By John Cody
Its unlikely youve heard of Marsha Hansen. Sister-in-law to the Rolling Stones Keith Richards and Richards wife, ex-supermodel Patti Hansen, shes married to Hansens brother, Rodney, who happens to be a Lutheran pastor. Her family connections are impressive. And while that alone has gotten her press, its her music, intelligence, and faith that make her unique, as well as a fascinating interview.
Hansen has just released her first book, My Soul Is a Witness: the Message of the Spirituals in Word and Song (Augsburg Books) which includes her second CD of African-American spirituals.
It might surprise some to learn that her mentor and number one cheerleader is her brother-in-law. Richards put together friends and members of the Stones touring band for the disc, recording them in his home studio. The result is a relaxed, loose album thats part honky tonk, part sanctuary.
For those who have followed Richards musical endeavors over the years, his involvement in Hansens career is characteristic. In addition to his legendary status as a guitar player, hes also one of the most astute musicologists of our age, with an encyclopedic knowledge of a number of musical genres.
In addition to years of singing spirituals, Hansen has two formal degrees in Theology and Human Relations, and is a dissertation away from a Ph.D. in Sociology.
In the early eighties she was working as a naval officer when she met Rodney, a Naval Chaplin, while they were both stationed in Japan. They were married in 1981 aboard the aircraft carrier USS Midway.
Two years later Rodneys sister Patti a popular model at the time – married Richards. Rodney was unhappy, to say the least. He has since commented: I represent the establishment quite a different world from where Keith lives, and my first thought was, Of all the people in the world you had to fall in love with, Patti, look what you did! For her part, until then Marsha had little knowledge or interest in the Rolling Stones.
Today the Hansens live with their three children in El Paso, Texas, where Rodney is Pastor at Mount Hope Lutheran Church.
Its clear his initial feelings about Keith couldnt have been more off base.
Few would describe Richards as a choir boy, yet thats pretty much exactly where he started. As a member of a prestigious youth choir, he was only ten years old when he sang Handels Zadok the Priest as part of Queen Elizabeth IIs coronation ceremony in 1953. Chosen from hundreds of other sopranos, his vocal solo was broadcast around the world to an audience of ten million listeners. Winston Churchill claimed Richards rendition moved him to tears. Richards has called it his greatest gig ever.
Tales of excess and wicked ways have followed him throughout his career. I asked Hansen how she felt about Richards public image. It hurts me when people say something I know to be untrue. I don’t want to make some glib statement – I want to say how profoundly I feel about this man, in terms of someone who’s there for you, someone who if you’re sick cares that you’re sick. Somebody who listens to you when you talk, somebody who notices if you’re feeling left out, or isolated, that he’s right there. He’s my brother. I don’t know what I would do without him She begins to weep; I’m sorry I’m getting emotional, but he means so much to me It’s amazing how people don’t know this man.
By the same token, I don’t want to be unrealistic, because I probably don’t know that much about Rolling Stones music what the messages are. I’m not someone who goes around studying things I’ve seen written about Keith. It’s just that I know: I’ve seen him as a husband. I’ve seen him as a father, and I’ve experienced him as my brother-in-law who treats me like a sister. I’ve never had anybody be as kind and thoughtful. In terms of me raising my children, and them raising their kids, you know, we have great kids with good values, I would say Christian values. (The Richards have two daughters). He’s a strict dad. He’s something else. She begins to laugh. Oh my goodness, those children know to respect adults, and to not be materialists. Theyre phenomenal kids And there’s no nonsense around Uncle Keith. We have all raised these polite, wonderful children, I think. Who have direction in life, and who value other people, and I think he has been a central family member in helping set the standard for that.
At twenty one years old, Theodora is following in her Moms footsteps, with a successful modeling career already well underway. She recently adorned the cover of fashion magazine Lucire, and made news herself when she told the press that while her peers want to party, shes health conscious, prefers to get to bed early, and has little interest in drinking, unless its water. One paper described her as surprisingly down to earth.
Richards married Hansen on his fortieth birthday. It was the first marriage for both. Three years ago, the Spectator called him a secret churchgoing conservative, and claimed that his in-laws gave an interview in which they portrayed Keith as an enthusiastic disciple of Christ and that he had embraced Christ as a way of life.
I asked Marsha to comment on the above quote. While describing Patti as a devout Christian, she was pleased to set the record straight regarding Richards; Keith is a person for whom faith and religion are two entirely different things. He is no religionist of any type, and I think his faith is a very private thing for him.
I find Keith to be an intellectually thoughtful man, and a spiritual man, but one I definitely would not label as Christian in a traditional sense. Nevertheless, I see in him a man who lives the precepts that Jesus taught, and who honors God in his inner life. Institutional religion is just not for him. My belief is that he is appalled by hypocrisy, and it is that, more than anything else that makes him a rebel when it comes to institutional religion. I don’t have the means or need to convince anyone else, but I know he believes in and honors God. In my opinion, his reluctance to embrace a specific religious community has much to do with poor witness from people of faith, the history of us people of faith. Unfortunately, I think poor witness is the root of many divisions among people.
I tell you what, when Keith leans over and says to me, One Love, I get it.
Regarding her own faith, shes explicit: For myself, Jesus is my Lord, my savior and my redeemer. I think the most comforting thought any of us can have, is that ultimately, God is our judge, and not we ourselves. That is my comfort in all my struggles to live out my faith, and that is the reality I believe in for others."
She also believes that music is an essential part of worship.
Music is the way we join our voices together, I certainly don’t look at it as an adjunct to worship, or an add-on We are worshiping when we offer our music, same as offering our prayer together, our corporate prayer. In some ways music does even more than just mere words and language, because you can include people with music in a lot deeper than an emotional sense. I don’t mean emotionalism, because faith has to be more than just emotionalism. At the level of the spirit, at the level of the soul. A different communication taking place, and the connection taking place, I think were connected to our source, and were connected to each other through music.
Even though there are obvious similarities, Hansen doesnt include white Gospel in the same category as the African American Spirituals. I see a big difference in how they originated. When you are coming out of a situation of oppression your voice is a little more authentic. People who hope and hold out a light of hope in that kind of situation command the attention of others. For instance, victims of the Holocaust? Absolutely. I stop and listen with the wounded heart to people like that. Theres strength, a power in their words that if you havent suffered doesnt command of the same kind of attention.
In My Soul Is a Witness Hanson examines the historical and theological significance of African-American sacred music.
The songs transcend their time and circumstances, and are still sung in churches today by believers of every stripe.
In many ways, they are like the Psalms both came from a people waiting on God to free them from their captors, and at the core of each is a desire for purpose and a longing for the Holy. Interaction as God intends, as opposed to what a corrupt society has instigated.
Rather than being duped into accepting the white mans god, the enslaved people of the south saw past the distorted, self-serving version of the gospel as taught by slave-holders, and grasped the true message of the gospel. As they say, nobody has ownership of the truth. Whatever is true is true and anybody can partake of that who wants to. And the slaves got that message.
They identified themselves as beneficiaries of Gods love, and inheritors of His kingdom. Jesus, who was betrayed, scorned and crucified, was easy to relate to.
Hansen addresses the idea that slavery is sanctioned in the Bible. Like every other sin you can imagine its addressed in the Bible, but at no point does that mean that its prescribed… Adultery is talked about David, one of my heroes in the faith, was an adulterer – but that doesnt mean for any of us to go do that. Moses murdered someone, and we all admire Moses, but we dont admire him for that.
In many cases, slave owners would eventually change their way of thinking, and go on to fight against the practice. Yes, thats true. The abolitionists were totally essential to breaking the bonds of slavery. Those were devout, good people.
Despite a legacy of oppression, there was a corporate strength and identity in the African-American community, which was passed on through successive generations. Music was a primary vehicle.
The spirituals influenced a wide range of subsequent styles, including blues and soul music. I would say that sacred music from that period is the root of even rock music Gospel music grew out of the spirituals.
The 1960s brought the black pride movement, with performers like Curtis Mayfield and James Brown making an effort to be like that rising tide [that] lifts all.
And Aretha Franklin. I think both as the Queen of Soul, and also as a gospel artist. She really gets it and gets her message across. That woman has power, she gets the message and she really represents the culture well. [She] makes it very accessible for everyone, it doesn’t matter what color you are or what background you came from, if youre listening to Aretha you know she’s got her arm around you
While it grew out of the same traditions, the present day rap and hip-hop culture concerns Hansen. Rap is taking the culture in a totally different direction than the sacred music did. Rap is the music of the seriously disenfranchised that doesnt represent a hope the way the sacred music represented a hope for disenfranchised people. Whereas the sacred music can be really inclusive and universal, rap tends to repel people who arent part of that micro-culture in black life. Rap is a rebellious music of young people today who are feeling so marginalized and rejecting a lot of traditional culture. Even though the musical form grew out of the same roots as a sacred music, the philosophy didnt.
Theres a sense of anger and a sense of exclusion. Excluding other people. Its like This is us: you have nothing to do with us, whereas Gospel music and the spirituals are saying Look, were all human beings, we all need to act like it, together. That theres a whole sense of a hope for togetherness and working things out.
Hansen does find hope in a few current artists; There are some middle of the roaders, like Queen Latifah, who started off as a rapper, is somebody who I respect enormously, who has a positive message and I think can accomplish incredible things in all areas of art I cant wait to see where all shes going. But then there are other rap artists that really hurt me just in terms of how they depict black womanhood, and in terms of how the black family is depicted. Its hurtful and hopeless.
As the book confirms, Hansen is as gifted a writer as she is a singer. I think – I hope – I’m a good writer. I’m devoted to writing in the Christian genre. Shes been working with Peter Huchthausen (K-19 The Widow Maker, Hostile Waters). He and I have a book coming out shortly. He’s doing typical war stories, because that’s what he writes, hes a maritime historian, a military historian. I’m doing the faith aspect to those, finding God in those hard moments of life.
In large part, the inspiration for Hansens CD goes back to Wingless Angels, a Rastafarian drum and chant group whose repertoire features Wesleyan hymns and spirituals. Richards had co-produced and released their self-titled debut on his own label in 1997.
Thats sort of what fed my project. I would sit with him, just listening to that and trying to figure out what needed cleaning up or what was going to be included. It was a real education for me just to watch him listen to music, because every time he would listen he was listing for a different element. He might listen to the same song several times, but he wasnt listening to the same song, if you know what I mean. He and I talked a lot about those songs and so many of those were familiar to me, and I decided I was going to do a CD, which he helped me to do.
Richards had encouraged her to give up teaching and get serious about singing and ministry. He told me to stop being so shy about it. Like; Get out there and do it, because I guess I was a little reserved.
Hansens debut, I Know the Lord Laid His Hands On Me (Orchard) was released in 1999. Instead of performing on the disc, Richards put her together with keyboardist Rob Whitlock. Consisting of eleven pre-Civil War era spirituals, the duo produced a fine effort that showed she had been paying attention to her mentor We use a number of instruments – my arrangements are very much influenced by what I was listening to from Wingless Angels. Richards was impressed. He was pretty pleased with it, even though it was my first CD.
When it came time for her second Cd, she wanted to try something a bit more substantial. I knew I was going to write a book on spirituals and I asked Keith if he would play on some of the songs with me Ive been mesmerized at home with Keith where he just plays for the joy of it, or is just playing guitar by himself trying to work something out. Its fascinating, and sometimes hell hear me singing and come in and pick up the guitar and play what Im singing. [Or] Ill play the piano and hell come and pick up his guitar and play that with me or sit down and play piano with me as we are talking. The CD grew out of those experiences of us together at the house.
The disc includes fourteen tracks, evenly divided between those recorded with Richards, and Hansen alone with piano accompaniment.
Richards choose players who could excel in this kind of an environment, including Blondie Chaplin and Chuck Leavell both longtime veterans of the Stones touring band – Bob Dylans current drummer George Receli, Babi Floyd and others.
He also brought in his Wingless Angels co-producer. Rob Fraboni. Fraboni has worked with everyone from Bob Dylan to U2. He first worked with the Stones on Goats Head Soup in 1973, and goes even further back with Chaplin, recording him during his tenure as a Beach Boy.
Hansens daughter Jordan sings with her throughout the disc.
The tracks were recorded at Richards Connecticut home. I had recorded I Know the Lord Laid His Hands on Me at a studio and he said Look, I dont want you to do that this time, no headphones, no nothing, were just gonna make some music. They went old school. No headphones. Thats just exactly how it sounds.
Id sit down at the piano and play something and then get up and let the keyboardist whos going to play, play it for the recording while I sing.
Some of the songs Keith might’ve started playing a piece of music just because he heard that in his head, and Id decide what lyrics went with it. That’s why you get some very original arrangements.
Its loose in the best sense, with talking and laughter between the tracks enhancing the mood. Rock in Jerusalem, comes across with a sparse, funky groove reminiscent of the Stones mid-70s work, sounding like a revival meeting with guitars, and shows just how close the rock and spiritual forms are.
For Hansen, a highlight of the sessions was getting to know the individual musicians; I probably spent some time walking in the gardens or talking with almost everybody individually, learning some of their stories.
She was particularly taken with Blondie Chaplin. Chaplin who started out playing rock music as a teen in South Africa, before joining the Beach Boys during the mid-1970s, singing lead on the single Sail On Sailor. He met Keith when he was brought in to sing on the Wingless Angels album. That led to his current gig singing back-up with the Stones. He told me some really touching stories of growing up in South Africa, and getting out of there [at 16 years old]. Of having to leave his mother, [trying] to get her out of that oppression, out of that Apartheid. It’s a really heart-wrenching story. I want to spend more time with him just because of that. I really feel honored that Blondie is on the CD.
The two duet on Stan Still Jordan. Blondie and I were taking a little break, and I said Here’s a really pretty song, let me sing it for you, and thats just basically him learning the song. Well, Keith liked it so much that he recorded it. Just the two voices and piano, its a moving rendition made all the more poignant by Chaplins own story. You talk about an authentic voice when we’re singing I got a mother in Heaven I know he felt it.
As we finish, she offers an apology; I’m probably the only person who ever cried in the middle of an interview she laughs. Its a fitting testament to Richards.
© John Cody 2006