When Gospel Was Gospel
With Ken Burns, Martin Scorsese, and the Coen brothers running amok, it’s hard to believe there’s still any roots music left unfetishized. And yet, despite the attention lavished on jazz, blues, and country, classic black gospel continues to be largely ignored, both critically and commercially. The Ward Singers–perhaps the single most important postwar female gospel group–don’t have a definitive, well-annotated anthology in print. It defies reason. I mean, here’s a moving American art form created by and for the oppressed masses: why hasn’t it been mercilessly overpackaged for bourgeois consumption?
It’s not a new question, and critic Robert Christgau trotted out most of the usual answers in a Village Voice essay 14 years ago. Gospel, Christgau argued, hasn’t found its niche because it’s mostly vocal, because “the rhythm parts are rudimentary” (the kids can’t dance to it), and because “personal quirks and oddities are subsumed in communal values of rare solidarity” (it all sounds the same). There’s some truth to each of those charges, and they certainly make it clear why gospel reissues haven’t knocked R. Kelly off the charts. But many older genres sound repetitive and alienating to modern ears. If Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie are bywords among long-haired volk-fanciers, then Claude Jeter should be as well.
When Gospel Was Gospel, a recently released compilation, does nothing to explain the genre’s unpopularity. The disc–a stellar anthology of tracks from 1945 to 1960, which compiler Anthony Heilbut dubs gospel’s “golden age”–is thoroughly accessible to anyone who listens to roots music with any regularity. Rosetta Tharpe’s jazzy acoustic guitar on “Little Boy, How Old Are You” would do Lonnie Johnson proud; R.H. Harris’s vocals on “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” recall one of Louis Armstrong’s yearning, behind-the-beat trumpet solos; the Original Gospel Harmonettes’ “You Better Run” is syncopated enough to bust your pacemaker. Plus, for more than a week now I’ve been humming the Sensational Nightingales’ incredibly catchy “Sinner Man,” which climaxes with “The world’s gonna be on fire . . . nightmare!”
Not everyone wants to hum ditties about the Rapture, of course, and gospel’s focus on Jesus has always limited its appeal. Yet bluegrass continues to attract an enthusiastic following even though it tends to be far more confrontational and judgmental than black gospel. When they sing about Judgment Day, the Sensational Nightingales seem joyful; hillbilly performers, on the other hand, sound genuinely vindictive. Take the song “O Death.” Sung in an emotionless warble by Lloyd Chandler or Ralph Stanley, it’s a frigid orgy of sin and hellfire. When you hear Chandler intone, “I’m death, I come to take the soul / Leave the body and leave it cold / To draw up the flesh off of the frame,” you know he’s heir to the culture that produced Faust and Stephen King.
The version of the song on Remember Me, a recent compilation of songs by the late gospel singer Marion Williams, couldn’t be more different. Though Williams, like Stanley and Chandler, sings a cappella, her vocals drip with emotion and even sensuality–a stark contrast to the hillbillies’ paralyzed, sexless keening. Dispensing with most of the lyrics, Williams overemphasizes her breathing like a country preacher, creating a beat around which she moans and growls, repeating “O death” over and over until the sound becomes more important than the meaning. When death does finally get in the room, she swings his “poor ice hands” so knowingly that their touch becomes a caress. At the end of the song, the listener is left contemplating not mortality or sin but Williams’s artistry. Take that, Mr. Grim Reaper.
The triumph of life over death is part of a Christian message that even a secular humanist can love. Yet, while the music and lyrics of black gospel were welcoming, the social structure in which the music existed during its golden age was narrow to the point of xenophobia. In her 2004 book, Singing in My Soul: Black Gospel Music in a Secular Age, historian Jerma A. Jackson explains that at its inception gospel was marketed as a continuation of the tradition of the slave spiritual. Thus, Jackson writes, they became “aligned under the rubric of black sacred music.” This meant that gospel, like the spiritual, was seen as both a means to transmit the Holy Spirit and as an “icon of black heritage” intended to preserve a tradition of dignity, suffering, and liberation. That’s a lot of cultural baggage, and under the double burden gospel developed a cult of authenticity that was brutal even by the unforgiving standards of American music.
Thomas A. Dorsey, a risque blues pianist who would become gospel’s first great composer, had to renounce his repertoire entirely when he got religion in the early 30s. But even then, the fact that his new, sacred writing drew on blues influences meant many in the church opposed it. It took several years and many bitter slights from skeptical preachers before his rhythmic gospel became accepted as the Lord’s. Even so, Dorsey remained ambivalent about both the exposure and the money; when secular jazz bands began to perform his songs he reacted in horror and publicly repudiated them.
Dorsey managed to make a decent living for himself, but many other performers were chewed to pieces by gospel’s cultural demands. R.H. Harris, unable to reconcile his faith with life on the road, quit and ended up working for a florist. Rosetta Tharpe was abandoned by much of the gospel audience after she booked a series of nightclub dates in the late 50s–even though her performances consisted of religious music. Forty years later, Jackson found people in Chicago, where Tharpe spent much of her childhood, who were still embittered by her betrayal. Similarly, after going pop both the Staple Singers and Sam Cooke received cold receptions when they performed before church audiences. Mahalia Jackson also lost the majority of her black gospel audience when she signed with Columbia and started singing pseudoreligious tripe like “Rusty Old Halo.” Meanwhile, in bluegrass, the Country Gentlemen were bridging hillbilly and college audiences by mixing murder ballads with their hymns.
These days the fire wall between black religious and secular music has largely been dismantled, so that, for instance, Al Green–who felt he had to choose one or the other even in the 70s–now performs both. Anthony Heilbut, in his liner notes for When Gospel Was Gospel, acknowledges that the social conditions that produced golden-age gospel “should not be duplicated.” Yet at the same time he argues that those social conditions–segregation, discrimination, poverty–gave the golden-age performers “a power that their descendants lack. Call it improvisatory genius, call it spirit feel, call it soul.”
Heilbut, who produced both When Gospel Was Gospel and Remember Me, has studied gospel for decades now, and the correlation of hardship, aesthetic power, and purity is one of his constant themes. In his classic 1971 book, The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times, his love for the music seems inextricably bound to the suffering of its creators. He argues in The Gospel Sound that one singer of his acquaintance became a much better performer after she got a serious illness and ended up in a wheelchair. “It’s an awful way of learning to sing ‘How I Got Over,'” he writes, “but gospel singers take tragedy for granted.”
Perhaps they do, but it’s not entirely clear why Heilbut does. Like many ethnomusicologists, Heilbut–a Harvard-educated atheist of German-Jewish descent–is a long way removed in social class and belief system from the people whose work he has embraced. And differences in background sometimes seem as important to him as the music itself–the less Christian the music, the less Heilbut likes it. He consistently argues that Sam Cooke’s best records were his gospel ones, that Aretha Franklin was at her best when she sang most like Clara Ward, that Marion Williams wouldn’t have been as great if she had sung pop material. All of these positions are defensible, and there’s nothing wrong with a middle-class unbeliever writing about gospel. But there’s something a little indecent about his upbraiding the less privileged for being religious slackers.
He comes perilously close to doing so when he dedicates his book to “all the gospel singers who didn’t sell out, but stuck with their music despite the encroachments and temptations of the world.” All right–but what exactly does selling out mean in this context?
It might conceivably mean allowing your religious beliefs and cultural identity to be packaged by a secular scholar and consumed by any record collector with a credit card. Classic gospel has never been as popular as jazz, blues, or country in large part because its fans and its artists felt, as a group if not always as individuals, that to sell your soul to the wealthy and the faithless was anathema. Heilbut has produced latter-day sessions for aging artists, organized concerts, compiled reissues, and generally been one of the few people responsible for giving classic gospel what limited exposure it’s had. He has won the respect and admiration of many singers, including Marion Williams. But authenticity is a vengeful deity, and under its remorseless gaze Heilbut’s aesthetics are as much a part of the world as a record executive’s bank book. If you’re going to separate the sheep from the goats, be damn sure you’re on the side of the angels.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd Yearwood, Guiseppe Pino, courtesy of Anthony Heilbut.