Move On Up: The Politics Of Gospel

I have never seen anything to equal the fire and excitement that sometimes, without warning, fill a church, causing the church, as Leadbelly and so many others have testified, to "rock." Nothing that happened to me since equals the power and the glory that I sometimes felt when, in the middle of a sermon, I knew that I was somehow, by some miracle, really carrying, as they said, "the Word"–when the church and I were one. –James Baldwin

Although the political messages resonating through gospel music have long been obvious to most African-Americans, most white Americans still don’t get it. When the Original Five Blind Boys of Alabama launched the reveries of "I’ll Fly Away" and Mahalia Jackson implored the faithful to "Move On Up A Little Higher," they were surely singing of a glorious afterlife flight to the heavenly kingdom. But they were also triumphantly proclaiming an earthly mission of achieving freedom and equality on the soil of America.

This fusion of spiritual and political concerns is a long-standing tradition in black American music. Ever since the days of slavery, black cultural expressions have employed irony, humor, and double meanings that could not be heard by white society. Unable to communicate yearnings and discontents directly and openly, black folklore, storytelling, and song offered coded forms of resistance. Ironically, it was the teachings of proslavery Christianity, counseling passivity and servitude in this world in exchange for everlasting life in the next, that slaves employed to cover over messages of struggle and empowerment.

Among the many twisted rationalizations for slavery was the notion that blacks souls could only be saved by being "civilized" through Christianity. Although it was illegal for blacks to read and write, the Bible and hymnals furnished tools of literacy. As white slaveowners and ministers imparted their Good Book vision of slavery as the natural station of people of color, black Americans translated the words of Biblical texts and traditional hymns as allegorical tales expressing the horrors of black suffering and the dream of freedom.

Although whites generally looked upon black spiritual singing as a sign of contentment, African-Americans tended to favor texts and tunes that expressed sorrow, anger, and a fighting spirit. Accordingly, it was the words of God’s Old Testament that inspired many early black spirituals. In the story of Moses leading his people from bondage, the victories of Daniel, David, and Joshua, and the many tales of God calling his wrath down upon the wicked, slaves found the muse for tunes such as "Go Down Moses," "Joshua Fought The Battle Of Jericho," "My Army Cross Over" and "Singing With A Sword In My Hand." Where whites heard songs like "Steal Away To Jesus" and "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" as harmless pie in the sky, blacks imagined and plotted a life on the free soil of Canada, Boston, or Philadelphia.

Aside from the transformation of Christian texts, slaves also brought to their spirituals the musical traditions of Africa. Through the use of repetitive choruses, call and response, and intense interlocking rhythms, the black spiritual forged a powerful communal statement bonding body and soul, Africa and America, self and community. Hundreds of years later, gospel music still makes its connections in the same way.

Music scholars date the early 1800s as the starting point of the black spiritual as a distinct musical form. But the music known as gospel only began to find its shape in the 1930s. It was during the worst years of the Depression that Thomas A. Dorsey, a reformed blues singer and son of an itinerant preacher, committed himself to the task of creating and popularizing a new black religious music rooted in African-American folk expression. Although Dorsey’s tunes evidenced a wide spectrum of influences ranging from jazz to early vaudeville, his core ingredients were blues and sacred music.

To Dorsey, the church singing of black Baptists seemed stiff and far too indebted to European religious music. In his new gospel songs, he aimed to "liven up the churches" with a repertoire based in folk imagery, parables and proverbs familiar to African-American Christians for over 100 years. He wanted music that left space for variation and interpretation. Recalling childhood memories of the "moan" he heard in old-time black religious music (cries, groans, and subtle shades of vocal texture, tone, and intonation), he encouraged singing that could carry feelings and ideas beyond the meaning of words. Finally, Dorsey’s songs strived to combine the harsh and worldly message of the blues with the good news of the church.

Explaining his goal to gospel historian Anthony Helbut, Dorsey commented: "We intended gospel to strike a happy medium for the downtrodden. This music lifted people out of the muck and mire of poverty and loneliness, of being broke, and gave them some kind of hope anyway. Make it anything than good news, it ceases to be gospel."

Gradually over decades, through performing, writing, teaching, and advocating, Dorsey’s gospel sound became a common vocabulary for black churches around the country. By the 1950s, gospel recordings and performers had established a small, but thriving gospel music industry independent of crossover (white) appeal. During the music’s golden era from 1946 to 1960, the tradition provided inspiration for the civil rights movement while also laying down blueprints for R&B, soul, and rock and roll. In 1998, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, sales of gospel music generated more than a half-billion dollars.

Those seeking a musical overview of this evolution might begin with Rhino Records recently released 3-CD anthology, Testify! The Gospel Box. Featuring 50 tracks by soloists, groups, and choirs and spanning styles from the 1940s to the 1990s, Testify! is the only gospel compilation tracing the tradition from early pioneers to contemporary superstars. The sampling of gospel elders includes legends such as Mahalia Jackson, the Original Five Blind Boys Of Alabama, Clara Ward, Dorothy Love Coates, the Swan Silvertones, the Caravans, the Staple Singers, Rev. James Cleavland, Marion Williams, and Thomas Dorsey. For examples of more modern sounds, there are performances by Aretha Franklin, Andrae Crouch, Sounds Of Blackness, the Winans, Take 6, and Boyz II Men.

Leaving out the Soul Stirrers ( with R. H. Harris and Sam Cooke), Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Sensational Nightingales (with Julius Cheeks), and the hugely popular gospel hip-hopper Kirk Franklin, Testify! can hardly be called definitive. But the box does manage to highlight the common threads and rich diversity of a glorious sound that remains under appreciated and misunderstood.

In the rousing freedom anthem "Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around," the Fairfield Four echo centuries of struggle and a battle not yet won. Rev. Maceo Woods’s mesmerizing organ rendition of "Amazing Grace" (a tune penned by a repentant white slave owner) is a profound statement of dignity and strength. And the tough and resolute singing of Dorothy Love Coates and Clarence Fountain (with the Original Five Blind Boys of Alabama) and the majestic vocal fires of Mahalia Jackson, Marion Williams, and Aretha are fierce reminders of why Martin Luther King referred to this music as "the soul of the movement."

However, perhaps the greatest contribution of Testify! is the light it throws on contemporary gospel. Devoting nearly one full disc to gospel in the 1990s and offering selections that range from the a cappella gospel-jazz of Take 6 to the all-woman choir of the Gospel Music Workshop of America (featuring Mimi Redd) to the broad stylistic weaves of the ensemble known as Sounds Of Blackness, Testify! reveals gospel as a dynamic, ever-evolving tradition that can still ignite visions of power and glory.

For traditionalists and older black gospel fans, these newer styles may seem too polished and pop to measure up to "real" gospel. But to younger generations who have grown up with funk, R&B, rock, and hip-hop, spirituals and golden age gospel have little appeal. Since the 1960s, the black Christian church has come to play a lesser role in African-American life, political and spiritual idealism has diminished, and many young people (like the Black Power movement of decades past) now view Christianity as the religion of white supremacy. In recent decades, in search of a spiritual alternative, many African-Americans have started to explore Islam and various African religious traditions. In response, the black Christian community has gradually adapted to changes in the gospel sound that can draw young people back to the church.

The most surprising (and for some disturbing) innovation in Christian music is Kirk Franklin’s merging of hip-hop and gospel. In the 1990s, the Dallas, Texas pianist/composer’s millions selling records and sold out concerts have brought gospel into the musical mainstream through sampling Funkadelic’s "One Nation Under A Groove," guesting rapper Cheryl James (of Salt-n-Pepper), and convening "holy ghost parties" charged with preaching raps, grunts, wailing, call and response, traditional gospel singing, and heavy thumping rhythms.

Like Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield, and Marvin Gaye before him, Franklin has melded the secular to the sacred in a way that speaks to the here and now. Although less startling, other performers of contemporary gospel are doing the same. By adopting the standards of modern recording studios and drawing influences from the full spectrum of black music traditions, modern gospel has discovered unprecedented appeal. Still, in its new dress, you can hear the essentials of tradition: awesome deep soul singing and a message that binds the struggles of self and community.

Testify!, however, provides only a very basic primer on the artists and styles who laid the foundation of the gospel tradition. Those interested in a more full immersion in gospel’s old school should track down Fathers And Sons (1987), Gospel Warriors (1987), and The Gospel Sound Of Spirit Feel (1991), all on the Spirit Feel label. Loaded with sublime performances by most of the movers and shakers of gospel’s formative golden age (1946-1960), these albums capture essential trends and innovations in the gospel sound and label founder Anthony Helbut’s informative liner notes supply the social context. No less essential are the Specialty label’s treasure chest of golden age recordings, which contain voices included, and absent from Testify! For a sample try Greatest Gospel Gems (1991) and The Great 1955 Shrine Concert (1993).

For those looking to dig deeper into the gospel grandeur of the great Mahalia Jackson, Marion Williams, and Aretha Franklin, recent compilations abound. Mahalia Jackson brought a heavy dose of the blues into gospel and then as gospel’s most popular star from the 1950s through the 1960s, brought the music’s freedom message to the secular world. As introductions to the overwhelming power of her singing, How I Got Over (1976) and Gospels, Spirituals & Hymns (1991), both on Columbia, are recommended. Hailed by many as the greatest singer who ever lived, the late Marion Williams’s towering artistry is well documented on Spirit Feel. The Gospel Soul Of Marion Williams (1999) compiles some of her best performances of the 1980s. For folks who may have forgotten, in 1972 Aretha Franklin returned to her gospel roots in live performances at the New Temple Baptist Church in Los Angeles and created a gospel masterpiece. Recently reissued as Amazing Grace: The Complete Recordings (Rhino), this double CD is a smoldering and flamboyant document of great gospel singing. Classic proof of gospel’s belief that despite life’s burdens, humanity can and should move on up.