The fun of black gospel music

On my junket to Asheville for the bloggers conference, I came away with a few cds, including Calvin Hunt’s latest Vine Records project (hear clips here). Were I reviewing it, it’s ALI rating would only clock in at around 25-20%. And by far my favorite song was written (shocking news tonight) by a southern gospel writer. In this case, a tune written by Ronnie Hinson called “Notified.” It’s got this bluesy gospel R&B style to it and is decently written. The best part of the song is this gobsmackingly fantastic bridge in which the background vocals move through a series of passing tones around Hunt’s lead until the song nearly collapses under the sense of expectation the vocals create.

I mention the writing not least of all because black gospel music is not known for its lyricism (and but for “Notified” and a cover of Morgan Criar’s “What Sin,” Hunt’s project is not really much of an exception). It’s not at all uncommon for a top-shelf, first-class black gospel song to be built around some lyrical commonplace such as “picked me up, turned me around, set my feet on solid ground.” Or higher ground. Or firmer ground. You get the idea.

But that’s because the best black gospel usually pulsates with the infectious feeling of real artistic and musical and religious joy. In short, it’s fun. Listen to the last three songs (from live recordings) on Hunt’s project, and you’ll know what I mean. If you only listen to one, make it the last cut: “I Wanna Thank You.” Lyrically, that’s pretty much the sum total of the song. “I Wanna Thank You. … well, well, well, well, well … I wanna thank you … oooooooo …. ooo … ooo … ooo.” And in fact, “picked me up, turned me around, set my feet on solid ground” makes an appearance along the way.

But musically, what fun. Calvin Hunt (who himself is not just eaten up with scads of raw vocal talent) possesses the key ingredient to the success of the best black gospel: the ability to breath big gusts of inspiration into the flimsiest of material. To be sure, things are helped along considerably by a combo of players with impeccable improvisational skills and a living breathing choir full of people who know how to sing diaphragmatically. But the fulcrum is Hunt’s command of the vocally precocious black-gospel style.

I hope this doesn’t have the vaguely condescending quality to it that I fear when I reread it. I don’t mean to condescend at all. Indeed, I mean just the opposite: white gospel music should (at least try to) learn to adapt more of the spontaneity and contagious fun of the black-gospel improvisational style. Brian Free and Assurance came close with “Long as I Got King Jesus” (though the song always fizzles for me when Free tries to bat clean up on that last call and response line, “long, long, long as I got”; I always want to hear a Mom Winans there or a Kim Hopper or a Whitney Houston really knock it out over the cheap seats). And though there’s nothing terribly improvisational about it, crowds seem to love Gerald Wolfe’s “gather ’round the old red book and sing some shape notes” bit (the best recorded example of this is captured on the Live in Atlanta cut of “Well Done My Child,” which feels unscripted largely thanks to Stan Whitmire’s work at the keyboard). There’s nothing of obvious religious significance about singing shaped notes, of course. It’s just fun to hear and watch.

That white gospel fans respond so strongly to songs like these ought to suggest it’s a path more artists should go down, but only if they know what they’re doing. Not necessarily covering black gospel tunes per se (though this obviously can work), or working the acoustical angle more (though this would be welcome too, in the age of canned tracks). And, I should hasten to add, not the “fun” of Tim Lovelacesque sophomoric antics or the canned hijinks of staged pranks so common at NQC. What I mean is artists honestly and unself-consciously taking themselves a little less seriously sometimes. Have a bit more fun - with the music itself.

I can’t tell if that’s what’s going on on the new tunes-of-the-old-west project the Booth Brothers just released; the cover art sure makes you think they’re inviting you to laugh good-naturedly with them - at least I giggled when I saw it - but the promotional copy is unironically and a little preachily ponderous in its good-ole-days nostalgia for … well, not the old west exactly, but the romanticized west of mid-20th Century cinema … I’m reserving judgment, though, until I hear it, which I hope will be soon. But I’m hopeful. The Booth Brothers’ did some acoustical stuff at NQC last year that was as fun at times, vocally, as it was powerfully moving at others.

And EHSSQ, of course, is not afraid to (try to) have fun as well, as their latest project demonstrates. The funnest moment to my ear is the little vocal riff on the phrase “million times a millionaire” in “Beyond the Blues.” I’m not sure why there isn’t more of this kind of fun and less of the cloyingly playful novelty tunes that were so clearly meant to be “fun.” There’s “fun” and then there’s fun.

But whatever reason, of “fun” songs, I can stand very little (cue “Excuses,” which is perhaps the classic standard of musical “fun” in sg). To often, the lighter side in southern gospel is served with a heaping helping of cheese.

Perhaps white gospel artists don’t trust their audiences enough to have fun without the unsubtle cues of telegraphed slapstick and the reliable chuckle-hut one-liners about finding someone to sing like a woman and look like a man (why oh why do people still laugh at that remark?). I don’t know. But I do know this: I often can’t make it through the never-ending turnarounds of most live black gospel songs (it just wears me out), but I certainly do appreciate the unapologetic way black gospel music uncovers fun in the countless creative, inventive, melismatic ways one can, say, sing the sound “ooooooo,” or let the background vocals run free across a bridge to pure joy.

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Comments

  1. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    Speaking of Lovelace, I actually laughed at his most recent single…unlike other attempts he’s made to be funny.

    There’s a spoken comedy bit to introduce the song. While it’s obviously derived from material invented by other comedians, at least, he make it his own. The song is “I’ll Fly Away” sung backwards.

    Has this sort of thing been done before? Yes. He’s not inventing anything at all, but he’s delivering it in a funny way. It’s miles more entertaining than the “Wall Song” or that bit he does about wearing a kilt…so there’s hope!!

  2. Tony Brown wrote:

    You oughta give a listen to a couple of the Dove Brothers later songs, “Run On” and “Shout It Out” from the Shout It Out project. Both of these have a little of that fun that is so often missing. Of course, nearly any Dale Shelnut recording with the Dixie Echoes has some of the same feel (if you can find any examples!).

  3. Dean Adkins wrote:

    …“Long as I Got King Jesus” (though the song always fizzles for me when Free tries to bat clean up on that last call and response line, “long, long, long as I got”…

    Like a pop up to shortstop with the bases loaded!
    I’m glad someone else feels that way — I can tolerate song (barely) but that part sends chills up my spine (not the good kind — more like those of fingernails scatching a blackboard)

  4. Jono Brooks wrote:

    You mentioned in your post a song that contained the lyrics “million times a millionaire”… is this song TITLED “Beyond the Blues”? I can’t seem to find it ANYWHERE… a little help please :)

    Thanks.

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