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Holy Music

A few days ago I was in Middlesboro, Kentucky, for my forthcoming show on the National Geographic channel called Animal Underworld. I had the opportunity to attend a Pentecostal church meeting that doubled as a music gitdown unlike anything I've ever experienced.

Perhaps you have heard about what sometimes happens at these meetings: live music, speaking in tongues, strychnine drinking and poisonous snake handling. It is this last activity that perhaps raises the most eyebrows. In fact, the pastor at this church had been bitten six times, and is missing a good portion of one of his right fingers. But that didn't stop him from taking me out snake hunting that day, and we managed to catch a sub adult copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix) sunning itself on a log!

You may ask: Why would anyone want to handle copperheads, cottonmouths or rattlesnakes, anyway? Their venom is very potent stuff, after all. But you must understand that these folks take the following section from Mark 16:17-18 very seriously:


And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. (Mark 16:17-18)


That night we set up our cameras and lights in the small church, a humble but sturdy rectangle with a low roof that was devoid of windows. I took my seat in a pew at the front. The members had been warned we would be filming there and that they shouldn't show up if they didn't want to potentially be in the show. Yet, the place was full – about twenty-five people, perhaps — and I found out that many of them come to services three times per week. The attendees were middle-aged and older, white, and mostly large — a couple dangerously so. Their clothes were simple but formal, and, as far as I could tell, they were all shoeless.


To the pastor's left on the stage were several boxes of poisonous snakes. (The one we had caught earlier in the day had been deemed too small and was left back at the pastor's house.) There was a drum kit, a Les Paul Gold Top guitar, a couple of bass guitars and a keyboard. I'd known there was the possibility of music being played, and was eager to see how this was all going to go.


The pastor took to the podium and asked if anyone had anything ailing them. A few told him about the aches and pains they were suffering and he gave them a blessing. Before long, a young girl got behind the keyboard and the pastor's son got on the drums. A young man who had brought his own snake — a beautiful adult cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus) — picked up a bass, plugged into a rig, and started tuning up. The pastor tuned the Les Paul and quickly the rest of the band joined in. It was the start of a Gospel/Blues-based jam that didn't let up for almost three hours.

The music was good and I was digging it. I started clapping my hands and nodding my head; people around me noticed and smiles broke out all around.


About an hour in, the night took on a momentum that is hard to explain. People started sweating and dancing. One man walked with great difficulty to the front and others rushed to him, putting their hands on him. The keyboard player and the pastor started crying. The bass player put down his bass, brought out his cottonmouth and started dancing around with it, often holding it dangerously close to his face. People were moving all around me and I thought I was tripping. A man whose leg was in a cast stood up with his crutches, threw them down and started jumping up and down. The cottonmouth was now getting passed around, and all of this was happening as our two brave camera operators weaved in and out of the action.


The music occasionally stopped as people got up to testify. They would finish and the music would resume. The pastor had now switched with the bass player, the son was now singing into a cordless mic, an old woman was playing drums, and the keyboard girl hammered away while her tears were being wiped away by another woman. More snakes came out and were passed around, people started speaking in tongues, and more people sang. It was one of the most full-on experiences I have ever had in all my life. It was like being in the last scenes of The Party–if it was shot in Appalachia. I just sat there, taking it all in, wondering how I was going to be able to write all of this down.


Around two and a half hours in, the meeting started winding down. The church was hot and people had sweated through their clothing. The pastor asked me and the crew to testify. I thanked everyone for letting us be here, as did the rest of the team. Everyone clapped.


The pastor then thanked everyone for coming, and noted that the next meeting began in about thirteen hours.


I stood by the front door and talked to people on their way out. They were all incredibly friendly, wishing us luck. It had taken a lot of trust for them to let us in. Apparently, other film crews have made a sport of them before.


Several minutes later we were in the van, heading back to the hotel. Hardly anyone spoke. It was a night to remember. Most surprisingly, it featured some of the most rockin' live music I have heard in a long time.


Until next week.

LA Weekly