken             When Zion He beautifully adorns,

ihr Heil wird lassen näher rücken,                   And their salvation day nearer brings,

so wird man Freud und Wonne sehen             Then will joy and gladness be

an seinem Eigenthum,                                     In His Kingdom manifest,

das nun giebt Preiss und Ruhm                                   Where praise and glory are given

Gott dem König,                                             To God the King

der sie erhöht, ihr Völker seht!                                   Who raises them up, You peoples!  See

Wie Gottes Braut nun einhergeht.                  How God’s bride now enters in. [19]

Like so many of Beissel’s hymns, this one floats by with few musical surprises.  His melody glides up and down a major scale, pausing at the tones of the triad.  The rhythm is a stately series of quarter and half notes whose unexpected holds defy conventional meter (the hymn is actually constructed of sets of three-line phrases, 8.9.8.). The same harmonic cadences appear in most of the hymns, which are sung homophonically, all voices uttering the same words in unison, creating the most basic harmonies.  Beissel’s compact  musical vocabulary makes it difficult to distinguish one hymn setting from the next.  The melodies are almost deliberately non-descript.  This is why the hymns have struck hearers as “the Aeolian harp harmonized,” referring to the the simple stringed instruments that plays itself, as it were, when the wind passing over it causes the strings to vibrate. [20]

Clearly Beissel had a strong sense of what musical principles were appropriate for the Kloster choir.  Predating Billing’s Boston-published tunebooks by several decades, Beissel’s Turtel-Taube includes a detailed exposition of harmonic principles along with practical advice for performing the hymns.  “In a general sense,” Beissel wrote, “the hymns contained in this selection, may be looked upon as roses which have grown forth from among the piercing thorns of the cross, and consequently are not without some beauty of color and pleasantness of fragrance.”  Each note has its own distinctive characteristics, which singers must be taught to know and appreciate.

The all-important and most useful qualification in a teacher of new pupils is first to know that he must not teach them merely to sing the A, B, C, or the seven letters, and then at once introduce them to thirds and intervals before they have learned the characteristics of each letter, or, indeed, understand what they have learned.  Special care must be taken to bring out the distinguishing quality of each letter (i.e., note or sound); and this requires such diligence and costs so much labor that we cannot here describe it. [21]


A Page from an Ephrata Hymnbook

Only after mastering this esoteric knowledge could the choir turn its attention to mastering tone production, which is achieved through proper diet and mental discipline.  Finally Beissel outlines the harmonic principles underlying his four-part hymns, all lines but the bass being sung by women.  The four principle notes—the tonic, third, fifth and octave—he describes as the “masters and lords that dominate from beginning to end,” while the other intervals (second, fourth, sixth and seventh) are “servants,” which must “be told how he must serve his fellow-servants, so that they may harmonize.”  Beissel’s system takes the guesswork both out of creating melodies and of harmonizing them, since each “ruler” note has its corresponding “servants” in the alto, tenor, and bass lines; composing is like following an algorithm.  For example:

If the melody is in the key of C, E is the note in the  Barrir (tenor), and G in the Toener (alto).  Thus the alto and the bass begin on G.  This order may, however, be inverted….Nevertheless these letters (notes) must remain together and begin and end the tune….As regards the four remaining letters (notes), F, A, B, D, which we shall designate servants, let each be told how he must serve his fellow-servants, so that they may harmonize….If F occurs in the melody it is served by D in the tenor and bass, and by A in the alto; A demands D in the tenor and bass, and A in the alto, sometimes also in the bass; B calls for D in the tenor, and G in the alto and bass; D asks for B in the tenor, and G in the alto and bass.  In this manner a melody in C may be harmonized in four parts. [22]

Rhythmically, Beissel simply keyed the duration of notes to the cadence of the words; accented syllables received longer notes, unaccented shorter ones.  Meter was flexible, floating freely without regard for bar lines.  The result was sui generis: “The music of the Ephrata Kloster is entirely unlike the ancient church music,” writes Sachse,  “and it has none of the rhythm and swing of either the religious or secular folk-song of the Reformation.” [23]


The sort of melodic-harmonic formula is exactly what Billings was to argue against, two decades later in the famous introduction to The New-England Psalm-Singer, where he insisted that “Nature is the best Dictator, for all the hard dry studied Rules that ever was prescribed, will not enable any person to form an Air any more than the bare Knowledge of the four and twenty Letters, and strict Grammatical Rules will qualify a Scholar for composing a Piece of Poetry, or properly adjusting a Tragedy, without a Genius….I think it is best for every Composer to be his own Carver. [24]   And they reveal yet another intellectual source for Beissel’s musical imagination: the longstanding traditions of theosophic thought articulated by Jakob Böhme.  The great German mystic had lived a century before Beissel and in drew together various alchemical, hermetic, and mystical traditions of thinking about the cosmos, music, language, geometry and numbers that can be traced (whether or not back Böhme was aware of the genealogy) through Hermes Trismegistus and Pythagoras to their ostensible source in Egypt, where Pythagoras is thought to have studied.  More specifically, historian Jan Stryz has argued, Beissel’s harmonic scheme was a form of sonic alchemy, characterized by “proper relationships between elements treated as living entities…just as in alchemy, where essential substances such as Mercury and Sulpher, as well as planetary energies like Sol and Luna, are spoken of as characters that interact with one another.”  The same alchemical principles were at work not just in composition, but in strict dietary regulations imposed on choir members, and in the social relations among Beissel and the singers, which “were tinctured with the drama of the alchemical love and war that played out within him.” [25]

As he narrated it, Beissel’s life was an harrowing battle  with his own “fiery male power,” which he sought to humble “after the manner of women” in order to achieve union with the Sophia.  The struggle was often a losing one: “as often my industry brings forth a flower of paradise,  a sword is drawn against me, as if I had committed the greatest crime.  This has been going on for many years already and it will continue until my sinful body will perish.”  In addition to the distressing separation of masculine from feminine during the fall, another fall had occurred, leaving humans further estranged: a loss of the knowledge of how words are related to that which they signify—an inability, in other words, to read the “Book of Nature.”  Boehme and the various hermetic groups subscribing to this view of language held that man had suffered a second, linguistic fall resulting in a ‘Babylonical Confusion,’ as the Rosicrucian tract Confessio phrases it,” writes Stryz.  “What prevents man from seeing the divine presence in nature is the inability to read Nature's Book properly.”  Words are necessarily connected to that which they signify, and the knowledge of those connections had been lost.  The sonic dimension, and by extension music, is essential, because language is aural as well as visible.  “Sound, then, participates in the work of creation by supplying a signature to each thing, which signature in turn enables each thing to serve as an instrument of the divine.  Sound subsequently becomes an expression of both God and creation.” [26]


            The following passage by Böhme gives a sense of how his influential rendering of Christian theosophy could underscore Beissel’s harmonic method, which hinges on the alchemical balance of master and servant tones.  (For that matter, the convergence with Sun Ra’s much later experiments with numerology and Christology, his notion of discord ended through a melting into “the eternal sun,” is striking.) Böhme wrote that:

The tree, understand the life, is divided into seven forms; now the curse of God is come into the seven forms, so that they are in strife and enmity, and one form annoys the other, and can never agree unless they all seven enter into death, and die to the self-will. Now this cannot be, unless a death comes into them, which breaks all their will, and be a death to them; as the deity in Christ was a death to the human also: The human will was changed in Christ into the eternal sun, viz. into the resignation in God; so must all the forms in the philosophic work be changed into one, viz. into Sol: Seven must become one, and yet remain in seven, but in one desire, where each form desires the other in love, and then there is no more any strife and contest. [27]

Both Kelpius and Beissel were deeply affected by their association with Philadelphians, the English mystics who discovered and applied Böhme’s writings.  A groundbreaking treatise on music appeared in 1697, just after Kelpius had sojourned in England on his way to Pennsylvania.  It was written by Dr. Francis Lee, a specialist in Hebrew and the Kabbala who joined the Philadelphian community that coalesced around Jane Leade near London, and published in Theosophical Transactions, the journal of the society.  Marveling at the efflorescence of music produced “by some extraordinary Genius’s in this last Age” (he singles out Purcell), Lee seeks to use Nature as the means of understanding musical Art.  Again, he rearticulates a theory of music that stretches back over two millenia:

It is then suppos’d, that Musick is an outward Representation of the Harmony of the Divine Powers and Properties in the Nature of God: who exists and manifest himself in infinite variety and multiplicity, all in perfect Concord and Unity. The Unity as Fundamental, comprizing and containing all in it self. And thus the One Ground Note, or Bass contains in it self all the whole Scale above it; not only the Artificial Scale, but all as high as we can imagin; and its Tone is an Aggregate of them all; as the roaring of the Sea is made up of the noise of each particular Wave contain’d in it. Out of the Bass then all the other Notes proceed, as a Birth from it; and together make up its adequate proportion and Image. [28]


Working from these ancient assumptions, Lee goes on to construct a sort of interlocking chain of musical harmony, showing how each note in the scale, when taken together with those that precede and follow, occupies a relationship of concord.  He moves up the scale from a bass note of G, then to A, B (related to G), C (related to both G and A), D (likewise), and so on.

And thus we see the first great Discord Harmonized with all the other arising from it. That which went out First, must come in Last: the Great Breach or Division cannot be made up and restored to Unity, till by a Progress forwards and backwards through the whole Circle of alienation it has begun, it has work’d off the contrariety of Disproportion; and by degrees gather up the Proportion it lost, it returns again into its own Original. The Circle is here compleat, and the End has found its Beginning, the Multiplicity received into Identity and Unity. There is a Birth of a new Octave, or Series of Harmony, existing in its outflown and manifested Essence, and also in its Original: not only in its Original, as Archetype, containing the first Seeds and Grounds of it; but in its new Essence admitted into, and made one with it. [29]

In good Hermetic style, numerological correspondences abound: the seven notes to the seven planets; the six days of the week ending in the Sabbath; the first six millenia of world, “in Labour and Misery ending, as is supposed, in the 7000th Year, as its Sabbatical Jubilee: and the “Seven Working Spirits of God” working toward perfection “through the whole Creation.”  Lee draws several conclusions. Dissonance is impossible.  A set of relationships so perfect as music should not be “debased and prostituted to the vanity of common Amours,” but treated with reverence.  Finally, all human speech necessarily shares the artfulness of music: “Natural Pronuncation, or the Tone, Accent, and Emphasis, which we use in speaking our Words; and that variety of it that appears in the Expression of our Passions; is nothing else but Musick; it is True and Natural Harmony; and may be prick’d down and perform’d in Comfort; running in minute and swift Division.”  Hence the secret of Purcell’s genius: he composed his music “by listning to Nature,” finding notes that unfold in “Natural Harmony.” [30]

            Of course, transferring the perfection of Nature to the flesh-and-blood of an endlessly mutating spiritual community required a severe discipline, which Beissel was willing to provide to choir members.  First of all, rigorous discipline of the body was required.  “Care must be taken of the body, and its requirements reduced to a minimum, so that the voice may become angelic, heavenly, pure and clear, and not rough and harsh through the use of coarse food, and therefore unfit to produce the proper quality of tone, but on the contrary, in place of genuine song, only an unseemly grunting and gasping.”  All meat, milk, cheese, eggs and honey were proscribed, beans discouraged.  Wheat and buckwheat were recommended as “producing cheerfulness of disposition and buoyancy of spirit,” potatoes and beets were deemed “useful.”   “As concerns drink, it has long been settled that nothing is better than pure, clear water, just as it comes from the well, or as made into soup to which a little bread is added.” [31]   Choir members wore spare white garments resembling the habits of Capuchin monks for all rehearsals and performances.  Beissel’s rehearsals ran for four hours, concluding a very taxing workday around midnight, when the choir would process across a meadow through the misty darkness to the Nachmetten, or midnight watch, where the Solitary would mix worship and penitence for some two hours. 


Beissel himself was a very exacting director, prone to harshly upbraiding his singers when they fell short of his standards, sometimes haranguing for more than an hour.  Sisters were frequently reduced to tears, while brothers fumed.  But the singing was, by all accounts, otherwordly.  How did it strike the ears of contemporary listeners?  According to an account written in 1835, long after Beissel’s time but presumably about music that remained faithful to his musical principles, “The tones issuing from the choir imitate very soft instrumental music; conveying a softness and devotion almost super-human to the auditor.  The only part sung by males, the bass, were divided into two parts, “the latter resembling the deep tones of the organ, and the first, in combination with one of the female parts, is an excellent imitations of the concert horn.  The whole is sung on the falsetto voice.  The most detailed description from an Anglican minister from Philadelphia named Jacob Duché, who visited the cloister a few years after Beissel’s death.  The sisters sang with “sweet, shrill and small voices, but with a truth and exactness in time and intonation that was admirable.”

The music had little or no air or melody; but consisted of simple, long notes, combined in the richest harmony…. The performers sat with their heads reclined, their countenances solemn and dejected, their faces pale and emaciated from their manner of living, their clothing exceedingly white and quite picturesque, and their music such as thrilled to the very soul.  I almost began to think myself in the world of spirits, and the objects before me were ethereal.  In short, the impression this scene made upon my mind continued strong for many days, and I believe, will never be wholly obliterated. [32]



Beissel’s musical goals and methods, not to mention his cosmo-harmonic principles, had some uncanny parallels to those of Sun Ra, who had renamed his band the Arkestra at the time he changed his own name and gradually built it into a big band over the 1950s.  Being an Arkestra member entailed almost permanent rehearsals; it was an eight-hour-a-day, five-day-a-week job.  No band had a more lopsided ratio of rehearsal to performance.  “We’d rehearse all day and right up till you performed, get off at 4 A.M., rehearse at 12 until 4, then back again,” recalled one musician. [33]   Even in his Birmingham days Sonny had had a propensity for unremitting rehearsals.  But in Chicago his goals had focused and his ambitions broadened.  When the Arkestra relocated to Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1961 (a move that came about almost by accident), relatively high rents impelled a move toward communal living, an arrangement that would continue for the remaining decades of the Arkestra.  Fittingly, after spending a few years on the East Village, the Arkestra pushed on to the Germantown section of Philadelphia, the initial New World stomping grounds of both Kelpius and Beissel, where Ra would reside nearly until the end of his life.


Like Beissel, Ra was troubled by sexuality; he was bothered throughout his life by a hernia and undescended testicle, and many have speculated that he was gay, though he never acknowledged it.  Beissel, on the other hand, seems to have been plagued by a surfeit of sexual potency.  His career resembled a series of periodic attempts to free himself from disruptive social entanglements—particularly with women, who were powerfully attracted to him throughout his life, and the men who resented and suspected Beissel’s motives—in order to live a pure hermit’s life.  Sun Ra faced the opposite problem: highly-trained musical comrades escaping his orbit to pursue relationships, usually with women.  Ra would have been happy if the Arkestra had functioned as a male monastery; Beissel had the challenge of managing of managing a monastery and a convent existing side by side, even in the same building.  (Some of Ephrata’s faithful were even married to each other.) Though Ra didn’t require his musicians to emulate his celibacy, he maintained a kind of vigilance against what he perceived as the tendencies of women to distract from his musical-spiritual goals.  He was even less tolerant of drugs or alcohol, a stance that audiences would find incongruous during the 1960s, when the Arkestra seemed so conspicuously attuned to a psychedelic ethos.  As at Ephrata, these restrictions existed not in order to comply with some moral code but in order to heighten the spiritual potentialities and musical sensibilities in service of a larger communal good.  “Sonny sought to make his musicians his friends, his community,” Szwed observes,  “a community he would recruit and train, who would live together and devote themselves entirely to his music and teaching, musicians-scholars who he would tear free from outside interests and worldly distractions to be on twenty-four-hour musical and spiritual call.” [34]   As at Ephrata, the spiritual and artistic goals required a separation from the world, but survival entailed a participation in the commercial marketplace  that generated constant centrifugal forces within the community.

            One direction taken by this goal of creating a self-sufficient musical community was Sun Ra’s decision in the mid-1950s to maintain artistic and financial control of his work by creating his own recording company.  With Alton Abraham, in 1956 Ra registered a company under the name El Saturn Research, which released the great majority of Arkestra recordings over the decades.  (Ra also recorded doo-wop quartets like the Cosmic Rays for a time, a genre he had known well growing up in Birmingham, where gospel quartets flourished.)  The company was a sort of cottage industry, but over the years it released dozens of Ra’s recordings, essentially home-made, pressed in small batches  and sold by band members, cash only, at gigs.  “The mastering and pressing were crude (even vinylmaniacs admit that Saturns sound much better in CD reissues),” writes Campbell.  “At first the covers were hand-decorated, and when printed covers appeared they had a distinctly amateurish appearance.”   The spiritual realm the Arkestra invoked through music was developing distinctive visual dimensions.  Ra’s interest in Egypt and esoteric knowledge generated a kind of recognizable (though infinitely variable) iconography on the hand-decorated  record jackets.  The cover to The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra featured a row of portraits of famous early astronomers: da Vinci, Copernicus, Galileo, Brahe.  In the middle are images of Sun Ra and Pythagoras.  Coming out of an era where big-bands presented themselves in formal uniforms, Arkestra began to favor more eclectic costumes, making their breakthrough out of the tuxedoed look when they bought a collection of costumes from a local opera company; by the sixties they were dressing like the cast of Godspell.  Ra had read about the symbolism of color among Egyptians, Greek and Tibetans, so characteristically there was a method to Ra’s apparent visual madness in choosing costumes for the Arkestra. [35]


            That music was the underlying but not the sole manifestation of a larger field of spiritual activity that might take visual or verbal forms was a conviction held equally by Beissel.  In Ephrata as much as in the Arkestra, poetry was indistinguishable from music; both leaders composed music according to their own unified systems, and both wrote poetry constantly, Sun Ra’s often packaged as part of recordings as well as in published books.  Saturn Records had its counterpart in the Ephrata printing press, that freed it from its reliance on printers like Franklin, who though he handled many of Beissel’s projects during the 1730s was never on cordial terms with the German mytic, and Sauer, who had accused Beissel of heresy on the basis of a hymn text that he published.  Like other spiritual communes in the United States that would follow, Ephrata was remarkable for its vertical integration.  “In the schools of writing and calligraphy the Solitary were trained to write, copy, design and decorate score-books, hymnals and chorale folios,” writes Ernst.  “Moreover, singing, dieting and copying were means of sanctification.  Publishing brought into play printing press, bindery, papermill, oil press, mission propagandists and sales—all adding to those who mortified flesh and praised God in song.  And finally the choirs formed emotional and aesthetic forces in worship and at revivals in the Lager and throughout the province.”  Ephrata was particularly famed for its Frakturschiften, highly ornate lettering in the tradition of illuminated manuscripts.  The first hand decorated manuscript hymnbook of this sort was produced by the Solitary during the winter of 1733-34.  These matters were far from arbitrary.  As Stryz suggests, “if we imagine the letter to represent an essential expression of the spirit, rather than an arbitrary sign, then labor over the sound of the musical ‘letter’ or the form of the written one both comprise instruction in the reading of divine script.” [36]

            Nowhere were Beissel and Ra more closely aligned than in the way they understood numbers, letters, words and notes as timeless, inextricably connected,  and constitutive of the universe at every level of its structure.  Ra summarized this view succinctly.  “The earth cannot move without music,” he wrote in 1972.  “The earth moves in a certain rhythm, a certain sound, a certain note.  When the music stops the earth will stop and everything upon it will die.”  The esoteric traditions that Beissel had absorbed from Böhme, Leade and the Philadelphians were the same ones Ra had absorbed via slightly different channels in his voluminous reading and study group activity of the early 1950s, but in his case converged around some of the same venerable figures: Pythagaras, Plato, Hermes Trismegistus, the Kabbalists.  These concepts were part of the common coin of European intellectual life in Beissel’s day; what’s remarkable is Ra’s appropriation of them in the atomic age.  In a treatise that accompanied an Arkestra recording release in 1957, Ra explained his method in terms very close to Beissel’s emphasis in Turtel-Taube on training his singers to appreciate that unique properties of each individual note, before using them in sequence:

I always strive to write the sounds I hear both inwardly and outwardly. I use the simple rules of harmony as a basis but I employ my own rule as well.  My rule is that every note played must be a living note.  In order to achieve this, I use notes like words in a sentence, making each series of sounds a separate thought.  My watchword is precision.  I never forget that a “sound” is just as important as a sound doctrine in a nonmusical field.


One Arkestra member recalls the bandleader exhorting him in language that could have come almost directly from Londoner William Lee’s “New Theory of Musick.”  “You know how many notes there are between C and D?” Ra said.  “If you deal with those tones you can play nature, and nature doesn’t know notes.  That’s why religions have bells, which sound all the transient tones.  You’re not musicians, you’re tone scientists.”  The alchemical principle so crucial to Beissel’s work at Ephrata was strongly marked in Sun Ra.  “If you mix two chemical products you produce a reaction,” he wrote in reference to his poetry.  “In the same way if you put together certain words you’ll obtain a reaction which will have a value for people on this planet.” [37]

            In all its ambiguous majesty, the Bible was an essential text for both Beissel and Ra, but for neither was it sufficient.  Streams of esoteric knowledge from Egypt and Greece provided a necessary complement to Christian scripture.  Jewish ideas and images, particularly Kabbalism, provided another tributary feeding into Beissel and the mystics who preceded him.  “The New Theory of Musick” was permeated by Kabbalistic mysticism, made visually explicit in the diagram, with its six-pointed “Seal of Solomon” and intricate intermapping of numbers and letters.  Identifying as he did with Saturn, Ra made much of these homologies.  “Jews worship a six-pointed star, and Saturn’s the sixth planet from the Sun,” he observed; “also Jews worship on Saturday, which is really Saturn’s Day.”  Ra’s intellectual quest in Chicago had begun, after all, with the conviction that the Bible has been mistranslated and misassembled, possibly deliberately, in ways that erased or distorted the role of African peoples in sacred history.  The “Good Book,” Ra believed, was actually a code book, which he set about in the 1950s finding methods of penetrating.  Learning Hebrew was one possibility.  “But the Kabbalists said that knowing Hebrew was not enough, that every character in the Hebrew alphabet would have to be pored over, investigated, understood as an element of the design of creation itself.”  Another approach, one that Ra was to take up, was to focus not on the letter but the word.  “So powerful was the word, the Talmud said, that one letter too many or too few, one word out of order could destroy the world.  And was it not just such human errors which created the obscurity of the Bible and set ignorance and disorder loose in the world to begin with?” [38]   And so Ra found himself challenged by a kind of receding hermeneutical horizon with which he could keep pace only by rigorous study.

To equip himself for the study of etymology, Ra obtained Bibles, concordances and dictionaries in several languages.  “This was a dizzying business, endless, where even the simplest of words might have another meaning, and even the spoken word could conceal other words and meanings,” writes Szwed.  “The most innocuous of exchanges had to be scrutinized: he might respond to a simple greeting of ‘good morning’ by asking whether it was ‘morning’ or ‘mourning’ you meant.”  For this reason Ra refused to talk about his date of birth, preferring to speak of having arrived on planet Earth at some past time.  “B-i-r-t-h” equated with “b-e-r-t-h,” in the sense of a final resting place, an idea that didn’t square with his ideas of eternity; more accurate to talk about “arriving” than “being born.”  Through his fascination with puns and homophones, Ra had internalized the antagonism between spoken and written language characteristic  of many religious traditions.  “Only when the word had been activated by speech, and sounded out (what Rastafarians call “word-sound-power”) could the true meaning be known.  It was something those Baptist preachers had known when they began by reading from the Bible in front of their congregations, and then went on, through chant and song and improvisation, to activate the text and transform the Bible’s meaning.” [39]


            Apart from its emphasis on the spiritual significance of numbers and language, Kabbalism shared another affinity with Ephrata and Arkestra.  Unlike the mainstream of Jewish thought, with its engrained suspicions about the place of music in religious practice, Beissel and Ra stressed music’s centrality not just in the structure and workings of the cosmos, but in human expressions of reverence for the divine.  Beissel had been shaped enough by the ambivalence about music that the early Protestants had absorbed from their reading of the Bible that he felt compelled to write a rationale for the place of music in worship, in the form of eleven questions and answers:

Is it consistent with the Word of God that we sing?

Yes, as we find in both Old and New Testaments commands and examples.  Psalm lxvii.  5, 33; Matthew xxvi. 30; Eph. v. 19; James v. 13….

Cannot the godless sing a hymn in a manner acceptable to God?

Oh, no, for, like unto the prayer of the wicked, so also is their song abhorrent unto God.  The bawling of their hymns pleaseth Him not.  Amos v….

How shall the heart be qualified when we want to sing?

As it has been crushed under the law and made pensive after God, then comes the Holy Ghost and brings peace and joy into the heart, that the mouth overflows to the praise of God.

Most of Beissel’s answers would have satisfied even Calvin, though his esoteric propensities show through toward the end.

What is meant by the psaltery with ten strings, of which David speaks?

As the tenth number is a perfect number (when one has counted ten, one begiins again and commences with one), therefore is Christ our psaltery with ten strings, whose perfection is continually in our hearts and to be sung with our lips.

Who therefore teaches us to sing aright?

The Holy Spirit, as the true singing-master, can turn the heart into a celestial harp and divine instrument, so that it can be used without outward instrument and sound, and often also without any audible voice. [40]

Grounded as he was from childhood in the African American church, Ra showed none of this fastidiousness about the place of music in religious experience (though black gospel continued to worry about such things).  Ra did, however, have an argument with perhaps the major theme of both African American Christianity and religious music: the message of freedom from bondage—the analogy between the Israelites in bondage in Egypt and blacks in bondage in America.  This was the point on which the Bible had gone most tragically awry, Ra thought, as he reflected on the glory of Egypt. 

Moses said, fear the Creator.  Why should a person fear the Creator, be afraid to express themselves?… That man [Moses] was a murderer, a liar, and a deceiver.  Moses wasn’t good for this planet….The Egyptian government, they contributed so much to humanity—he ain’t left no art, no beauty, no alphabets…. He learned magic along with the Ra priests and then he took it and used it against them.  Bit the hand that fed him.  Turned against Pharaoh. [41]


Since most of African American theology and sacred song was founded on the Exodus story, it was fundamentally incommensurable with Ra’s vision. Ra set about constructing a counter-myth to the orthodox mythology of the Bible, one that recognized the glories of ancient Egypt but also posited a liberating future promised by the Space Age.  As Ra and his Arkestra moved into the 1960s and 1970s, they came to emphasize the utopian possibilities of a technological  future more than the glories of the past.  Space, rather than Egypt, Zion or Canaan,  came to stand for the potential of collective liberation from worldly bondage.  And so Ra and the Arkestra took up their position at what Szwed describes in a splendid passage as “a strange intersection where the passivity of New Age, the aggressiveness of science fiction, the coolness of mathematics, the oppositionality of mysticism, and echoes of the mythos of the Nation of Islam all come together.  Some might call this black science fiction, focusing on the interplay of the themes of freedom, apocalypse, and survival; or maybe ‘Afrofuturism,’ where the material culture of Afro-American folk religions are used as sacred technologies to control virtual realities.” [42]  

But even as Ra rejected an orthodox Christian reading of the Bible, he appropriated forms of the black church.  In Arkestra performances, “space chants” were both modeled on and fulfilled the function of spirituals.  The following lines, for example, from an album titled Beyond the Purple Star Zone, echo the spiritual “No Hiding Place”:

“No Hiding Place”                                          Arkestra chant

Dere’s no hidin’ place down dere,                  The space age is here to stay

Dere’s no hidin’ place down dere,                  Ain’t no place that you can run away

Oh I went to de rock to hide my face,                       If you run to the rock to hide your face

De rock cried out, “No hidin’ place,”             The rock’ll cry out, no hiding place.

Dere’s no hidin’ place down dere. [43]          It’s gonna be just like your ancestors said

                                                                        Even though they’re cold and dead. [44]

The old spiritual “Ship of Zion” provides the model for another space chant:

“Ship of Zion”                                                Arkestra chant

De Gospel ship is sailin,’                   You’re on the spaceship Earth

Hosann-sann                                       And you’re outward bound

O, Jesus is de captain,                        Out among the stars

Hosann-sann                                       Destination unknown

De angels are de sailors,                      But you haven’t met the captain of the         

Hosann-sann                                            spaceship yet, have you?

O, is your bundle ready?                    You’d better pay your fare now

Hosann-sann                                       You’ll be left behind

O, have you got your ticket?              You’ll be left hangin’

Hosann-sann [45]                                     In the empty air

                                                            You won’t be here and you won’t be there [46]


The Arkestra performed these space chants in the manner of ring shouts, the distinctive counter-clockwise shuffling, handclapping call-and-response chants of the South Carolina Sea Islands that evoke some of the earliest practices of African worship in America.  “So, just as the slaves’ “sacred world” brought together past and future, time and space, in the eternal now of the ring shout,” writes Graham Lock, “so Sun Ra united ancient Egypt and outer space in his myth-world and celebrated the union in his sacred arena, the concert, where costumes and instruments alike linked the worlds of Africa and science fiction, and the entire spectrum of black creative music was enacted in ceremonious and colorful spectacle.” [47]



At last, then, some space begins to open up between Arkestra and Ephrata.  Despite their common experience of exodus and the uncanny intellectual overlaps in their  theorizing and creating of music, Ra and Beissel were, at the risk of stating the obvious, shaped by vastly different historical circumstances.  Neo-Pythagoreans they may have been, but they drew on different reserves of popular culture, and they also appropriated them differently.  Though in his own life they were inextricable, one can divide the sources of Sun Ra’s spiritual and artistic life into separate categories, one deriving from reading and discussion of esoteric texts, the other from African American popular culture.  As Szwed observes, “no one in the Arkestra appeared to be in ecstatic possession, or in deep mimesis; rather they seemed to be modeling a certain kind of social and spiritual order, eclectically drawing theatrics from many sources other than the Afro-Baptist church: the flash of black cabaret, bar-walking saxophonists, nightclub routines, vaudeville and tent shows, as well as from the big bands themselves, which often had their own resident comics, dancers, skits, and parodies which reflected their early experiences in vaudeville and tent shows.” [48]   Even European opera provided inspiration.  Beissel too had a heritage of popular culture, the fiddling and dancing he excelled in as a young apprentice, but which he had rejected as decisively as he renounced “mortal Women.”  Or perhaps more accurately, the hidden knowledge he picked up through Böhme and the Philadelphians was Beissel’s popular culture, but it was suffused with the sacred in a conspicuous way that 20th century black popular culture wasn’t always.  In effect, Beissel as composer and choir leader drew on two intermingled but theologically distinct realms of culture—Christianity and esoteric thought—while Ra had at his disposal a third: secular popular culture (which, as we’ve seen, is itself accented with stylings and techniques developed for the sacred).


            And Ra’s was a popular culture not just of music and stage, but of science fiction and alien abduction stories.   A decisive turning point in Ra’s life had taken place in 1936, at college, when he dreamed of being visited by space beings, transported through a giant light beam, berobed and invested with wisdom, warned that earthly chaos lay ahead, and commanded to return to earth as a kind of messiah.  He continued to retell the dream story throughout his life, with little variation.  The vision has much in common with the UFO abduction stories that began to be in the early 1950s, which in turn followed patterns found in conversion narratives told by enslaved African Americans in the 19th century.  “Whether Ra’s trip to ‘another planet’ was physical or psychic, visionary or imaginary,” proposes Lock, “its significance perhaps lies more in the way he represented it, not in biblical terms but as a science fiction scenario, as if to signal to African Americans that the only way to define a person identity, to experience a spiritual rebirth, to be ‘saved,’ in fact, was not be following the old ways of the Christian church but by embracing the future and traveling to outer space.” [49]  

Beissel, not surprisingly, showed less interest on a future defined by technology and intertwined with beings from other worlds.  Though interested in the millenium and reunion with Virgin Sophia, he conceptualized it, like so many others, in the images and metaphors of the Hebrew Bible.  In his indifference to the blessings of science, Beissel was different from subsequent American sects: the Shakers, with their technological wizardry, and the Latter-day Saints, whose revealed scriptures can strike the uninitiated as having a science fiction, Tolkienesque aesthetic.  But of course, Ra’s understanding of science and technology had little to do with what the engineers of NASA or of IBM were undertaking.  At some point the post-Enlightenment begins to circle back to the pre-Enlightenment.

The Arkestra’s race consciousness, on the other hand, had no clear counterpart in the Ephrata experience.  Ra was willing to challenge the authority of the Bible in ways unimaginable to Beissel.  Not that this is a move that is ever undertaken lightly or without risk.  In rejecting the Hebrew Bible as a deliberate mistranslation, Ra was moving against one of the strong currents of his times.  Articulated by Baptist ministers like Martin Luther King Jr., much of the rhetoric of the Civil Rights movement was heavily indebted to the language of Exodus, and the movement inspired some of its loyalty by appealing to what it hoped was the Christian conscience of the nation.  In the pursuit of a transformed social order, the social movements of the mid-20th century would pluck out of obscurity some of the most traditional of sacred songs, but not without transforming them along the way.


[1] Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus, trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter (New York: Vintage, 1992 [1948]), 67.

[2] “The Air Spiritual Man,” quoted in John F. Szwed, Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra (New York: Pantheon, 1997), 329.

[3] Szwed, Space is the Place, 387.

[4] Szwed, Space is the Place, 3-37; Robert L. Campbell, “From Sonny Blount to Sun Ra: The Birmingham and Chicago Years,” available at

[5] James R. Grossman, Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southernors, and the Great Migration (Chicago: U of Chicago P), 1989), 19; Benjamin Filene, Romancing the Folk: Public Memory and American Roots Music (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2000), 105; Szwed, Space is the Place, 37-61; Campbell, “Blount to Ra.”

[6] Szwed, Space is the Place, 72.

[7] Szwed, Space is the Place, 109, 295.

[8] Szwed, Space is the Place, 86, 109 (ellipsis in original).

[9] Sun Ra, Jazz in Silhouette (Evidence 22012-2), 1991 [1958]. 

[10] Alderfer, E.G., The Ephrata Commune: An Early American Counterculture (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985), 14-26.  See also Jan Stryz, “The Alchemy of the Voice at Ephrata Cloister,” Esoterica 1 (1999), 133-59, available at

[11] Ra quoted in Szwed, Space is the Place, 57, 44.

[12] Alderfer, Ephrata Commune, 10-11; 164-65.

[13] Quotations from Albert G. Hess, “Observations on The Lamenting Voice of the Hidden Love,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 5 (1952), 213, 214.

[14] Peter C. Erb, ed., Johann Conrad Beissel and the Ephrata Community: Mystical and Historical Texts (Lewiston: Edwin Mellon Press, 1985), 34.

[15] Altderfer, Ephrata Commune, 42, 60.


[16] Altderfer, Ephrata Commune, 35.

[17] James E. Ernst, Ephrata: A History (Allentown: Pennsylvania German Folklore Society, 1963), 154-58.

[18] Altderfer, Ephrata Commune, 44-106.

[19] Gloriae Dei Cantores, Music of the Americas 1492-1992 (Paraclete GDCD 010), 1992. This hymn appears in modern notation in Sachse, 90-91.  Described as “the  celebrated seven-part motet,” “artistically rendered by Mrs. Frank Binnix” in 1901. Thanks to Professor Patrick McConeghy for assistance in translation.  On the Aeolian harp, see Ernst, Ephrata, 247.

[20] Consider, for example, The Ephrata Cloister Chorus, Anticipating Paradise: Music of Hope and Praise from Early Communities (Ephrata Cloister Associates), 2000.

[21] Beissel, Foreward to the Turtel-Taube and the “Dissertation on Harmony,” quoted in Julius Friedrich Sachse, The Music of the Ephrata Cloister (Lancaster: Pennsylvania German Society, 1903), 57, 71-72.  Sachse argues that Beissel’s work represents the first original treatise on harmony published in North America and thereby deserves the honors accorded Billings, and may have even influenced the Boston composer.  See p. 5

[22] Sachse, Music of the Ephrata Cloister, 71-73

[23] Sachse, Music of the Ephrata Cloister, 71-73, 14.

[24] David P. McKay and Richard Crawford, William Billings of Boston: Eighteenth-Century Composer (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1975), 53-55.

[25] Jan Stryz, “The Alchemy of the Voice at Ephrata Cloister,” 145.

[26] Beissel quoted in Stryz, “Alchemy of the Voice,” 138-39; 141-42.

[27] Quoted in Stryz, “Alchemy of the Voice,” 146.


[28] Francis Lee, “A New Theory of Musick,” reproduced in Arthur Versluis, “Mysticism and Spiritual Harmonics in Eighteenth-Century England,” Esoterica 4 (2002), 102, available at

[29] Lee, “New Theory of Musick,” in Versluis, “Mysticism and Spiritual Harmonics,” 102.

[30] Lee, “New Theory of Musick,” in Versluis, “Mysticism and Spiritual Harmonics,” 103.

[31] Beissel quoted in Sachse, Music of the Ephrata Cloister, 67, 68, 14.

[32] William M. Fahnestock quoted in Altderfer, Ephrata Commune, 114; Duche quoted in Erb, Musical and Historical Texts, 34; Altderfer, Ephrata Commune, 115.

[33] Unnamed musician quoted in Szwed, Space is the Place, 119.

[34] Szwed, Space is the Place, 41, 45-46, 346-47; quotation from 97.  On Ra’s sexuality, see also Ajay Heble, Landing on the Wrong Note: Jazz, Dissonance, and Critical Practice (New York: Routledge, 2000), 135.

[35] Campbell, “From Blount to Ra”; Szwed, Space is the Place, 217, 172.

[36] Ernst, 246; Stryz, “Alchemy of the Voice,” 145.

[37] Quoted in Szwed, Space is the Place, 329, 156, 112, 319.

[38] Szwed, Space is the Place, 351.

[39] Szwed, Space is the Place, 103-4; Campbell, “From Blount to Ra.”

[40] Sachse, Music of Ephrata Cloister, 24-25.

[41] Graham Lock, Blutopia: Visions of the Future and Revisions of the Past in the Work of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and Anthony Braxton (Durham: Duke UP, 1999), 20-21.

[42] Szwed, Space is the Place, 137; see also Lock, Blutopia, 13-74; Heble, Landing on the Wrong Note, 117-38.

[43] James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson, The Book of American Negro Spirituals (New York: Viking, 1969 [1925]), 74-75.

[44] Lock, Blutopia, 35.

[45] Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “Slave Songs and Spirituals,” in African American Religious History: A Documentary Witness, edited by Milton C. Sernett (Durham: Duke UP, 1999), 129.

[46] Szwed, Space is the Place, 261.

[47] Lock, Blutopia, 40.

[48] Szwed, Space is the Place, 262.

[49] Lock, Blutopia, 55; see also Szwed, Space is the Place, 29-32.