In the Capra-esque 1934 Frank Capra romantic comedy It Happened One Night, a reporter shows a spoiled heiress that he's on the level by draping a blanket over a rope between the twin beds in the bungalow they have to share for the night. He names the blanket “the Walls of Jericho,” and later (spoiler alert, if you're the only person reading this who's never seen it), when the couple playfully re-creates the scenario on their honeymoon, he blows a trumpet before knocking down the “walls.”
I got it as a kid that “the Walls of Jericho” was a metaphor for the mysterious adult ritual called “sex” but didn't know exactly where the phrase came from.
I did know that it was about a battle, since even before I'd seen It Happened One Night, I'd heard the traditional spiritual “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho,” powerfully covered by Odetta on her 1962 Live at Carnegie Hall LP. It was one of my mother's favorite records. I never listened closely to the lyrics, but I picked up that Joshua was a soldier, a leader, who had something to do with some walls tumbling down.
Years after I'd forgotten that album, I rediscovered it via Pier Paolo Pasolini's third film, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, which recast the New Testament gospel in the Italian neo-realist idiom, tweaked with Pasolini's lyrical daring. Who else in 1964 but that earnest, brokenhearted poet of cinema would have used a live recording of a contemporary African-American folk performance of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” to accompany images of a young, sensual, angelic, non-professional Mary, dressed in rags, cradling her baby? It's a jarring contrast, but it works because Odetta's version of the song is so profoundly beautiful and haunting, holy even. After my mom died, it was a long time before I could listen to it again.
I know that my appreciation for music and movies—and my ignorance of Bible stories—comes in large part from my mother. She didn't mind when I chose to drop out of Jewish religious indoctrination at age 11, and the topic of religion almost never came up again, except when she was laughing at televangelists.
When Odetta died last month, it was just a few weeks after the passing of another of my mom's favorites, Miriam Makeba. Losing those two exceptionally gifted and similar women—one African-American, the other African, both prominent folk singers and civil-rights activists, both performers into their 70s—is a blow to our culture. I'm sure I'm not the only one born in the 1960s, raised on the soundtrack of that era's struggles, who has been revisiting the music of Odetta and Makeba this last month, as we all do when an artist we love leaves the realm.
It's no wonder my mom was drawn to such remarkable voices, having sung herself in school choirs, but it was also their spirit of resistance that attracted her. She never accepted that injustice was incontrovertible. When we moved to California and she saw the books my sister and I brought home from school, she marched down to the school board.
Why were her kids being forced to read the same sexist, racist crap she'd read in the '50s? Think of how many other little acts of resistance like this have been inspired by the epic struggles of the civil-rights movement.
That was my mom's spirituality: no ritualistic worship of a patriarchal, bearded ghost chucking lightning bolts from a cloud. She was Earthbound and focused on questioning the arrangements. It's one of the most important things she gave me: inquisitiveness.
So, listening to Odetta sing “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho” last week, and thinking about my mom, I started to wonder about this battle of Jericho story. Why did it rise to prominence in Judeo-Christian mythology, as opposed to, say, the story of the talking donkey in the Book of Numbers?
Here's what I learned: Joshua, a spy for Moses, became a military leader who helped the Israelites conquer Canaan. He sent a couple spies to check out Jericho, a walled ancient city they planned to obliterate. The spies were found out by Jericho's king but hidden and saved by a woman named Rahab, who may or may not have been a prostitute.
Joshua then led a siege on the walled city. God advised Joshua to circle the fortified town seven times and blow a ram's horn, and then the walls would fall down. It worked! Miracle! That's the story's enduring power—if only it ended there and not with Josh and his buddies storming the city and killing every man, woman and child in a massive, good old-fashioned bloodbath. Oh, but the Israelites did graciously spare the alleged traitor lady of ill-repute.
God in the Bible is a real terror, isn't he?
Still, the gory details of the Bible story can color our understanding of the Jericho song as a civil-rights anthem, giving it the weight of a hell of a threat, not just to break down the barriers of prejudice, but to wage a revolution of one sort or another against the oppressors if they don't straighten up and fly right. Miriam Makeba performed a song called “Mbube” with a similar message; you know it as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
If I were a religious person, I might end this with an image of my mom singing harmony with Odetta and Makeba in a heavenly choir. Instead, I think I'll end with the walls of Jericho tumbling down.
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