In a musical culture he describes as being known equally for its gratuitous showmanship and bonhomie, Harrison finds a simple answer [to why southern gospel matters]. If what speaks to your soul happens to support your worldview, all the better. But unwavering belief in the message is only one aspect of appreciating four-part harmony. Music and its meaning are not bound by orthodoxy.
Speaking of the Singing Americans, here’s a vintage clip of a very young Michael English singing with his brother, Biney, who’s trying to hold down Ed Hill’s part (h/t, KC).
Poor Biney … perhaps he gives off more of the dead-eyed mouth-breathing look and sound of Lester Moran than anyone not doing a parody of themselves probably should, so the result on the whole is not always great. But the pitch-shaving flaccidity of Biney’s lead work is worth enduring just to see how intuitive and impeccable Michael English’s sense of timing has been as a singer since … pretty much the beginning of his professional career.
It’s not uncommon for one singer to help out another who’s struggling with solo lines. But whereas most performers try a diversionary pep talk and over-enthusiastic atta-boys to try to rescue a solo that’s tanking on stage, English here just stares at the floor and (as if absentmindedly) threads in these golden strands of harmonic filigree (it even gets a knowing grin from Strickland, how English handles it all). No, it doesn’t exactly turn Biney’s straw to gold, but it has the effect of weaving into the gathering dullness these sparkling threads of promise … just hang on, English’s humming seems to say … the second verse is coming (and gawsh it’s transporting, idn’t it, that little duet?). Oh, and the piano and bass are also a brief clinic in understated instrumental brilliance.
So there’s all that to recommend here, plus a very young Rick Strickland … and - BONUS - the chance to giggle at the various follicular disasters of bangs and ’staches still hung over from the 70s.
No, I don’t mean the song of that title that was rendered both exhausting and exhausted by the Hoppers. Rather, I’m wondering if southern gospel crowds still shout like they used to? In the car this morning, I heard the Singing Americans’ “I Bowed on My Knees” from Live and Alive and then the Perrys” “Praise Gawd It’s Settled I’m Saved” from Absolutely Positively Live and realized, when you hear those crowds roar, it feels like an artifact of an earlier time. Here’s the Perrys:
I don’t mean that crowds don’t get excited any more, nor do I mean to suggest that there aren’t certain churches where one could read the phone book and reduce to the crowd to convulsions of holy spirit anointing. Nevertheless, it seems like the collective screaming roar that breaks out on both the Perrys and the Singing Americans’ albums - the kind of thing the Kingsmen nearly trademarked - has been replaced by a more middle-brow politesse … lots of clapping, sure, and standing ovations, absolutely. But it’s less clear to me that crowds give up those great primal roar of enraptured pleasure in these latter days.
Perhaps my premise is flawed and I’ve misperceived the situation entirely. But let’s pretend for a moment I haven’t. So what might account for this state of affairs? Some possibile theories, which I offer by way of exploration and not as definitive accounts (as you’ll see, I’m not necessarily convinced of them myself in some places).
1. Live music is less spontaneous in the age of tracks and stacks, which makes it harder for groups to create the kind of unlooked for descent of glory-rolling joy that stands behind the scenes captured above. Consequently, crowds are conditioned to manage and lower their expectations for the endangered species of the unexpected. To wit: notice that while the Perrys are using a track in “Praise Gawd,” and the crowd is already amped up by the first encore, the real shoutin’ begins precisely when the track fails to come in at the right moment in the second encore, thereby creating this unexpected and pretty thrillingly precarious situation for Watts and the crowd … will she hold it? Will the track pick up? What if it doesn’t? What if she can’t? … and the collective precarity of the unprogrammed moment, and her ability to pull it off induces the screamin’ fits (I always wonder when I hear Watt’s let out that spirit filled “oh yes” right after the track arrives around - it’s around 3′55″ - if Watts isn’t essentially saying “gosh that was close”). What’s the most recent southern gospel live album you’ve heard that captures this kind of moment?
2. Fewer live albums are recorded. This could be a byproduct of No. 1 in a couple of different ways: first, even notionally live gigs are largely karaoke concerts that vary little from the sound of a studio album. And, second, the cost structures and profit margins for most groups are so heavily leveraged to the stack/track model of performance, few groups have the ability or willingness to invest in what it takes to put on fully live concerts.
3. Even when a group does put on a fully live concert, they may have become so accustomed to performing highly programmed sets that they (and their audiences) discover they’ve basically lost the mojo and moxie that’s required to pull off what English and Watts do in the examples above. I have absolutely no proof of this, but it certainly seems plausible to me that after 10 or 15 or (for many groups) 20 years of concerts that are almost entirely tracked and stacked, performers can lose that open-nerved sensibility that’s a part of all good live music. Sing with digital bands and backing vocals long enough, and those ecstatic instances of insight and instinct when a performer sees or feels or makes a way for an opening in the arc of the song that’s only possible in the interplay of genuinely live music - it seems possible that this sensibility could become dulled or numbed or sclerotic or oblated and all but disappear after enough disuse.
4. Southern gospel has become so generically hybridized and interbred stylistically that the kinds of songs, and especially the kinds of endings, that have historically induced shoutin’ spells in southern gospel crowds (think three chords and a cloud of dust) are no longer a staple of the southern gospel stage. This feels both self-indulgently nostalgic (as if musical genres don’t or shouldn’t change over time) and perhaps just another version of No. 3 above.
5. It’s all Gaither’s fault. Heheh. But think about it: Homecoming venerates southern gospel, but it’s a bourgeois and polite version of the music and its history. And Gaither audiences reflect this sensibility in their response to Homecoming music: Gaither audiences will clap and standingly ovate and gushingly buy product by the armload. But Gaither crowds just don’t, as matter of course, scream and shout(the Kingsmen had to behave themselves when they were allowed to sit on Homecoming concerts and, as a friend noted to me the other day, Anthony Burger’s style took on a certain muzaky politesse in his Gaither years that’s emblematic of the effect I’m trying, imperfectly, to capture here). This phenomenon is particularly curious given that Michael English made his name in the Gaither universe covering “I Bowed On My Knees” with just as much, maybe even more, vocal theatrically as he bestowed upon the song when Singing American fans were weeping and wailing at the wonder of it all (though it is true that English’s tone was noticeably more covered and darker in his Singing American days - he sounds older to me in the 1980s, frankly - before English’s joining the GVB and his turn toward CCM in the 1990s, when he brightened the overall color of his voice while also using a lot more throaty sound effects … all that growling and whining and melismatic carrying on). Maybe the difference is that, whereas the Kingsmen/Goodmans style of performance was purposefully designed to whip crowds up into a frothy frenzy, Gaither music is designed to stun audiences into a kind of dazzling Disneyfied awe (thus the big orchestral warhorses and movingly back lit power anthems etc). Hamill and Vestal wouldn’t go home till their crowds dissolved into puddles of tears and sweat and spiritual dissipation under the relentless pressure of their pounding sounds. Gaither wants you enchanted and leaving mesmerized by the larger-than-life magic of it all. Shorter version of this theory: what hasn’t Gaither influenced?
6. The brave new digital world of post-production enhancements makes it awfully easy to airbrush into your “live” recordings the amped up roar of what more typically sounds like a baseball stadium after a homerun than a great gettin-up fit of gospel shoutin’ (still looking at you, Hoppers, though in fairness, and while I’m trotting out theories here, I have a theory that the popularity of the sampling of the completely unbelievable stadium roar on live albums was really inaugurated by the distant roaring crowd sampled into the GVB’s “Count on Me,” which is a rich irony, since that was not, of course, a live album at all, and the sample was supposed to be heard as a sound effect, as artificial). The theory here isn’t that no one ever spliced in canned applause in the analog days, but there was (what seems now to look like) a certain naive commitment to verisimilitude in live albums from the pre-ProTools and serial-sampling era. In those bygone days, live albums tended to aspire to capture in live recordings that unique shoutin’ sound of a gospel audience in the throes of enthrallment to close harmony. Of the four theories, I’m most distrustful of this one because it relies on precisely the kind of good-ole-days nostalgifying that I regularly call out in others. But these, dear readers, are the lengths to which I’ll go for gospel.
Whereas Graham’s fame was—and is and will always be—a product of his preaching, Shea brought an independently established reputation as a professionally successful gospel singer to his work on the Crusades. So the international fame he achieved as Graham’s soloist was, in its own way, wider (though not necessarily deeper) than Graham’s. That’s because, while Graham had faithful followers, Shea had product-buying fans.
In short, Shea helped the worshiping faithful understand the purchasing power of Christian consumers as an extension of their piety, as form of devotional practice that encompassed the ordinary pleasures of music entertainment.
At the family reunions of remotest childhood, my paternal grandmother Maude’s brother (Uncle Johnny to everyone) would sit on the porch of a river house that belonged to one of our (rarely) affluent distant relatives and, leaning forward into the guitar resting on his knee, do a spot-on cover of Jones’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”
The aching arc of Johnny’s (and in our minds, George’s) voice, bringing to life the mournful wail at the dark-hearted center of the song, would pitch off over the river bluff and hang there in what seems to me now a beautiful desolation.
I’m glad that my younger self was vaccinated by childhood against hearing or seeing or sensing any of this - all the generations of hopes and failures roiling through so many of Jones’s best songs, all the individual and collective striving and failing and yet more sad-hearted upstream striving he and his fans knew from long experience.
RIP Possum, the broken-hearted poet of all who, as he put it once, go half crazy now and then.
As you doubtless have heard, the great gospel revivalist Bev Shea died. He was 104.
Whenever possible as a blogger, I’ve tried to gather the roses (and thorns if necessary) while ye may with respect to great figures during their lifetimes. So I’ll stand by what I wrote a few years back re Shea on the occasion of his being honored with a Lifetime Achievement award by the Grammys. Money quote:
[Shea’s style] certainly fit to the forthright, just-the-gospel-of-Christ-ma’am Graham aesthetic, but Shea’s propensity for coloring his tones quasi-operatically tended to make most everything he sang sound the same. “I’d Rather Have Jesus” can certainly carry the weight of Shea’s majestic singing. Or perhaps more accurately, Shea’s singing style befits the song. A more rollicking tune like “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” not so much.
No matter, Shea was arguably among the first bonafide international gospel stars and certainly the most famous white gospel singer of the 20th century. He’s the kind of singer whose work and talent suffuse the fiber of American culture and yet - like so much of the popular culture and arts of evangelicalism - often go largely unnoticed and unrecognized outside of the religious world. Congrats, Bev.
And now, may he, who wrote of the wonder of it all, rest in the wondrous peace about which he sang so much.
I write to you, loyal readers, from the big belly of the the giant Peabody Hotel in Little Rock, Arkansas (the place with the ducks everywhere) and the Society for American Music annual conference. I gave a paper yesterday as part of a panel on shape-note gospel and its legacies (you can see the full schedule here), a panel whose papers powerfully captured the growing scholarly interest in reimagining the boundaries of what the gospel phenomenon encompasses to take seriously white gospel traditions that have long been overlooked or ignored.
That’s the theory part. The practice side of things - the really fun stuff - came last night in the form of the Folk and Traditional Music Interest Group’s hosting “Gospel Convention Singing in Arkansas Today” (many thanks are due Steve Shearon of MTSU, a tireless and eloquent advocate among scholars of music for better understanding and appreciation of the vast cultural resources that exist past and present in southern gospel convention singing and shape-note music).
As the old song says, oh the glory did roll. Marty Phillips and the Brothers Jeffress from the Jeffress/Phillips Music company brought with them a host of convention singers from all the over the state, including Jonathan Sawrie (who both sang and played the piano and who I gather is still gigging on the road now and then when the spirit moves and personnel necessity for quartets arises), Eugene Gifford, and Ellen Marsh. Marsh was particularly virtuosic at the piano: she’s near the Tracey Phillips caliber of gospel player, and I was struck last night as much as anything by her sense of timing … there were moments during her accompaniment of Sawrie’s “My Gawd is Real” in which her rhythms were nothing short of artisanal in their merger of jazz impulses repurposed for great gospel effect (and Marsh is evidently having hand surgery today … send thoughts her way).
Finally, Bob Brumely and family were there (one of my co-presenters and organizers of the panel on which I presented, Kevin Kehrberg, from Warren Wilson College, has written an acclaimed dissertation on Albert Brumley and shape note music, which many of use are hopeful will soon appear in book form). Brumely (fil) is nothing short of an oracle in the convention world, and listening to him talk (and then sing), I was reminded of how skillfully the Brumley universe has managed to remain both beloved by the convention singing world and powerfully a part of the professional southern gospel realm - no small feat to have pulled off over the past three or four decades when the centers of energy in convention singing and professional southern gospel have grown farther and farther apart. I mentioned something to this effect to Brumley after the singing and he graciously attributed this success to the powerful catalog of songs his father left behind. I don’t doubt that’s true, but Brumley’s been an insightful and savvy bidness man to deploy the power of that catalog so strategically lo these many years since Albert E.’s passing.
Anyway, there are fewer pleasures more satisfying than seeing and hearing and joining one’s voice in a chorus of gospel song … and personally and professionally feeling the old antagonisms between thought and action, theory and practice dissolve under the vitality of close harmony. More conventions singings, please.
Black history month is only just a few days behind us, and besides we’ve talking about race and gospel music some recently anyway. So it seems worth noticing something one doesn’t see that much of in southern gospel: a white gospel artist specifically, publicly, and appreciatively connecting what he does to black gospel traditions (though it’s also true that black and white gospel in general don’t really spend much time purposefully reflecting on how they have relied upon and been shaped by each other). Thus a recent e-blast from the Ernie Haase and Sig Sound mothership:
In light of it being “Black History month” here in the U.S., I would like to pay tribute to all our African-American friends for their contribution to our world. And more specifically, I’d like to acknowledge and share the great music they have provided to the world, especially to EHSS. Without this music, there probably would not have been EHSS, or at least the style of EHSS. Get Away Jordan, Old Landmark, Swinging On The Golden Gate, Swing Low Sweet Chariot and so many other songs we perform each night came from these writers and churches and we are blessed to honor that influence this month.
This is followed by a link to some of black gospel artists Haase says has shaped his life (among them, Thomas Dorsey, Mahalia Jackson, Jessy Dixon, and the Hummingbirds).
More than one point of contact I’ve had with People Who Know have indicated to me that the response to this e-blast included a troubling number of hateful replies from fans(as in, more than a hundred) that seem to range from latently supremacist to downright racist. I wish I could say I was surprised, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still saddening.
I wish not to dwell on this overmuch (not least of all because I understand there were even more positive responses), but I also think intellectual honesty and moral integrity require all of us to acknowledge that racism is not some thing of the past in southern gospel that we can consign to the comfortable distance of ye olde days of Jim Crow. And I say “us” and “we” quite intentionally: for my part, I’ve had to confront quite publicly my own blind spots when it comes to race and gospel (see here if you’re new or have a bad memory; I also included this episode in the book - page 202, note 51 - as a way to document that we all have skin in the game, so to speak, when it comes to America’s race history).
And the valuable necessity of publicly reconciling with one’s own past (individually and collectively) is part of what I was getting at in a recent post: southern gospel as a cultural force has yet to come to terms with the fact that in the not-so-distant past, southern gospel not infrequently used the power of celebrity and the cultural authority of religious music to perpetuate attitudes and practices of racial inequality, injustice, and oppression. At least it hasn’t come to terms with this reality with anything close to same level of publicity and longevity with which white supremacy and racism were an open and common part of southern gospel life. And, as the EHSS example suggests, that hateful legacy lives ominously on.
I’ve documented a fairly appalling collection of examples from this dark passage of southern gospel history in my book (see Chapter 3, pages 96-103), not because it was easy or because I enjoyed it (it wasn’t and I didn’t) but because a culture that is as serially nostalgic as southern gospel is also expert at cultivating a good-ole-days fantasy of its own golden age that airbrushes out the inconvenient or unpleasant parts, including the reality that some of its biggest names and most revered artists were segregationists and racists who engaged in segregationist and/or racist speech and actions in their roles as southern gospel performers (and these are people who have been feted and venerated well into our time without any indication by today’s generation of stars and fans that this golden age racism was or is a problem). How can anyone really and fully learn from the past if it’s forgotten or ignored?
No, openly racist behaviors are no longer acceptable in southern gospel (though plenty of folks would suggest that Bible-based bigotry has just found a new object in the more politically activist dimensions of southern gospel’s culture-war celebrities today; and here’s a good place to note that the last couple of times I’ve been to an EHSS concert, I’ve been impressed by how gracefully and - it seems to me - authentically Haase has made a point to reach out and try to make his music connect to segments of the Christian music audience who might be easily alienated by some of the more polemical rhetoric of the southern gospel mainstream). No, not everyone was a racist in southern gospel, of course not. And yes, the range of what was deemed normative and acceptable among mainstream southern white culture is different today than it was in the 1950s.
But the half-life of racism is toxic and long, reaching much farther than the limited effects of historical context and cultural qualifications to explain away the likes of Hovie and Jake and JD’s actions (among others). Their imitations of black singers and their mocking stories about black religious culture and their “black voice” recordings were not just good-natured fun at the competition’s expense: they were white men using the power that automatically accrued to any white man in the Jim Crow South to reduce black America to a dismissible collection of primitive, outsized, barely civilized tics, mannerisms and customs (and the fact that these guys stopped doing their racist set pieces from the stage and in the studio when openly racist behaviors become unacceptable in mainstream American life strongly suggests they knew it was wrong … who knows what, if any, excuse is offered by the kind of performer who was still telling watermelon jokes from the stage as late as the 1980s). Repairing the deep breech of racism that much of American evangelicalism helped widen for the better part of the twentieth century cannot be repaired by simply pretending or wishing it was never so.
Even the Southern Baptist Convention recognized this, however belatedly, in its 1995 resolution on racial reconciliation. Can southern gospel imagine itself no less implicated than Southern Baptism, no less morally - to say nothing of spiritually - compromised by its collective failure to try to come to some kind of collective terms with the role it played in gilding racism with the cultural authority of the gospel? Well, yes, I suppose southern gospel might by and large imagine just that. Seeing through a glass darkly and all.
Even so. Atonement requires more than not repeating the offenses of history. And people who rely on narratives of redemption to understand themselves and the world must surely, chief among confessing men and women, realize the expiating truth of this proposition.
So, yeah … one black history month post by a white gospel group isn’t going to become a propitiation for all of southern gospel’s race sins, though a resolution from the SGMG, the NQC, the GMA, the SGMA, among others, along the lines of the SBC’s would be a not-bad place start. Resolutions themselves don’t do much, but the process and resulting conversation that would be required to produce one would be worth it (this was the point, I think, of the SBC resolution). Not least of all, such a process and result would be good for bidness, and you know what else? It’d also be good practice, since in a generation or so, these folks’ descendants will need to engage in a process of reconciliation along similar lines for the deplorable way gay folks have been treated by much of Christian music.
But in any case, good on Haase for being purposeful in practicing the small but not inconsequential acts of reconciliation that have to be a part of truly redemptive cultural repentance.
Staying with my absorption in questions of race and culture in gospel, and speaking of Sister Rosetta, PBS’s American Experience series ran an episode this past Friday on the crossover (and back) guitar virtuoso of mid-century gospel who, as one of the film’s sources puts it, made music born of a love for gawd and nightclubs. It’s an engrossing hour that affectingly captures the unsimple relationship of gospel music to American culture and experience.
Of course a big part of the relationship between gospel and American culture has to do with the interconnections between black and white gospel religious and music traditions – and the broader musical forms these traditions shaped and were shaped by (among them, blues, jazz, R&B, country, pop, and of course rock).
The American Experience episode is both a great tribute to and account of Sister in her own right and a reminder of how complicated and unclearly demarcated the boundaries and borders and relationships between black and white music have always been, even and especially at the height of Jim Crow (at the most basic level, you see and hear this in Sister Rosetta’s singing many songs that white gospel has always sang and loved and in many cases considered virtually its own).
Watching all this renews my disappointment that so many – indeed most – of the great documentaries and films of American music’s relationship to sacred song approach the question of gospel’s place and role and legacy almost exclusively from the black gospel angle. This isn’t to say I don’t like these approaches or think they shouldn’t be produced (I do and they should). But we could all do with a more rightly calibrated understanding of things.
It’s harder than you’d think to accomplish, for a number of reasons that I touch on the book.
First there’s the problem of how the foundational narratives of American music developed. Here’s me in a footnote early on:
The conflation of “black” and “gospel” stretches as early as the nineteenth century (i.e. Mark Twain’s promotion of the Fisk Jubilee Singers). In the post-modern popular imagination, this conflation was powerfully reinforced by the introduction of black gospel characteristics into the American pop mainstream via the performances of Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, and others. Equating “gospel” with “black gospel” may well have been intensified when white chroniclers of popular music – usually northern or western urban white chroniclers – who had little or no knowledge of the rural white North American tradition of gospel music, adopted the same language as the black artists they were covering. Thus, black gospel became known as just “gospel” in American pop culture. In humanities scholarship, a commitment to recovering lost or underrepresented traditions may have added to the problem, focused as so much of humanist studies (justifiably) are on the multiplicity of lives masked by dominant culture and the range of experiences often excluded by normative histories. (182)
And then there’s the enormous problem and complexities of race history and racism in gospel, which is of course present in all forms of gospel but plays out very differently according to tradition and geography and genre.
The story of African American musical traditions tends to map onto a fairly graspable and certainly ennobling narrative of sacred song as a source of strength and mode of resistance for centuries to forces of white domination and oppression in the form of racist laws, and practices. Indeed, this is one of the main undercurrents and themes of the Sister Rosetta story, and this is a story - what we call a grand narrative in scholarship - that pretty much anyone can “get” and grab onto. This “gospel as the music of how they got over” story is both a true account of black gospel (even if it’s more complicated than that) and a way of reinforcing what most of us want to believe in our own time about the arc of history bending toward justice. It makes sense and feels right.
This alignment of history and feeling accounts, at least in part I think, for the proliferation of stories about black gospel (and this is what I’m getting at in the last sentence of the quote above … and incidentally, with respect to capturing the experience of oppression in music history, the Sister Rosetta film does an excellent job on this score: to take one example, Gordon Stokes of the Jordanaires tells a powerful story about taking food from whites-only restaurants back to Tharpe, an international gospel celebrity, who had to stay on the bus because of southern segregation and institutional racism).
It’s much, much harder to approach gospel’s place in American experience from the white side without getting bogged down in the quagmire of racism. I say quagmire because race and racism have to be confronted in any honest account of white gospel from the south, but it can also easily become an overly deterministic force that describes everything about the music as a function of bigotry or the attempt to redeem oneself or one’s community from a bigoted past (and a filmmaker or writer or scholar who tries to capture the greater complexity of this history from the white perspective risks - or fears being perceived as - endorsing the racist dimension of the music if your account isn’t sufficiently condemnatory).
I struggle with this in my research and writing about white gospel from the South. IN my book, I made a point to copiously document representative examples of southern gospel’s reliance on, participation in, and embrace of white supremancist attitudes, speech and action - the most sustained account and analysis of which I’m aware on this score - because there is very little ability or willingness in the music’s culture today to come to terms with or take responsibility for southern gospel’s very public racism, going at least as far back as the publishing bidness of the notional founder of southern gospel, James D. Vaughan, and continuing well into the fairly recent past (see Chapter 3 of Then Sings My Soul, 96-103).
This part of white gospel might make sense historically speaking, but in contrast to black gospel, it feels wrong, in the sense of being something you want to ignore (which accounts at least in part for whitewashing of today’s southern gospel when it comes to th music’s racist past) or to simply turn away from (there were several moments in the researching and writing of this part of the book that I literally stood up from the desk and walked away from it all in disgust and repulsion at the music’s legacy of serial bigotry).
Yes, it’s also true that there’s so much more and else to the story than this (which is why I may have walked away for a while but always returned and saw things through). Yet an image such as the one above (and the history it points to) – or some of the other outrageously offensive racist things southern gospel stars have said and done from the stage, and not that long ago, mind you – makes it hard to move past or prevent a certain amount of distortion and alineation from creeping in. Here’s how I conclude the book’s longest section on race and gospel, after ive tried to stare unblinkngly into the vile face of southern gospel’s racism and yet also contain its potentially distorting effects:
As Stephen Shearon has written, both white and black gospel have “liked aspects of what the other was doing” from the inception of modern gospel music, and both have freely “borrowed those aspects, reinterpreting them for their own cultures.” If there is an inevitable air of tokenism surrounding non-white performers in an overwhelmingly southern, white musical culture [in addition to the overt bigotry documented in the preceding pages], the commercial success and genuine following these black performers have achieved among white audiences suggest that overmuch emphasis on black-white polarities diminishes our understanding of cultural dynamics submerged beneath the surface of the music. (103)
Even rereading this, I can’t escape a nagging feeling that I might be mistaken for trying to excuse the bigots and the racist stupidity that’s been broadcast from the stage and by the voices of so many southern gospel stars whose music I’ve enjoyed. And I don’t have any simple answer or solution here about how to do anything more or else than what I do as a researcher and writer, except perhaps to wish that the talents and resources and access to large mainstream audiences that are available to outfits such as PBS and American Experience would do for white gospel what the Say Amen Somebody or this Sister Rosetta video does for our collective understanding gospel’s complex, complicated, indispensable place in American life.
So my Gospel Music and American Lit class is entering the black gospel phase of the course in earnest … reading from Darden’s history of black gospel, watching Say Amen Somebody this week, and starting James Baldwin’s Just Above My Head next week. This, combined with the work I startedover the summer with black gospel has had me revisiting some of the classics and masters and mistresses of the form, which leads me to today’s installment of “Just Sing”: Mahalia Jackson doing “If I Can Help Somebody,” recorded at the height of worldwide acclaim (there’s no video, just audio, thus no point in an embed viewer).
I cop to having the kind of hopelessly bourgeois tastes of a very white white-gospel boy. My taste in black gospel runs somewhere between the purposefully charactericatured piety that Jackson often played up for white audiences (most obviously in her television appearances - though a notable exception to this is her live album from Newport in 1956 … she absolutely destroys the place with “His Eye is On the Sparrow”) and her more instinctively uninhibited sanctified songstyle that brought her to fame on the live stage of the black gospel circuit in her early days. I appreciate the architecturally complex improvisations and the long, histrionically ornamented rubato passages generally plotted into the music that the purists love and venerate. But these songs and this style usually leave me cold and a little irritated, which says more about me than anything. But there you are. There actually IS an accounting for taste (mine, for sure, and most people’s usually), though now’s not the time.
I say this only by of explaining the (for me) sweet spot that “If I Can Help Somebody” hits for me: the emotional arc of the song has a discernable and well-defined through-line (I mean, it is composed in a such a way that there is a dynamic trajectory built into the score itself). Yet Jackson subdues the song to her own will and way all the same, threading in these nearly magical vocal filigrees (listen to the last lines of the first verse around the 1:15 mark, though the effect is really there throughout the whole song) and then really leaning hard into certain passages in that full-voiced roar that manages to be both towering and warm all at once (in the chorus: her rendering of “shall nawtuh …. be in vain” thunders so mightily over the enterprise that she becomes momentarily domineering, and then there’s the “Nooooohhhhh” that follows, where she backs off, not necessarily in force, but in intonation, infusing the word with this baleful moaning mournful mystery of mercy).
Much of this effect is made possible by the arrangement, which has her singing over this massive string bed. This is a common feature of this and other recordings of the era. And the studioized sound was, I know, heresy to a lot of those aforementioned purists in the day. To them, the overdone orchestrations that were more Hollywood than holy were evidence that Halie hadn’t so much got over as gone over to the dark side - sold out to commercialism and compromised her storied piety (though see The Fan Who Knew Too Muchfor accounts of Jackson’s off-stage personality that suggest a much more complicated person than her onstage persona with whom her fans were encouraged to identify).
Still, I love it all, all the gratuitous orchestrations and swampy melodrama and the typecasted vocals … it all lends to the song a kind of schlock and awe effect that doesn’t bother hiding the two very different worlds that come together in these recordings: unlettered sanctified songstress meets the flowing sentimentality of midcentury American music orchestration and merges in the unlikely person and performance of an international gospel mega-diva.
The ’stache. The rainbow font. The bangs: my gawd, the bangs! (You can faintly smell the AquaNet that still wafts off the image.) And that’s just the cover. Of course now I”ll have to actually reacquire, you know, a cassette player, having goodwilled my last one several years ago during a purgative fit of pre-moving divestiture. Ah well. #thrifststoreshereicome
And sing, and sing, and sing, and play and sing (h/t, KC).
I find it fairly easy not only to forgive but downright be thankful for the imperfections that creep as it goes (no one seems to have discussed how they were going to end the thing), because … well, that’s what happens (and what reminds you of moments) when real music is made (as opposed to plastic product produced). More, much more of this, please.
Via my trusty format, Facebook (h/t, SS), I see Larry Gatlin has been reflecting on his music roots, gospel, family and Albert E. Brumley.
Gatlin is particularly clear about connecting class, culture, and geography to the gospel music tradition of which Brumley’s songs and style are a powerful exponent. This is something I discuss at length in the book, and as I watched Gatlin explain the connections between the southern working class roots of his family and gospel music (that music, as Gatlin tells it here, has been both a means throughout his life of remembering and honoring his “papa” and elevating himself as a professional singer to success and a way of life far beyond anything that an oil-field toiler like Clib Doan Gatlin, Larry’s father, could have ever imagined), I recall a line attributed to Glen Payne but that capturing the feeling and experience of the southern gospel music men for countless generations about the effect of gospel on their life’s trajectory: “Without music, I had no dreams.”
So, reading this tribute to hecklers and the comedians who know how to handle them, I was drawn to this passage:
I am always secretly thrilled (and nervous!) when someone else does it… Heckling throws a big, honking wrench into that and suddenly — record scratch! — here’s a moment that feels unpredictable. What is going to happen? I also think heckling separates pros from amateurs. It gauges how fast a comic can think: How funny are you really when your back is against the wall?
My reaction to reading this was to nod my head instinctively and think immediately that something very much like this phenomenon is what makes good gospel music … well, good to and for me: watching not just performers but professionals handle the one-unpredictable-thing-and-then-another-unpredictable-thing-ism of genuinely live performance.
I was talking to a gospel-loving friend over the holiday and he ended up at one point regaling me with a story he remembers about watching Gerald Wolfe handle the dreaded dome of silence at the beginning of a NQC set that should have been filled with a band track kicking off (this was back when tracks were new enough that such moments were neither considered routine by audiences nor widely met with a reflex of lame audience banter by front men). My friend positively beamed recalling this event, whose vividness was undimmed after lo these many Louisvilles
We’ve all got these stories, I suspect. They make for the loriest of lore: There’s the one about the Cats back in the 80s coming onstage at one of the outdoor theaters in the old OpryLand just as it clabbers up and rains. George grabs his microphone, shakes the mike chord in front of him as if to clear a space for what’s about to happen, and then growls over to the rest of guys: “gather ‘em up,” and off they go … “I want to thank Jeeeeezzzuuuusss. For the plan of salvayyyyyyshunnn.” And the fleeing crowd stops and turns and stands as if momentarily stunned in the rain, and then they began to move as one, to flow back to the theater and then were gathered unto them as if in a Biblical parable.
This is the live concert analog to handling hecklers.
The live moments we really remember function as revealing tests for performers and audiences: is their favorite singer a sheep or goat on stage? Is he the caliber of talent who has his lines and material down so cold, so naturally, that he has the reserve mental and emotional capacity to establish and then constantly monitor an open line of sensitivity with the room and his audiences, and, using the contant instreaming flow of data from those particularly precise fans, then take the same material, and mold it into distinctly memorable musical moments that match and meet and finally exceed and transform the disparate minds and moods of Molene one night and Marietta the next?
For every magical moment in OpryLand there are a dozen duds and dropped notes and flubbed lines and missed cues and general disappointments. But you pays your money and you takes your chances. Both as a fan and a performer.
From the performer’s perspective, today’s highly digitized style of creation and performance must surely be a lot less stressful than trying to stick the landing of a song with not just two or three other voices (unsupported by backing tracks), but also one or two or four or more instrumentals banging away around you. And as an academic, I see all manner of fascinating questions about how the means of production and consumption change the form and function of the music as a cultural signifier.
As a fan who loves to be lifted out of this life for a moment in gospel music, in that digitally averted risk resides the elusive prize of live performance: when it works, when everybody gets where he or she is supposed to be on time and in tune, without the musical equivalent of photoshop to help things along, when the tonic takes hold and the bass line sets in and the roof lifts and the sky parts and babies fly and folks fall out and others have running fits … well, glory!
I think one source of my latter-day impatience and my love-hate relationship with so much of gospel music is how so many performers arrogate to themselves the perogatives and bearing of a marquee artist who has a proven capacity to gather ‘em up, without actually being able or willing to take on virtually any of the risk associated with authentically live music, without - as it were - being able to handle the hecklers of live gospel performance. Or to quote James Baldwin (himself a serious student of gospel from way back): “One can give nothing whatever without giving oneself—that it is to say, without risking oneself.”
The feeling persists: the gospel group that gets on stage night after every Jesus-lovin’ night and sings from behind the safety of a digitally induced force field essentially asks me to expect something they’re unwilling (and, I suspect, increasingly unable) to give, with the added indignity that everyone is supposed to act like this unlive music has never been livelier.
Southern gospel clearly retains a not insignificant following, and these fans have shown themselves as happy with tracktastic canned bands and vocal tracks as they were when Hamill and the Kingsmen were taking the stage with a six-piece band. And bless their hearts for this loyalty. But whatever it is about the music that both these fans and the performers who sing blood-bought karaoke for them are seeking and finding in this approach, it is not the glorious experience of being gathered up in the unlooked-for good-fortune that comes from a great gospel song imprinted on the memory during a genuinely unrepeatable live-music moment.
Every time I show up to a gospel gig, I arrive thinking and expecting and hoping this time, at last and finally, today I’ll hear something new and live from southern gospel that takes the top of my head off. The last thing I can remember getting all excited about? Hearing the way-back Hemphills on the radio singing, “Gawd Can Change the Picture Overnight.” Perhaps, but even He can’t change the tempo or key or pacing or arrangement of the song on stage once its set in stone of digital band tracks.
Until more regular blogging resumes for the new year, two links to semi-recent responses to The Book:
First, a long, thoughtful review from the good folks at Southern Spaces. This is the kind of review one hopes for - not because it’s universally complimentary but because the writer took the time to read, think about, understand the book on its on own terms. And yes, I realize it was published in November, but I just stumbled upon it a week or so ago.
And second is an interview with me about teh libro recently published by the Florida Gulf Coast University magazine, Pinnacle. Karen Feldman and the whole crew at Pinnacle are a pleasure to work with, not least of all because their editing makes me sound better than myself.
That’s all for now. This semester I’m reprising my American Studies seminar on Gospel Music and American culture (some of you may recall when I first taught this course and blegged for some suggestions for the listening packets; today we opened with a little Kingsmen, Cats, Ella Mae Ford Smith, and the Vaughan Quartet from the early ’20s). This semester is the first time I’ve taught the course since the book came out, so it’ll be intriguing to experience students’ experience of the book in its published form. Stay tuned.
Meanwhile, if you haven’t bought your own personal eight copies, you can do so right over here.
Thanks to longtime reader SL for reminding to post about Scandalous, the Broadway musical based on the life of the flamboyant, high-flying, soul-stirring, rafter-raising faith-healing mega-evangelist, Aimee Semple McPherson. The book and lyrics are by Kathy Lee Gifford, who knows something about being a multimedia impresaria, and the show is part of a larger revival of Sister Aimee’s historical profile, thanks primarily to the success of Matthew Avery Sutton’s excellent book, Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of American Christianity.
I’ll reserve judgment on the show since I haven’t seen it (the Times has a review here), but its source material couldn’t be richer and Broadway’s outsized aesthetic and the devotional seriousness with which it tends to render its subjects on stage seem pretty close to exactly the right medium for treating a life such as Semple McPherson’s.
And for fans of gospel, there are few historical figures more important to the development of the gospel gestalt in America than Sister Aimee. Indeed, gospel guru Anthony Heilbut takes Semple McPherson as a kind of fairy godmother to the outrageous performances of lachrymose piety and evangelistic narcissism that have been defined in our own time by PTL and TBN but that also figure prominently in the gospel style we all know and love (to hate to love). Certainly when I teach Elmer Gantry in my seminar on the culture of American gospel, students immediately recognize Semple McPherson’s style and appeal and her repertoire of flaws and flamboyance and fabulousness in more than a few of the most famous gospel acts.
Of course all of this just reinforces my belief that there’s bank to made in a southern gospel musical for Broadway. Can’t someone get on that?
I realized reading this article that if I had had my own talk radio show about religious music in another life, I would probably want to be and/or have been pretty much a southern gospel Paul Finebaum.
As a point of personal privilege, allow me to nod memorially in the direction of Dave Brubeck on the occasion of his passing. I didn’t encounter his music until long after the plasticity of my very modest skills at the piano were hardened by age and cemented by laziness and irresolution, so I can’t claim that he influenced my life as a pianist. But his style and musical temperament both exerted enormous shaping pressure on my own aesthetic inclinations, musical and otherwise, in the formative years my early 20s. With Bill Evans, Brubeck stands as a monument to and example of America’s most enduring contributions to artistic culture and aesthetic satisfaction.
Or perhaps one should just say “Christmas music,” given that the badness is pretty much baked into most of it and so goes without saying.
Anyway, as I first said lo these many years ago, gird yourself for bad Christmas music:
It’s only November 29 and I’m already sick to death of “Jingle Bell Rock” and Burle Ives and “White Christmas” and the Ray Conniff Singers (”let’s all sing in unison everybody!”). Hasn’t anyone realized that there are only so many ways to rearrange “Silent Night” and “We Three Kings” before the songs collapse under their own threadbare weight? The state of Christmas music - Christian and secular - is atrocious.
There’s a lot contributing to the dismal repetition of the same handful of exhausted melodies, which passes for Christmas music. First and foremost, the limited shelf life of Christmas projects disincentivizes artists and labels from investing heavily in good, original holiday music. Second, the hyper-commercialization of Christmas relies in large part on the sentimentality and faux nostalgia of traditional Christmas favorites softening the rapacious spending frenzy that’s at the root of most Christmas celebrations (”hey, we’re singing “Deck the Halls” while we elbow our way through Super Walmart, so this must mean Christmas isn’t an obscene orgy of getting and spending”).
And since you’ve got only at most a couple of months of serious selling time and airplay for Christmas merchandise (in music), the best way to cash in on the Christmas cash-cow is to play to the saps who can’t get enough of “Rudolph” and “Little Drummer Boy” and Alvin & The Chipmunks. This kind of pandering leaves no air and shelf space for original, unproven tunes (and in turn, of course, recycling the same tripe season after season only reinforces the tendency to repeat “old favorites” next year, which is why, I assume, my local soft rock radio station has been taken over by schlocky Christmas crap).
There are fine Christmas projects out there (B.B. King’s, Michael Buble’s,Linda Eder’s and, ridicule me though you may, Mariah Carey’s), but the profit-imperative behind the Bing-Crosby cliché Christmas (a complete fantasy, mind you) keeps these projects at the back of the rack. And there is original Christmas music being written out there, but it doesn’t get much airplay and little promotion because either it can’t compete with “Holly Jolly Christmas” or it’s a religious tune that’s too explicitly sectarian for pop Christmas radio.The situation in sg is not much better. Though original Christmas music fairs slightly better in Christian markets than others, that’s mainly because churches drive the creation of new Christmas musicals and other church music. Look at your average sg Christmas project and you’ll see the same forces at work here that thwart good Christmas music in secular markets: dashed off recordings geared toward holiday sales more than musical excellence. The few original tunes that may be included on these are often hastily assembled, kitchy affairs that are difficult to take seriously (for instance, EHSSQ’s “A Quartet Christmas”).
It kinda surprises me that this trend has persisted so long, since pretty clearly goodholiday music - both Christian and secular - is in high demand when it manages to break through the Christmas-music barricade. Linda Eder’s recording of “Bells of St. Paul” became an instant classic when it came out a few years back, as is Kenny Loggin’s fine “Celebrate Me Home” (and Mariah Carey’s recording of “Miss You Most” is outstanding, though it doesn’t get as much play as Eder and Loggins). And it took only a matter of years for the wonderful “Mary Did You Know” to become sickeningly overdone - evidence, I think, that there is a demand for good, original Christmas music even if labels and vendors prefer to peddle holiday pap for easy profits. Aside from labels and artists investing in solidly built and performed Christmas music (which I don’t expect to see happen any time soon), perhaps partthe problem is that the relatively small number of good, original Christmas tunes are too dispersed across and buried in a host of otherwise forgettable individual projects.
The full thing is here. As always, feel free to leave suggestions for any trend-defyingly good Christmas music.