Shout Music: A Journey From Slavery to Salvation
by Emily Elhaj
In the free forum that is Antigravity, I have compiled information about Gospel music from a collectors perspective. Hundreds of LPs have been perused, dozens of dusty 45s cleaned, and hours listening to the songs and spirituals I have no direct ties to. My Catholic school background could have something to do with my initial interest but have you heard the dry, apathetic hymns that are mumbled through in Catholic services? I can guarantee :Lord Let Me Walk” does not compare to the kind of Gospel I have the pleasure to write about here.
Chancing upon a water-damaged copy of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s ‘Spirituals In Rhythm’ in a Marrero, Louisiana thrift store was my impetus and introduction to Gospel. The cover alone convinced me the record important and good - really good. Sister Rosetta Tharpe is a great place to start with Gospel. After I moved to Chicago, I found plenty of private press vinyl released by local churches which depicted the independent and “DIY-ness” of Gospel which was surprisingly funky. This is the genre’s journey from its oppressed beginnings and its sweet, soulful evolution in the 60s and 70s.
The origins and evolution of America's first Black music could be approached many ways. This musical culture when culled from its many historical tributaries and roots is named Gospel. It is steeped in tradition and indisputably spurred by the slavery of West Africans in the States during the 16th to 19th centuries and further formed during their slow assimilation into American "free" society. The undocumented folklore and culture of these first Black American's is an anthropologists dream. A blessed union was formed when the history of folk song traditions and church music came together. With the inception of Gospel music publishing houses, the popularity of the radio in the 1920's, the support of Gospel music at the 1930 National Baptist Convention, the Negro Gospel and Religious Music Festival, and the Gospel Music Workshop of America founded by Rev. James Cleveland and Albertina Walker strides were made in popularizing and widening the scope of the genre in the 20th century. The interest of this article lies in the music and charismatic services of bands recorded in the 20th century with influences ranging from the secular genres of funk and rock music. Gospel music has left deep impressions in soul, country, funk, blues, jazz, and even good 'ol rock-n-roll. These genres owe thanks to African work songs, spirituals, shout music, and, later, the revivalist bands of the Church. Excellent introductory reading on the origins of praise music and the blues can be found in LeRoi Jones' ‘Blues People’ published in 1963. Amiri Baraka's (also known as LeRoi Jones) reputation may precede his writing. However, written during some of the most heated years in the African-American Civil Rights Movement, the afore-mentioned text is still as valuable as when it was originally penned.
The powerful blend of passionate Gospel music complete with fits, sweat, and tears mixed with funk, soul, and blues instrumentation formed some of the most raucous music and services put to record. This can be felt in full effect with recordings by Pastor T.L. Barrett supported by the Youth for Christ Choir and the House of God Church Keith Dominion where secular genres were the initial musical catalyst. These services then inspired parishioners and artists to make their own music, therefore completing a cycle that has been going for decades. Whether it be with lap steel guitars, electric bass, congregation choirs, or electric guitar, giving thanks and praise never sounded better than in the hands of a Southern church. Early conductors of impassioned and fiery gospel music are New Orleans-born Mahalia Jackson with her amazing contralto voice, Sister Rosetta Tharpe who was a pioneering gospel performer and electric guitar wielding saint, traveling dolceola player George Washington Phillips of Texas, and The Blind Boys of Alabama got their start in segregated Talladega in 1939. Gospel music may have a stigma of rigid doctrine and bland subject matter, however, what could be more interesting than divination and transcendence? Songs like "Standing By the Bedside," "Dry Bones," "Somewhere Around God's Throne," or "Why Is the Blood Running Warm" all conjure fascinating imagery which is more than can be said for some contemporary music. There are also plenty of popular artists who got their start in the church and even incorporated religious music into their secular repertoires like Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, Same Cooke, The Staple Singers, Solomon Burke, and Al Green. These artists further evolved the genre and shared gospel music's versatility with a wider audience.
Nestled in the Southern most regions of the Bible-belt, Louisiana and New Orleans have its fair share of gospel history. Artists like Rev. Louis Overstreet was born in DeQuincy, Louisiana and led one of the most exciting congregations along with his four sons to come out of the '60s. Rev. Charlie Jackson worked in Kenner and lived in Amite, Louisiana and was even known as "The Gospel guitarist and singer of Baton Rouge." Isaac Haney and the New Orleans Chosen Five were a rousing quartet that recorded with Booker Records in New Orleans. The Delta Southernaires (aka the Zion Harmonizers) also hailed from New Orleans and still perform a gospel brunch at the House of Blues in addition to celebrating their anniversary as a group at the New Home Uptown Church Pastored by Bishop Robert C. Blakes, Sr. this March. The city certainly has a busy charismatic gospel atmosphere where recordings could still be made and documented.
As of late, there has been a resurgence in folk and gospel music recordings. Labels like Portland, Oregon's Mississippi Records, the Grammy Award winning Dust To Digital, the varied catalog of Soul Jazz Records, and Chicago's Numero Group have continued to carry the torch that Arhoolie and Smithsonian Folkways helped to ignite. Releasing an array of genres ranging from early soul, pre-war blues, to Molam music from Thailand the Mississippi Records catalog has a strong focus on gospel and spiritual music. Washington Phillips' ‘What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?,’ the compilation ‘Life Is A Problem (...But Where There Is Life, There Is Hope),’ and the soul stirring ‘An Evening With Rev. Louis Overstreet’ are all prime examples of this archival approach to the genre. Savoy Records is a veteran in releasing gospel music. In addition to helping promote and popularize the fledgling jazz off-shoot of bebop in the '40s, Savoy released some of the best 20th century gospel recordings with the assistance of James Cleveland and his Gospel Workshop of America. Featuring artwork by the elusive "Harvey," some of Savoy's releases have become quite collectible and sought after. Dust To Digital has a pronounced corner on the field of archival compilations. The Lance Ledbetter-Dust to Digital effort ‘Goodbye, Babylon’ box set was painstakingly assembled and as garnered recommendations from such luminaries as Brian Eno, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan. The Soul Jazz label has released everything from dancehall to dubstep, but they have a place in their vinyl loving hearts from gospel, too. Both volumes of their ‘Soul Gospel’ compilations are excellent and feature artists from both sides of secular and religious musical styles. Last, but certainly not least, is a relatively new label, Numero Group. This Chicago collective of vinyl fanatics has given the music community two Earth-shattering editions of gospel with ‘Good God! Born Again Funk’ and ‘Good God! A Gospel Funk Hymnal.’ With the energy and enthusiasm of these collectors, the future of lost gospel, soul, and folk treasures never looked so bright.
What's the draw to gospel music anyway, past or present? Unmarred by the successes of "popular music" and ineffective marketing rigamarole, gospel music is usually boiled down to its essence. The very point of the genre is not about soaking up the Earthly splendors of fortune and fame but in the tedious task of making your voice heard by a higher power. Parishioners are shouting a message that is greater than music itself and catching the spirit that could possibly free them from their mortal coils. Simply, trials and tribulations live on Earth - the Kingdom, power, and the glory all are promised after salvation.
Thank you to Ethan D'Ercole, Mark Lux, Numero Group, and Reckless Records for contributions.
R e s o u r c e s
Blues People / Black Music by Leroi Jones
Publisher: William Morrow and Co.- Quill
1963 & 1967
Arhoolie Foundation Presents Sacred Steel: The Steel Guitar Tradition of the House of God Churches
Director: Robert L. Stone
Pastor T.L. Barrett and the Youth for Christ Choir Like A Ship Without a Sail
Mount Zion Baptist Church (M.Z.G.P)
Pastor T.L. Barrett Sermon: Please Don't Squeeze the Charmine
Mount Zion Church of Universal Awareness
Rev. Louis Overstreet An Evening With...
Various Artists Designer Records Presents Together The Jubilee Hummingbirds, The Union Gospel Singers, Madam Andrews and the Heavenly Echoes, and the Mosby Family Singers
Big Legal Mess
Sister Rosetta Tharpe Spirituals in Rhythm
James Cleveland With The Angelic Choir Vol. 4
Under the direction of Rev. Lawrence Roberts
Artwork by "Harvey"
The Brothers and Sisters of L.A. Dylan's Gospel
Various Artists Good God: A Gospel Funk Hymnal
Various Artists Good God: Born Again Funk
Gospel Emeralds Singing The Gospel
Young, Gifted, and Black Gospel Choir In Concert