Elmer Mackall is floating. That's what the man calls it, if you ask him to explain. His head rolls back into his shoulders, the way Ray Charles' does when he gives himself to blues. Eyes half-closed, body rocking, face as bright as a shaft of light, Mackall, 79, seems to be visiting a very pleasant place inside his mind the rest of us can't see.
His fingers - dark, thick and kinetic, the pink nails so long they've dug scratches in the wood of his piano - scoop up the black and white keys, kneading them in such big handfuls it sets your feet to tapping, your mind to spinning. What in the world is next?
Mackall doesn't know. The spirit moves him. That's how the church singer/pianist learned this tune as a boy in rural Huntingtown, where his mother, Rosie, sang day and night, sharing a hundred songs you might've heard on the slave galleys three centuries ago as the ships made their way to Maryland.
Mackall (pronounced "MAKE-ull") shared a tune like that at age 5, when the spirit moved him to the front of his home church, Patuxent United Methodist, to sing "Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross." Didn't even know he knew the song, and he'd come there straight from school. "Lord took me just as I was," he says.
It's a warm afternoon in Mackall's senior-center apartment in Prince Frederick, Calvert County, not 10 miles from where he was born and raised with his 12 siblings, and here, he might share another tune. This star of the African-American churches of Southern Maryland can't read or write, but oh, how he remembers. Those hands search the keyboard, feeling out its sounds. A finger roll here; a bright, barrelhouse run there. The right hand bashes the ivories until a pattern settles in; simple chords, shimmering tracks on a railroad bed of sound, and a song is up and running:
When He calls me, I will answer
When He calls me, I will answer
When He calls me, I will answer
I'll be somewhere listenin' for my name
The voice leaps from him, bouncing off cinderblock walls. He sways on his stool, offering up "my music, my life, my joy" - just as he'll do tonight when he headlines the first-ever Gospel Extravaganza at St. Mary's College, sponsored by the Southern Maryland Folklore Project. The federally supported enterprise culminates its one-year exploration of regional sacred singing with a two-hour show starring Mackall and "three incredible choirs" from the Shiloh Community United Methodist Church of Newburg.
"What a gift," says co-director Carrie Kline, "to share talents like these with an even wider audience than they have."
In Mackall, listeners will hear a performer who summons his songs as much as he plays them. From where? That's hard to say. But float with Brother Mackall awhile. You're welcome at his house any old time.
Never took a lesson
He plays between songs, weaving a pattern of sounds out of which a melody might form. Give up control, find even more. Brother Elmer floats in a lot of ways.
Take his movements. A kabuki of arms and legs, he weaves in and out, scaring up all the grief and merriment he and that piano can muster. The scuffed Lowrey upright is just the right rig for a man who can get hundreds to their feet, yet never took a lesson. Kline, the folklorist, asks the sort of question many people might: "What keys do you like to play in, Elmer?"
"Hah!" he says over his shoulder, laughing. "Don't know one chord from another. I just play." The fingers dance, calling to life a bright, bouncy beat.
How about his conversation? Mackall is nearly always smiling - with his hands, his face, his body - and prevailing on you to do likewise. It's a sunny vibe, beckoning as a whirlpool. "How many songs you know, Mr. Mackall?" asks a visitor. "Ever counted?"
"Never thought about it," he says, working up a rhythm like a baker kneading dough. "Hah. I don't know none of 'em!"
"What'd he say?" asks Annie Keeler, 68, a neighbor who has just wandered through his open door.
"They come to me," says Mackall. "Just come to me!"
"He just sits there," says Keeler, marveling, "and they come."
Kline, along with husband and project co-director Michael Kline, is working to build an anthology of regional church music recorded since last October. She met Mackall just after the project began. One Sunday, entering a church in Calvert County, she happened on "this incredible genius at the keyboard who had everybody up and singing." Later, when she wanted to focus on his work, Mackall remembered her. Few white women sit in those pews.
Thus began what she calls a "very intense friendship" that mirrors one goal of the project: to bridge racial and cultural divides. The musical anthropologist and the unlettered musician seem at times to speak different languages, but each approaches the other kindly. "I sat in his car after services one day," she says, "and asked him if he didn't want his music to be preserved, so that others could enjoy it after he was gone. He liked that idea very much."
De facto segregation is the order of the day in rural Southern Maryland, says Kline, and "there's very little communication across those lines. Elmer would never go to a rally or anything, but he loves to bring people together, black and white. He's magic that way."
Music is one talisman. The handful of visitors today, all of whom happen to be white, toss him requests. He tickles a few. Often he stops singing; others fill in the vocals as he plays. "How great thou art," trills Edna Gott, 66, another neighbor who has stopped by to stand by the piano. "How great thou art."
Why the pauses in his vocals? "Hear yourself enough," Mackall says with a Louis Armstrong laugh, "your voice sound worthless to you. I always say that you sing the spirit in and you sing it out. 'Sheddup!' you say to your own self. 'Sheddup!' That's why."
The fingers find a tune; his voice jackknifes the air.
Looked over yonder, what did I see?
Comin' for to carr' me home?
A band of angels, comin' after me
Comin' for to carr' me home.
Kline, the oral historian, never loses a chance. "Where'd you hear that one, Elmer?" she says.
" 'Swing Low?' "
"Yeah, that one."
" 'Fore my mother got married. 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.' "
"Where did people used to sing that?"
"Made that song up in slavery time," he says, and suddenly he's back in the era in which his own great-grandmother lived. The dialect thickens. "Boss, old boss, was away. While he was gone, man kilt his chickens. Cooked 'em. Boss said, 'I'm gonna hang him!' So old colored man was standing by the woodpile somewhere, back on the farm, knows they're gonna hang him. He says, 'Swing 'em low, sweet chariot. Comin' for to carry me home.' That's the song he made up on it."
"When he says 'swing low,' he's talking about his body?"
"Right. Hang him by the neck," he says. "Swing him low! That was a pity, wasn't it? Yeah, that sure was a pity."
For God's glory
With Elmer Mackall, you float through music and time, crossing barriers. The spirit is your guide. "Never was a time I didn't believe in God," he says.
For Mackall, his belief amounts to more than just a way to spend Sunday - the day of the week you'll find the one-time oysterman and tobacco farmhand in his sprightliest suit, playing for any of a dozen congregations in Southern Maryland.
He coaxes chords from "On My Appointed Time," a song derived from the Book of Job. He plays the same way he would if no one were listening. "You sing for the glory of God," he says. "Forget about the people. It's like you're there by yourself. The Lord says, 'Whosoever willing, let 'em come.' God is no beggar. 'Whosoever willing, let 'em come.' "
And come they do. When the weather is right, he plays with his apartment windows open, and his neighbors know that is an invitation. Within a few bars, Keeler, Gott and others are there. They, too, want to share Brother Elmer.
"I've been here seven years," says Gott of the senior-center complex, "and he's never had a down day. I mess with him every day, and he gets the biggest laugh off of me. I'll tell him something crazy, and he and I just get to laughing, don't we, Elmer? He's always happy."
Gott kids him about his shoes. Less than two years ago (he remembers it as five), he needed just one. Doctors had amputated a leg due to a circulatory problem. "I told him one day he was gonna have two shoes on again," says Gott. "And he has."
Yes, Mackall has nearly mastered a prosthesis you didn't know he wore. But harder than that was the question of faith. How could he not question a God who'd bring him such a trial?
"There's pain involved in everything," he says. "But 'Jesus bore the cross, O Lord, and all the souls go free. There's a cross for everyone, and I know there's one for me.' It's just one of my crosses."
He bore it well from the start - so well, in fact, he gave his caregivers a fright. The night after his operation, nurses found him in a hospital hallway. He'd seen a vision of his mother, a widely known singer in her own right who had died at age 102 in 1979. "I got out of bed, trying to catch her," he says with a laugh. "She was wearing white silk, and she wanted me to see her." He doesn't recall which song he was singing when they ushered him back to his room.
His faith in God is one reason he plays. He never preached - "Brother" is an informal term of respect - but he aims to share the spirit.
"I have tried to change ... minds," he says, "to convince [people] there is a God, there's a heaven, there's a hell. Have you ever seen a boxer or a wrassler go into a ring with his opponent? You must remember, the Devil is your opponent. If you do something wrong, your mother beats you. Right? God will whip you. And you'll know the truth. Hah - you'll know the truth.
"But what's the Scripture say? Talk to 'em; plead with 'em; cry with 'em; shout with 'em - and then, shake the dust off your feet. That's what the Scripture says: Shake the dust off your feet."
Brother Mackall does that. More music comes to him, some dating back 300 years, Kline says - "How I Got Over"; "I Dreamed of a Great Judgement Morning." And the song Kline and colleagues used to title the new Elmer Mackall CD they've recorded and produced; after three-quarters of a century singing, he's made his first record. There's a Bright Side Somewhere will be available at tonight's concert and afterward through online ordering.
At St. Mary's, the three choirs from Shiloh church - founded "in slavery time" - will perform first, followed by Mackall with his two daughters, who long ago took up the family church-music tradition. Then he'll do at least four solo pieces. What they'll be, he can't say. "The spirit will teach you how you're gonna play," he says. "Something gets in your bones."
Will it matter that he's not in church?
Depends, he says.
"Take a few people with good spirit and you can sing better. Take a whole church with no spirit, you're still worse off. Just 'cause of the spirit," Mackall says. But "you have to bring something to carry something," he adds. "Just goes to how you think. If you think right, if you play with a smile, the whole world will smile with you. See what I mean?"
He plays a few arpeggios, ragtime style, as his listeners break into laughter, proving his point. It's Brother Mackall, floating again.
"See, we've got to realize who the churches are," he says. "We, sittin' here, are the church. Anywhere you go - big crowd, small crowd - we're all sisters and brothers. God made us all one. From his own image. Didn't he?"
What: An evening of African-American sacred singing featuring three Shiloh Community Church choirs (Newburg, Md.) and Brother Elmer Mackall
When: Tonight at 7:30
Where: St. Mary's Hall, St. Mary's College of Maryland, Route 5 and Trinity Church Lane in St. Mary's City
Call: 240-895-4380 or 240-895-2000; online: www.smcm.edu
The Gospel Extravaganza is presented by the Southern Maryland Folklife Project, St. Mary's College of Maryland and Trinity Episcopal Church, and funded by Maryland Traditions, a collaboration of the National Education Association, the Maryland State Arts Council and the Maryland Historical Trust. Information on the Southern Maryland Folklife Project can be found online at www.smcm.edu/folklife or www.folktalk.org.