A version of this article appeared in the Chicago Reader a couple of years back.
Good News and Bad Marketing
In the wake of Ken Burns, Martin Scorcese, and the Coen Brothers it’s hard to believe that there’s any roots music left unfetishized. And yet, despite the attention lavished on jazz, blues, and country, classic African-American gospel continues to be largely ignored, both critically and commercially. Hank Penny, a minor western swing performer, has multiple well-annotated recordings in his catalogue; on the other hand, the Ward Singers — perhaps the single most important gospel group of their day — have still not been the subject of a single definitive, or even decent, anthology on CD. 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 over-packaged for bourgeois consumption?
It’s not a new question. Robert Christgau, the self-styled Dean of American Rock Critics, asked the same thing 14 years ago, and trotted out most of the usual answers. Gospel (according to Christgau) hasn’t found its niche because it’s mostly vocal and the public prefers instruments; because “the rhythm parts are rudimentary” (i.e., it doesn’t have a good beat to which the kids can dance); and because “personal quirks and oddities are subsumed in communal values of rare solidarity” (i.e., it all sounds the same.) There’s some truth in each of these charges, and they certainly make it clear why classic gospel reissues haven’t knocked Britney off the charts. But they don’t explain why Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie are bywords among long-haired volk-fanciers, while Roberta Martin, Claude Jeter, and Norsalus McKissik are not.
A recently released Shanachie compilation titled “When Gospel Was Gospel” does nothing to clear up the mystery. The disk — a stellar anthology of tracks from Gospel’s “Golden Age,” roughly 1945-1960 — features a huge variety of styles, from the hillbilly-tinged recitation of Edna Galmon Cooke to the almost operatic baritone of J. Robert Bradley. Moreover, if you listen to roots music with any regularity, the disk is thoroughly accessible. Rosetta Tharpe’s jazzy acoustic guitar on “Little Boy, How Old Are You” would do Lonnie Johnson proud, while R. H. Harris’ yearning vocals, effortlessly detached from the beat, recall Louis Armstrong’s trumpet solo on “West End Blues.” Marion Williams’ crazed, piercing “OOOOOOOOO” on “Traveling Shoes” shows why Little Richard idolized her — though even in his most flamboyant dreams, Richard has never held that note for twelve seconds. Ruth Davis burns through “Too Close to Heaven” with all the aching passion of Etta James, while The Gospel Harmonettes’ “You Better Run,” is syncopated enough to bust your pacemaker. Plus, I’ve been humming the Sensational Nightingales’ incredibly catchy “Sinner Man” to myself for over a week now, “the world’s gonna be on fire….nightmare!” And punks think they’re whimsically dangerous when they sing cheery ditties about beating on the brat….
Of course, there are some veterans of the culture wars who, scarred by childhood trauma or recent election results, would sooner cancel their subscription to Harper’s than subject themselves to pre-recorded proselytizing. Gospel music is about Jesus, which limited its appeal back in the day, and still loses it some listeners. And yet, bluegrass continues to attract an enthusiastic following, even though its message is far more confrontational and judgmental than is black gospel’s. Even when they sing about Judgment Day, the Nightingales seem joyful; white gospel performers, on the other hand, tend to sound genuinely vindictive. Take the song “O Death.” Sung in a trembling, emotionless quaver by Lloyd Chandler or Ralph Stanley, it’s a frigid orgy of sin, death, 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/Dirt and worm both have a claim,” you know he’s heir to the same culture that produced Faust and Stephen King.
In contrast, the version of the song on the Marion Williams compilation “Remember Me,” also released this year on Shanachie, seems to comes from a different planet. Though Williams, like Stanley and Chandler, sings a cappella, her vocals drip with emotion and even sensuality, a far cry, literally, from the hillbillies’ paralyzed, sexless keening. Dispensing with most of the lyrics, Williams overemphasizes her breathing like a country preacher (or a rapper) to create 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’ artistry. Take that, Mr. Grim Reaper.
The triumph of life over death is part of the Christian message that, making a few allowances, even a secular humanist can love. Yet, while black gospel’s music and lyrics were welcoming, the social structure in which the music existed was narrow to the point of xenophobia. Most musical genres in America accept, reluctantly or otherwise, that performers are in the entertainment business. Blues purists may loath Muddy Waters’ psychedelic period, but they don’t therefore hate the man himself; you don’t have to throw out your copy of Evol just because Sonic Youth later signed to a major label. Gospel, though, is a different story. In her recent book, “Singing in My Soul,” Jerma A. Jackson explains that gospel was seen by its audience and its performers as a continuation of the tradition of the slave spiritual. Thus, gospel’s mission was, first, to transmit the holy spirit and, second, to preserve a uniquely African-American cultural tradition of dignity, suffering, and liberation.
That’s a lot of cultural baggage, and, under the double burden, gospel developed a cult of authenticity which was brutal even by the unforgiving standards of American pop music. Thus, Thomas A. Dorsey, the Father of Gospel Music, won that title only after he had entirely abandoned his career as a secular hokum pianist, and furthermore, made public statements attacking “worldly musicians” — that is, jazz bands — who “desecrated” — that is, performed — his songs. Even so, he was criticized because his religious music was influenced by the blues.
Dorsey, a shrewd businessman, at least managed to make a decent living for himself. Many other performers were simply chewed to pieces by gospels’ 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 the gospel audience after she booked a series of night-club dates in the late ‘50s — even though her night-club performances consisted of religious music. Forty years later, Jerma Jackson found church people in Chicago still embittered by Tharpe’s betrayal. Similarly, after going pop, Sam Cooke and the Staple Singers both received cold receptions when they performed before gospel audiences. Mahalia Jackson — who was, according to John Hammond, “only interested in money” — did manage to keep one foot in the church while crossing over, but only by performing completely inoffensive dreck like “Trees” and “Rusty Old Halo”. Even so, according to Hammond, she lost the majority of her black audience. Meanwhile, the Country Gentlemen were courting the college crowd by mixing murder ballads with their hymns.
These days, the firewall 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. But back in the golden age, the options for gospel singers were very limited indeed, as is clear from the subtitle of Anthony Heilbut’s classic 1971 account, “The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times.” Heilbut also produced and annotated the two recent albums on Shanachie and, indeed has been responsible, it sometimes seems, for every decent classic gospel reissue of the last thirty years. But though he’s a fine and incredibly knowledgeable writer, Heilbut’s enthusiasm for the genre leads him to gloss over its flaws. Sometimes this is charming, as when he insists that Marion Williams’ “Drunkards Down There” would “set any dance club afire” — and a riot might indeed result, if a DJ dared to spin such a trundling, ham-fisted groove.
At other moments, though, Heilbut’s cluelessness takes on a more sinister cast. Like many of the folk-revival anthromusicologists, Heilbut is a long way removed in social class and belief system from the people whose work he has embraced. A German Jew by background, Heilbut is an atheist and a Harvard Ph.D. whose academic interests include gay studies. Yet, his book is blithely dedicated to “the older singers, ‘the ones who didn’t sell out’ but stuck with their music despite the encroachments and temptations of the world.” All right — but if you don’t believe in God, what exactly does “selling-out” mean in this context?
One thing it might conceivably mean is allowing your religious beliefs and cultural identity to be consumed as an aesthetic experience by any collector with a credit card. Gospel has never been as popular as jazz or blues or country in large part because it didn’t want to be — because it’s fans and its artists felt, as a group if not as individuals, that to sell your soul to wealthy, faithless ofays was anathema. Whether they were right or not, they suffered for it, and to ignore the implications is disrespectful. Heilbut was friends with many gospel musicians, including Marion Williams, and all of them clearly appreciated his efforts on their behalf and his sincere appreciation of their work. But at the end of the day (which is where gospel looks, after all) Heilbut’s artistic judgments are as much a part of the world as a record executives’ bank-roll. You choose God or you don’t, and people like Heilbut — and like me, for that matter — are not on the side of the angels.