May 2, 2019


Gospel Music as Liberation: They answer to God, not the politeness or respectability of middle-class society or popular culture. (Crispin Sartwell, 5/01/19, spliced)

Seemingly parochial, or of interest primarily to certain sorts of Christians, gospel in fact carries the main line of African-American--and hence American--popular music.

In the 1940s, some of the best acts in gospel were straightforwardly blueswomen. And often they were instrumentalists too, which is not something that women were doing on pop and swing bandstands, for the most part. Someone like Sister Rosetta Tharpe--recently inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame--was rocking the guitar as she sang her way gently or ferociously through both God-oriented and secular blues music. But she was emblematic of a cohort whose story is little told, of fiercely distinctive blues-gospel shouters, such as Willie Mae Ford Smith and Sister Cora Martin.

There were more directly beautiful and delicate approaches too, and my favorite recent re-acquaintance Edna Gallmon Cooke took her audience from a blues and jazz orientation in the 1940s to an almost Patsy-Cline-like sophistication by the early-60s, and from South Carolina to Philly, expressing her ecstatic devotion to Jesus the whole way. The great Mavis Staples and the Staple Singers never lost sight of this connection, even as they translated it to electric guitars and Civil Rights. For that matter, I don't think you get to the melismatic style of contemporary r 'n' b (Beyoncé, for example) without these singers, who developed elaborate vocabularies of ornament over their churches' stable, powerful substructure of keyboard and choir.

That these women were singing for God's glory is, I think, one element in the astonishing feeling of immediate presence and freedom that's embodied in their recordings. They answer to God, not the politeness or respectability of middle-class society or popular culture, and God lets them go, lets them believe in and affirm themselves, or demands that they do so. The congregations for which or with which they performed were often predominantly female, and are often audible on the recordings. That too was a factor in the liberation of these voices into the highest realms of spirit and art, and in the supremely confident embodied experience that was the spiritual and artistic foundation of church communities. [...]

But though the translation of the vocabulary to the theme of romantic love and its discontents awaited the secularization of gospel performers such as Sam Cooke and Aretha, many different themes and moods are struck in gospel music. It's a way of grappling with death (Albertina Walker, "If I Perish"), oppression (Davis Sisters, "Sinner Man, Where You Gonna Run To?"), and liberation (Edna Gallmon Cooke, "I've Been Redeemed"). Every mood of the religious is touched, from prophetic visions of the apocalypse (the evil groove of Shirley Caesar's "Millennial Reign"), loneliness and nostalgia for home (Caesar's "Stranger on the Road"), to mystical experiences of apotheosis (Marion Williams, "Jesus is All in All"). What emerges from a body of work such as Williams' or Dorothy Love Coates' is a rounded experience of a whole life, the biography of an individual spoken in her real voice, and of a congregation and a people, made whole and compelling as it emerges from the testimony of a particular body and spirit.

Posted by at May 2, 2019 4:14 AM


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