The Gospel Gestalt

Over my spring break a few weeks ago, I was finally able to see and cobble together some thoughts for Religion Dispatches on Joyful Noise … and some other stuff we’ve been talking about around here, including Whitney Houston’s death and just what gospel is and does anyway. A taste:

I’ll stipulate that as popular cinema goes, the movie isn’t half as good as Houston’s worst music. But like Houston’s career (she was booed at the 1989 Soul Train Awards by those who thought she’d sold out to white mainstream audiences, and perceptions of Houston as pop-music race-traitor persisted throughout her professional life), Joyful Noise is tangled up in a longstanding debate embedded in gospel music about race and cultural authenticity in American religion.


[T]he gospel dimension of Joyful Noise is almost entirely rhetorical and gestural: we know this is a movie about gospel because it has lots of flashy robes and swaying (mostly but not all black) singers, because it takes place in a rural Southern church, and because its main characters deliver themselves of pious paeans to the sweet, sweet spirit summoned by soulful singing in the gospel tradition.

As for music that sounds recognizably like what most people would consider “gospel,” there is very little to be heard here. Which to say, Joyful Noise is not so much about gospel music as it is energized by what I’ll call a gospel sensibility.

The full thing is here. Thanks, as always, to the range of comments and responses around here that unfailingly help sharpen my own thinking as I write.

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  1. Wade wrote:

    Great Article and gathering of info!!!

    Good to find all the sources and links in the articles I am sure some of the readers here will/would loose their minds over.

    That is all I will say right now because I do not want to shade the discussion right now too much.

    But will repeat what I said in the last thread it is funny how when the post are ABOUT the MUSIC or some OPEN THINKING and not some writings &/or singings of “pious paean”!!! lolol… it gets REAL QUITE!!!

  2. BackwoodsPhilosopher wrote:


    That was an excellent article on Religion Dispatches. As always, your commentary is insightful, thought-provoking and entertaining.

  3. carl wrote:

    Where to start, Doug. There’s enough in that piece to keep a seminar going for a year or more. I would be a great starting point for talking about the concept of “identity” in the categorization of gospel music traditions (i.e., race, region, residence, social class, and faith tradition, gender, orientation).

    Since I read the piece I’ve been thinking of the relationship between your use of “gestalt” and your use of “gospel sensibility”. I was looking for a generalizing term a couple months ago and decided on “gospel music ethos”. If I’d have seen your article sooner, maybe I’d have used your “gospel sensibility”.

I was looking for a straightforward term to use in a workshop I’d been asked to put together. I needed a term that would imply what was shared by all shades and styles of roots gospel music from the American South, and at the same time would distinguish its uniqueness from other kinds of music (e.g., blues, P&W, CCM; how, after all, is bluegrass gospel still a kind of gospel and P&W isn’t). I looked for a term that was operational, not necessarily academically pretty.

    The workshop was for a group of musicians and writers, a roots/blues/jazz crowd, and what they asked me to mess around with was the concept of musical migrations. I brought in examples of four old gospel music songs performed in different settings: African-American gospel quartet, choir, & solo; white Appalachian mixed quartet, bluegrass; West Indian soca, Mexican gospel, white SG male quartet, convention singing (Black, White, Native American). It was fun and the workshop was lively.

    In classical rhetoric, “musical ethos” incorporates all these things–social relationships, transformation, musical structure and performance, and (dare I say) spirituality–in moral space. I didn’t define the term in the workshop, though. I just threw it out there, and the participants laughed about it and played around with it, but said it made sense. (It’s not the same idea of rhetoric you invoke when you say that the film’s bow to gospel was “rhetorical and gestural”, or is it?)

    If I use that term, gospel music ethos, for whatever it was that Whitney Houston brought to pop, I don’t reckon that it’s always a manifest thing. It might have been, for people who made a public move from gospel to the mainstream, like Oak Ridge Boys, Marie Knight, Sam Cooke, etc. It’s just that a performer sings what they know and sings how they feel, and for people who feel gospel, the sound comes out like gospel. And by the way, if I get to judge, Scooter Jennings’ mama scores higher on that quotient than Kirk Franklin.

  4. carl wrote:

    #3, first para erratum: I s/b It

  5. NG wrote:

    Carl: I agree with you on Jessie Colter, the Oaks and Sam Cooke. If you want to hear Sam’s gospel music ethos after he went pop then listen to his live album at the Harlem Square Club (but not the live at the Copacabana album).

  6. carl wrote:

    5 NG: Thanks for pointing me to the Harlem Square Club album. Never heard it before. Wow. “Bring it on home to me” especially sounds like gospel. When Cooke segues to “You send me” in that piece it sounds like he really means it, which is something I wouldn’t say of the 1950s pop hit.

  7. NG wrote:

    Sam was a most interesting fellow. His biography by Peter Guralnick (writer of the the best Elvis biographies) is well worth reading. When Sam started the SAR record album, the gospel influence was most evident. Do a Google search on it for the details. I was fortunate to see Sam in person once in a rock n’ roll package show.

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