I grew up in a strongly religious family, but decided I’d follow my own path to truth during a largely puerile teenage rebellionbut that doesn’t mean I have disinterest in the subject of religion. I like visiting cathedrals; I relish the religious oversight in everything from Dostoevsky to O’Connor; I can’t blink during certain scenes from Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest or Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc; and I love gospel music. I lack faith, but I gravitate toward the art produced by the faith of others.
The origins of gospel music are deep and powerful, and as political as they are religious. Free only to worship, pre-emancipation black spirituals were coded messages among Southern slavesveiled in the liberation theology of Christianityto aid in the escape from the horrors of America’s saddest and persistent legacy. A cornerstone of the oral tradition for generations, these spirituals were eventually adapted to modern music formats and instrumentation in the first quarter of the 20th century by Southern evangelists. Often credited with introducing piano accompaniment to previously a cappella revivalist songs, Texan Arizona Dranes started recording in 1926, adapting ragtime music to incorporate a spiritual bent. The result is uplifting not only lyrically, but in that it literally got people up on their feet.
» Listen to In That Day by Arizona Dranes
Although biographical information is scarce, the Holy Ghost Sanctified Singers create an accessible sound by adding handclaps, harmonica, multiple vocals, and what sounds like an honest-to-god washtub bass. Their jubilant shouts and obvious conviction to their sunny outlook is persuasive. Gospel music manages, even at its earliest, to instill a sense of true joy in the listener simply because it’s created with true joy. It’s hard not to feel caught up in their optimism. It’s when, after all, not if.
» Listen to When I Get Inside the Gate by the Holy Ghost Sanctified Singers
To my ear, Washington Phillips is one of the first truly great gospel singers. His voice is pure and controlled and invites easy comparison to Sam Cooke or Otis Redding. Just as distinctive is the accompaniment to his recordings, which still manages to incite an incredible amount of speculation over exactly what instrument he’s playing. Whether it’s a dolceola or a zither, his somber interpretations of early folk gospel, while not as get-up-and-shout compelling as his contemporaries, are no less effective.
» Listen to Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave It There by Washington Phillips
While listening to the earnest vocals and pleasant melodies, one mustn’t forget, of course, that the passion that created these works was still very much tied to religious fanaticism. The following recording is a sermon by the Elder Richard Bryant, pulsing with fiery life and soulful ministration. The meter of his words clips along frenetically, relentlessly driving the exclamatory audience into a fever of spiritual outpouring that organically morphs into a foot-stomping burst of song and music. This is definitely not for the faint of heart.
» Listen to The Master Came and Called Me by the Elder Richard Bryant
The first crossover hit from the gospel community came from the musical prodigy Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who started playing guitar and performing at age four. Citing Arizona Dranes as a major influence, Tharpe’s song This Train made it on the pop charts in 1938. Naturally, this popularity in the secular world concerned many of her more conservative fans, as did her gigs performing gospel songs in nightclubs. Whatever her religious fans thought, her mark on pop music is indelible. I’m going to go ahead and attribute the invention of rock music to her, too, because she couldn’t have rocked an SG (later the guitar of choice for AC/D.C. and Black Sabbath) like this otherwise.
Widely regarded as the greatest gospel singer ever, Mahalia Jackson had a true hard-knock-life childhood. She grew up in the poorest parts of New Orleans and moved with her family to Chicago during the so-called Great Migration. In Chicago, she started singing with the Johnson Brothers before striking out on her own, and decided to never sing secular music, a promise she kept despite extraordinary pressure. Her friend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said of Jackson’s talents: A voice like hers comes along once in a millennium.
» Listen to God Put a Rainbow in the Sky by Mahalia Jackson at Moistworks
The ultimate influence of gospel on music, not just American music, can be distinguished fairly clearly on Ray Charles’s cover of the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby. Neither would have produced anything remotely similar to their respective and distinctly acclaimed bodies of work were it not for the innovation of early gospel singers and songwriters. I could just write up my love of gospel to an appreciation of the progenitors of the rock and roll I love so much, but it seems independent of that. Maybe in this age of irony and pretense it’s refreshing to hear voices singing clearly without either.
» Listen to Eleanor Rigby by Ray Charles at Captains Dead