Defaulting on Gospel’s Promissory note
In preparing to interview Anthony Heilbut (most well known for his landmark book on black gospel from the early 1970s, The Gospel Sound), I’ve been spending time with his most recent book, The Fan Who Knew Too Much.
There’s a lot more to be said (some of it from the man himself, I hope, when I talk with him) about the continuum and disruptions between white and black gospels. But near the end of the book, in a discussion on the role of sound recordings in gospel, he hits on an aspect of the gospel experience in the past that helps us understand a great deal about the present: namely, that the mid-twentieth century heyday of gospel was built on an unwritten but widely shared understanding among fans and artists about the role of sound recordings:
They understood that recordings were, in the current parlance, merely a “delivery system,” an advertisement for what [artists] could do [live on stage], and promised to do better after the recordings made them famous. Particularly in gospel … there was a compact between artists and fans that the recording merely initiated an experience that would be completed when the artists appeared in person. Whether single or album or MP3 file, the music remained a calling card, an advertisement for the self. (299)
Though Heilbut is talking about black gospel (and while I think that southern gospel differs from black gospel in that recordings haven’t historically so much made southern gospel artists famous as they have commodified stage fame and made it for sale on a per unit basis), his general insight has legs. Indeed, I think this goes quite some distance in explaining why and how so much of southern gospel has traded its groove in for a rut.
So much of what you’ve gotten from notionally live performance for the past decade or more has become a replaying (very literally) of what one hears on a group’s latest recording, the main difference being that the music is piped through louder - though not always better - sound systems than one has at home or in the car. For the people who like this sort of thing, this is exactly the kind of stuff they love, and they keep turning out and buying tickets or dropping a few bills in the chicken bucket. And of course someone has to be there to hit PLAY on the Canned-Trax-O-Matic and collect all the love from the offering. In the process, there are always a few unexpected sparks of musical immediacy that transcend the plastic sameness of a show built around digitrax, and these moments inevitably become evidence of what is known as talent or popularity or stage appeal.
And yet …
To the extent that the transactional balance between what the fan puts in the chicken bucket and what comes out of the audio system on stage has found a “get what you pay for” equilibrium, I suppose there’s a certain sense to all this (along these lines, Heilbut has a great line elsewhere in the book about many grizzled gospel artists hardbitten by the cutthroat bidness of singing for Jesus taking on the mindset that “if you pretend to pay me, I’ll pretend to sing”). But economically balanced as this arrangement may be, it also feels like to those minority of fans (and make no mistake, despite the loud whinging online, we are a minority) who want live performances to have a less mechanized heartbeat, this state of musical affairs is inevitably alienating.
If the recording used to be a promissory note paid back in full and then some in concert, today the “live” performance is the reverse mortgage of gospel music: not exactly bankruptcy itself but perhaps one of the sure-firest signs of how to go broke artistically.Email this Post