Willa Mae Ford Smith
This week in the Gospel Music and American Fiction course, we just finished a section on black gospel (thanks to everyone who helped try to solve the mystery of the James Baldwin lyrics), and without question, the highlight of this unit for me was being able to immerse myself in all things Willa Mae Ford Smith, the mother of the song-and-sermonnette style of holiness black gospel singing.
“Mother Willa Mae” worked with Thomas Dorsey in the early days of her career and was either instrumental in or stylistically influential on (or both) the careers of many mid-century black gospel stars: The Barrett Sisters, Zella Price Jackson (she also makes a vocal cameo here), and of course Mahalia Jackson, who like Smith possessed a rich, booming, powerful and profound voice and who, also like Smith, relied heavily note-bending and phrase slurring. Though Mahalia Jackson turned funeral gigs into a record deal with Decca and went on to international fame, Smith remained firmly affiliated with the more paraprofessional and evangelistically focused National Association of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, Dorsey’s brainchild, analogous to the singing convention movement in white gospel.
As a result, Smith recorded very little (there is at least one live performance that was released on Savoy Records, but I’ve yet to be able to locate a copy) and remains far less well known outside the world of black gospel music than her commercially successful contemporaries like Jackson and Rosetta Tharpe. Which is too bad, because she’s a force of nature, able to generate an astonishing presence and musical immediacy. Fortunately, her life and some fine recordings of her singing late in life are preserved on the fantastic 1982 documentary, Say Amen Somebody, recorded in St. Louis, where Smith lived, and organized around a tribute concert for her at the Antioch Baptist Church in near north city.
At this point, she’s in her 80s and her voice is less controlled than in her younger years, but she’s lost none of her ability to convey the irrepressible spiritual urgency of gospel music when it’s really good. Here she is singing, “I’m Bound for Canaanland,” a fantastic example of black gospel’s special brand of artful artlessness:
Smith sang this song all of her career, but it achieves a special poignancy here in the context of her age and the wistful nostalgia with which she approaches reflection on her life in the documentary. That first chorus - “I’ll be so glad … to meet … the prophets … and the others … gone on [the way she ornaments this phrase alone is worth the price of admission] .. before!” - the way she manages to convey the song’s emergence from the depths of her being - “between the bone and marrow,” as she says - and her sense of where the center of the melody is even when she has trouble placing the vocal ornaments so essential to her style, and the manner in which she bodily eases herself down off the stage, into the crowd, as if a big lovely angel arriving in heaven … it’s a breathtaking achievement … of talent trumping the effects of time, of someone’s very own inner light brought to life in song, of an artist holding the inexpressible barely but beautifully in expressive equipoise.
And for a bonus: here she is keeping alive her lifelong rivalry with Sallie Martin, another of Dorsey’s discoveries.Email this Post