Feeling the vibrations: Moses Jones delves into labor history and weird science
Robert Johnson Jr. had a sort of spiritual awakening about seven years ago. It was a eureka moment. It led him on the path he’s on today. The revelation put him on a mission to make healing vibrations. Making music is what anchors his world now. Johnson, the frontman and songwriter behind the Gastonia/Charlotte band Moses Jones, was on something of a religious quest. Johnson, as he tells it, had been raised a devout Southern Baptist.
“My grandma took me from church to church, and when we weren’t in church we were watching church on T.V.,” Johnson said. We spoke last week by phone. (Moses Jones plays a show at Earl’s in Winston-Salem on Saturday.)
His search for the divine and the truth resulted in something that shook his foundations. In prayer, Johnson said he basically requested a glimpse of the face of the creator, having been convinced enough with evidence of the workings of God in the world.
“Man, I’m tellin you, you gotta be careful of what you ask for,” said Johnson of what happened next. “It tore me down to the foundation and built me up to where I am now.”
He’s no longer a Southern Baptist. Johnson is a bit of a mystic, deeply into the occult and the paranormal. You might not guess that those streams of thought underpin the music of Moses Jones. At first listen, the band (a trio) can sound like a workmanlike bar band with blues, country, soul and Southern rock underpinnings– nothing out of the ordinary or terribly unfamiliar.
But Johnson and his bandmates are making music that vibrates at a different frequency than most bands. Literally. Johnson and a number of others out there believe that by altering the tuning of their instruments, they can make music that conforms closer to the physical laws of the universe and thereby sounds more appealing and pleasing, and even has vibrational properties that are healing. This stuff gets scientific fast. And there’s plenty of quackery associated with it. I’m not an acoustic engineer or a physicist. But one can indeed tune the A above Middle C to 432-hertz as opposed to the standard 440-hertz, and some people find that slight difference to be profound. Others can’t notice much to distinguish the two.
“I’m kind of a — maybe a witch doctor, maybe a mad scientist — I’m not sure,” said Johnson about his interest in the vibrations at the core of the music. “There’s a whole lot of information, but there’s a whole lot of misinformation.”
But that altered tuning isn’t really central to the music of Moses Jones. Johnson and his band don’t sing about esoteric stuff or paranormal mysteries. For the most part, they sing about standard subjects: nostalgia for the glory days, the hardships and pleasures of love, of cheating and being cheated on.
There might be profound scientific principles at work governing the ways that the pitches vibrate and the way those waves affect our bodies, but that doesn’t mean the songs need to be particularly far out.
“Why would we try to make it something that most people won’t understand?” Johnson said. There’s an aspect to their playing that is something akin to proselytizing or giving out vaccines. Johnson views their work as spreading a kind of healing truth, and to him, it doesn’t matter if the patrons at the bars they play have any notion of that.
“We know that they’re getting it, whether they know that they’re getting it,” he said.
Johnson and Moses Jones want the music to get people moving, whether it’s on a cellular level, with sympathetic vibrations keyed into those 432-hertz cycles, or whether it’s the old-fashioned way, simply from the beat and the groove and the familiarity of the feel.
“We call our sound dirty Southern soul — it’s organic, it’s country, it’s blues, it’s roots, it’s rock. It’s all of those things that make you move. My philosophy is, ‘Keep it simple, and people will get it,’ and they do.”
Another area of interest for Johnson, as a songwriter and as a member of the community, is in some local history that he happens to have close physical ties to. Johnson lives in an apartment in the historic Loray Mill building in Gastonia. The mill was the site of some pivotal labor organizing incidents, events that loom large in North Carolina history with regard to labor rights. In 1929, textile workers at the mill and some other nearby mills organized strikes to protest for fairer wages and a better work environment. In the resulting confrontation with a police force brought in to suppress the workers, one of the strikers, a pregnant woman named Ella May Wiggins, was shot and killed, as was a local sheriff. Wiggins, who was also a singer and songwriter, is a folk hero. Woody Guthrie admired her work. Alan Lomax published some of her ballads. Pete Seeger sang her songs. The novelist Wiley Cash portrayed Wiggins in his novel The Last Ballad based on her life.
A lot has been done to celebrate Wiggins’ life, but Johnson and others are hoping to get a bronze statue built commemorating Wiggins on the site of the mill or nearby. Johnson helps host a monthly songwriter event that raises money for the effort, and he’s written songs that work to channel the spirit of the murdered mill worker.
“We are doing it,” said Johnson of the effort to honor Wiggins with public art. “We are making it happen.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See Moses Jones at Earl’s, 121 W. 9th St., Winston-Salem, on Sat., June 22, www.earlsws.com