“I Could Still Go Free”

Our favorite (and maybe only?) Irish reader, Irishlad, mentioned a clip of the Crabb Family singing the old Hinsons classic “I Could Still Go Free” and so I went and tracked it down. Take a look (the embed feature has been disabled, but it’s worth clicking through to). 

I remember this moment vividly from NQC 2005. In my live blogging, I called it a “high point” and then wrote

Listening to this song, I realized that this is exactly what people must have felt like when the Goodmans and the Hinsons and Hemphills were in their heyday. In other words, this is something that won’t last, and we shortshrift it at everyone’s peril.

How much of a prophet you think this makes me probably depends on your feelings about Crabb Family music and their pseudo-dissolution in the intervening years since I wrote that. No matter, I think the song wears well after these handful of years. With distance and time, the Crabbs sound a lot flatter a lot more of the time during the performance than I would have recalled from unaided memory (Mike Bowling is badly out of shape here vocally, and Terah Crabb Penhollow and esp Kelly Bowling have a lot of trouble placing big pitches). But that hardly matters. There is live music and then there live music and this is palpably alive.

Partly it’s the performers, to be sure, but revisiting the performance on youtube, I’m struck by how strong a piece of music the song is. If “I’ve Got a Feeling” is a lyrically weak and melodically flaccid song that the Hinsons bring to real life by the power of their vocal ability and musical charisma, “I Could Still Go Free” is a great composition that elevates the singers who attempt it to the song’s level. It’s lyrically strong, melodically captivating, and rhythmically enthralling.

Take the chorus – a study in carefully calibrated religious musical experience. Notice how the beginning of the chorus rides the four of the chord for four hard bars – two longer than we expect in conventional country-gospel arrangements. This creates the illusion of a modulation and so amps up the intensity. We’re reading for a big ride. Only, the song pulls back, and by the fifth bar we’re back to the tonic of the original key. That energy built up by the faux-modulation doesn’t dissipate, though. Rather, it gets plowed back under into the rest chorus. It’s an abnormally long refrain (24-bars, instead of the more typical 18), so the extended middle portion has time to settle down into a meditative solo passage that lasts just long enough to make you think we’re going to get lost in the high weeds and then blamo! The ensembles soars back into that final three-phrase arc: “but then a man on the cross / He put me in his will / And said that I could still go free!” I just love the way the second of those three phrases keeps the emotional line taut by riding the one of the chord an extra bar, and so for just a few more beats denies us that reassuring dip down to the V7 that signals familiar, glorious gospel resolution. It’s gobsmackingly good. 

The other thing that’s striking is how the band (esp the guitars) generates so much of the aliveness that makes the musical experience far, far greater than the sum of the vocalists, who technically struggle, but who nevertheless seem to find in and through the song that special live place where some singers on certain nights in the right moment go, accessing an expressive capacity whose effect transcends the technicalities of the pitch-pipe. And so, too, do we go with them, set free.

Update: Reader  j-mo modestly proposes that I’m miscounting the time signature here:

The song is in 6/8 time, not 3/4. That means the chorus doesn’t ride the four of the cord for four bars, but rather two, which is actually pretty normal.

As I told j-mo, I have no reason to dispute this; I’ve always only ever been a music-theory hack. But I’m going to leave the original reading of the song as is, not because j-mo might not be right but b/c my underlying point - that the song  exploits sg audience’s attraction to suspended resolutions (whether harmonic or emotional) - remains the same whether the tune is written in an elongated 3/4 or a standard 6/8.

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  1. Irishlad wrote:

    DH, you dissected that like one of Burke and Hare’s charges, althouqh having said that you played the part more like one of the resurectionists themselves. I thoroughly enjoyed that verbose(only kidding)piece of wordmanship. Keep up the excellent work you and your interns do.

  2. Kyle wrote:

    Couldn’t have said it better myself.

  3. Seaton wrote:

    Mike & Kelly Bowling still stage this song. I agree with your sentiments. One of my all time favorite songs.

  4. Mike Corder wrote:

    I’m surprised you didn’t issue a disclaimer for the consistent flatness of one of the girls singing the high do (1) part in the choruses.

  5. Tom wrote:

    Thanks for bringing attention to this clip. I fell in love with it when I found it a couple of months ago while searching for Mike & Kelly Bowling videos on YouTube for my 8-year-old son, who is obssessed with Mike & Kelly Bowling’s new CD.

    In addition to what Avery mentioned, this video represents a couple of important things in my mind: (1) the incredible value of a live band and (2) the kinds of things that can be accomplished when NQC’s dress code is broken by someone who doesn’t have a suit on.

    I might also mention that another YouTuber has posted this very same clip at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GPAX_0zTaxk. This other clip appears to be embeddable AND the video is considerably less choppy and seems to have slightly better resolution (at least on my computer), although the volume is slightly lower and it’s harder to pump up the volume . . . .

  6. NonSgfan wrote:

    Great Great song..more proof of the digression of southern gospel music today. NOTHING is that impactful today. I cannot think of a SINGLE SONG that has that kind of impact and “Umph” to it. Just hits you in the gut.

    In a day of songs like “red letter day” or “he saw it all”…thank GOD we have youtube and old CD’s and tapes to go back to and actually get some lyrical content. When THOSE SONGS are considered “great” we have a problem.
    God, please send revival to this generation…and give them some stinkin’ inspiration for some SONGS.

  7. art wrote:

    Yeah, it’s a great song. But I think the key is in the performance — the charisma, as Avery put it. That’s one thing I noticed in the Crabb tape and the Hinson tape in the other thread: They both brought some enthusiasm and life to the performance.

    Too often, the SG performers I see appear to be bored and tired. (The Booth Brothers were he exception.) I’d forgive a fair number of technical and musical sins if the performers seem happy to be there.

    That, and it’s probably hard to groove to the accompaniment of taped orchestration.

  8. Revpaul wrote:

    Lock me up in a prison, and throw away the key
    Take away the vision, from these eyes that now can see
    Deprive me of the food I eat
    You can even bind my hands and feet
    But as long as I have Jesus
    Then I can still go free

    That I could still go free
    What kind of man, would reach down His hand
    And do this for me?
    (I’m) Unworthy to live, and not fit to kill
    But the man on the cross, put me in his will
    And said that I could still go free

    Now I never could quite understand
    Why a King would want to leave His throne
    To don the robes of an earthly man
    Feel the pain of flesh and bone
    And to later trod, trod a lowly path
    That led to (dark) Calvary
    Where the blood washed stains
    Broke all the chains
    So that I could still go free

    One of the best songs of the great songwriter, Ronnie Hinson. I especially like the rhymes in the chorus “kill” “will” and “still”.

  9. Harry Peters wrote:

    I support my brother Irish Lad. Whatever he may do. I trust his heart….and I know how gave it to him.

    Anyway I can support you Irish Lad, Old Harry Peters will bust a nut or break his back to save you.

    Soli Deo Gloria! (To God, Alone, Be the Glory)


    Harry Peters.

  10. Jim E. Davis wrote:

    After the lighthouse, this is probably my favorite Hinson song. The anatomization by our host was appreciated even if I had to read it twice. The unusual number of measures baffled me as a fifteen year old and I recall having to play the record several times to memorize it.

    We still perform it during our annual family reunions and it never fails to move me every time I hear it.

    Curious. My Dad always did a recitation with the song (he passed away in 1996) about a little boy who trapped some worthless sparrows and put them in a cage. A preacher buys them and then opens the cage and sets them free - a correlation to Christ and the sinner. Where did this come from? Did a Southern Gospel group perform this or did my father come up with it on his own? No one in our family knows.

    If they keep such records in Heaven, it will be interesting to know the number of souls who came to Christ through this powerful song.

  11. Daniel J. Mount wrote:

    #6 - But how widely do you listen?

    “Calvary Answers for Me”
    “Walk Away Free”
    “What We Needed”
    “Once Upon a Cross”
    “I Rest My Case at the Cross”

    …and the list goes on. I think there are a lot of great songs out there that make many, me included, just be blown away every time we hear them.

  12. Irishlad wrote:

    Heartfelt thanks Old H.P.you just about brought a tear to another ‘old boy’s’ eye.

  13. NonSgfan wrote:

    Daniel, Those are exceptions. In the “old days” they used to be the COMMON FACTOR. I personally believe that 80% or maybe more of todays songs are shallow, and not as touching as the 70’s, and 80’s.

    Also, those few and far between monstor songs dont get the recognition nationally as the little catchy tunes that make people bob their heads.

    I just long for the days of deep writing.

  14. Brett wrote:

    Another thing about songs of old, SG artist just don’t take the time to complete a cd where you like all the songs on it. I remember when the Nelons came out with “Thanks” cd. I like every single song on there. I don’t like every song on the Hoppers “the Ride” cd and I really hate Ronnie Hinson’s song of the same title. It was a poor choice from the group to release it as a single. The days of liking all 10 songs on a SG album are over I guess.

  15. Daniel J. Mount wrote:

    #13 - I’m of the opinion that there were poor songs years back, but we just don’t remember them.

  16. NonSgfan wrote:

    Brett….amen brother

  17. Jerry wrote:

    I was there. Third row I think? Mike was pulled up without warning. That explains the clothing. I think Jason mentioned that he would get killed because of Mike’s clothes!! I remember they asked him what key it was in. The entire song appeared to be unrehearsed. That is when we experience the most memorable “take home” moments. Standing ovation I believe??? 60,000 youtube views?? Hhhmmmmm??? somebody liked it, maybe a LOT???
    This is an NQC mix with no remix. How can one be critical of this? It is almost laughable.

    After ripping a 14 year old Morgan Easter and calling Jason a diva, this is light weight stuff.

    Terah, Kelly, Adam, Aaron, Mike, and Jason are singing at the top of their game. I have heard them all in the past few months. Most importantly, they are called and it shows. That’s why Avery loved the song live. It was annointed.

    Maybe he’s the emotional DIVA!!

  18. Grigs wrote:

    I was around in the 70’s and 80’s and people were pining away for the 50s and 60s. In 2028, they’ll be yearning for the great songs from the turn of the century.

  19. j-mo wrote:

    Avery…I think maybe you’re counting incorrectly. The song is in 6/8 time, not 3/4. That means the chorus doesn’t ride the four of the cord for four bars, but rather two, which is actually pretty normal.

  20. Wade wrote:

    # 19 J-Mo… OMG…come on… as a percussionist there is truly very little difference…especially enough to COUNT to try to figure it out. You could play this song in either time. Be interesting to see if anybody actually has sheet music.

    But if I was getting together with other musicians to stage the song
    I would say… 3/4 time with a 6 feel. Not a strict 3/4 or waltz feel like Thank God I’m Free or Tennessee Waltz.

    Talk about straining on a gnat but swallow and elephant!!! God Bless Ya DH!!!

  21. Ruth wrote:

    I think that Mike Bowling and the Crabb Family did a good job. It amazes me how people (even myself from time to time) seem to think because they are Southern Gospel singers and they may have a “name” that we think that they should be perfect (so to speak). That every time they sing or any other southern gospel group sings that they should never miss a note that every thing should be well perfect. Come on they are people just like you and me. Just because they can sing better does not make them a saint and I am sure that they would tell you that. I appreciate the fact that they and other singers are willing to use the talent that GOD has given them night after night to tell people about Jesus through their songs. I’m sure that there are people that have went to things like the NQC and other things with friends or loveds who would not normally step foot in a church service and have gotten saved and to that I have to say TO GOD BE THE GLORY.

  22. ronnie mckeel wrote:

    i was looking for the tabs to this song and cant find it pls help my email is jesusaddictrwm@aol.com

  23. gwen wrote:

    i love this song,but can not find the chords to it….could u send them to me? thanks and God bless


    does anyone have sheet music to the song that i could still go free–by the hinsons-sure would love to have this–singing in a revival next week–have a request to sing it.

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