Hiding in the Light

Black Gospel from the 1940s Onward

Hiding in the Light

The influence of 20th-Century black gospel music on rock and pop is no secret, but many gospel singers and groups themselves have remained little known at best or downright ignored at worst. As Anthony Heilbut wrote in his 1971 book The Gospel Sound, “For forty years America has nurtured unacknowledged a cultural form as imposing as jazz, and a life style as peculiarly native as the hippie’s. Yet while the mass media devour anything new, subverting the avant-garde simply by making it available, an area of American life crucial to millions of people is never gobbled up as news.”

More important than publicity, though, is the comfort, encouragement, and freedom of expression that black gospel has brought to millions. The word “gospel” itself means “good news,” and like the four Biblical Gospels, this music is about more than mere doctrinal axioms—it is about life itself changed by what God did through Christ, it’s about justice and healing in this world, and it’s about personal relationships. Yes, I get spiritual nourishment from gospel music, but it also moves me musically and emotionally like no other art form. I know atheists and agnostics—and even one Baptist-preacher’s-son-turned-yeshiva-student—who love bluegrass gospel; black gospel’s appeal is no different.

Because gospel has been so inspiring and influential while remaining under-recognized, I will shed light here on some soloists and groups that illustrate the imprint this art form left on rock and that exemplify the soul-freeing riot of rhythm, harmony, and spirituality that makes black gospel so enticing. This survey leaves out some of the most obvious names and, criminally, gives no space to the scores of excellent choirs found in churches and communities everywhere, or to contemporary urban gospel and rap. It touches on different periods, but it mostly focuses on gospel’s Golden Age from the 1940s to the 1950s. Of course black gospel already had a rich tradition by then, its deepest roots lying in the Negro spirituals that arose from both the harshness of slavery and the religion of the slave owners. Spirituals were the core repertory of the Fisk Jubilee Singers in the 1870s. The dignified and professional “jubilee quartet” style owed as much to the glee club as to the plantation; see their 1909–1940 recordings on Document Records. (Nowadays the Fisks sing vibrato-heavy spirituals in elegant choral arrangements; it’s fine as choir music but little like their beginnings.) Listeners interested in the gospel blues singers of the 1920s and 1930s should check out Columbia’s Preachin’ the Gospel: Holy Blues, partly because it includes Arizona Dranes, whose injection of ragtime and boogie into her Holiness piano playing forever changed gospel. Holiness churches (a movement not a denomination) were much more open to drums, electric guitars, blues riffs, and jazz beats than were most Baptist churches, and those sounds helped create early rock.

The Golden Gate Quartet started out in 1934 as the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet in an homage to that older style—and there were more than four members because “quartet” is less a number than a structure for the voice parts. The Gates learned to imitate instruments from the Mills Brothers, and their signature song, “Golden Gate Gospel Train,” shows that off while proclaiming, “You better get your house in order, friend/You know the train gonna be here tonight.” The Pentecostal excitement and bass rhythm and lead voices that break out of the texture show how the “smooth, restrained” jubilee style (as described by Bernice Johnson Reagon of Sweet Honey in the Rock) had come back under the sway of the church, and the swinging, sophisticated arrangements belie the influence of jazz and early doo-wop. The Gates breathed new life into spirituals like “Swing Down Chariot” and “Bones, Bones, Bones.” (Black gospel is generally more comfortable than white Christian music with the more bizarre parts of the Old Testament.) Best Recordings, on Quintessential/Disconforme, is a 20-track sample of their strongest work. “Jezebel” stands out for its hilarious jumbling of Bible stories that happened centuries apart.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a confident, bright-voiced woman wielding an electric guitar, playing bluesy licks in her gospel songs, and even doing windmill moves years before Pete Townshend. She recorded jazz in the late 1930s and sang with Cab Calloway at the Cotton Club, offending church people by singing gospel in night spots next to burlesque dancers. The Gospel of the Blues (MCA) represents her well; “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” her biggest hit, is a remarkable piece of gospel boogie. Gospel Train on Mercury has more of the electric guitar. Search YouTube for her name and watch the black-and-white video of “Up Above My Head” to see why this gospel giant is called the Godmother of Rock & Roll.

Tharpe’s duet partner of 22 years, alto Marie Knight, did a tribute album to seminal guitarist Rev. Gary Davis in 2007, Let Us Get Together. Producer Mark Carpentieri paired her with Larry Campbell, who played lead guitar for Dylan for seven years; he plays in Davis’ Piedmont style, as much ragtime as blues. It’s a tasteful, restrained, refreshing acoustic album that reworks several of Davis’ great gospel songs. Guests on bass, drums, and harmonica play on four tracks; they’re not really necessary, but they don’t hurt, either.

In 1950, 30-year-old Mississippi native Clara Anderson formed a rarity: an a cappella female quartet called The Harps of Melody. They didn’t belt, rasp, or shout (though their high soprano can get squeally), instead practicing what Clara called “soft harmony.” When they recorded Sing and Make Melody unto the Lord in the mid-1980s for Hightone, she felt audiences were much more receptive to their style than they had been decades before. There’s a sweet, slipshod beauty to their rough ensemble, and Elizabeth Morris’ female bass is a continual fascination—she’s got an easy C below middle C that figures in almost every song.

This Train is an Arhoolie CD by Elder Roma Wilson, a harmonica player par excellence. Wilson had been recorded in the late 1940s at a music store in Detroit, and the owner released the six tracks without Wilson’s knowledge. He became relatively famous unbeknownst to him until around 1991. He sings and accompanies himself on several songs, and there are the six tracks from 1948 with him and his two sons, also on harmonicas. (Two songs with his wife, without harmonica, are less interesting.) He doesn’t show off, but his mastery of and unity with his instrument are clear: the harmonica literally finishes his sentences for him and sometimes interrupts him, as in “Get Away Jordan.” 

The famed (Five) Blind Boys of Alabama started out as the Happy Land Jubilee Singers at the Alabama Institute for the Blind in 1944. A promoter booked them with the also-blind Jackson Harmoneers and called the program the “Battle of the Blind Boys,” and both groups soon changed their names, the Harmoneers going with the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. The Alabama quartet almost needs their own feature article—they’ve sung at the White House three times, received an award from the queen of Jordan, and recorded more albums than you could shake several sticks at. Sixteen of their earliest tracks are available on 1948-1951 (Flyright Records)—it’s just them and a basic guitar, singing mostly in the aggressive hard-gospel quartet style with a little doo-wop, but nowhere close to the Gates’ intricate arrangements. Clarence Fountain, their distinctive lead, has a slightly gravelly voice that’s aged like wine. Their dozens of albums from the 1960s to the 1990s are of varying quality, so I’d recommend a collection like the one Harvest Gospel put out. Besides the ever-present vocal appeal, there’s some scenery-chewing piano playing on “Running for My Life.” The Boys wreck the house with “Put Your Hand in the Hand,” the anemic versions I heard growing up blowing away like chaff in the wind.

And their 2001 blockbuster, Spirit of the Century, can’t be beat. Michael Jerome (Richard Thompson) is on drums, John Hammond on guitars, Danny Thompson on bass, and Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica. It has two Tom Waits songs and some traditional tunes and finishes with the classic “This May Be the Last Time.” In the middle of all this, the Boys sing “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun,” frying synapses of conservative Christians, hip young men, and critics like me everywhere. They’ve not slacked off since then, recording two Christmas albums (one with Taj Mahal), an album with Ben Harper, and Duets, which has collaborations with everybody from Asleep at the Wheel to Lou Reed. I haven’t done more than a taste-test for some of these, but hey, it’s the Blind Boys—it can’t be that bad...well, except for the Duets track with Timothy B. Schmidt. Blech. He was second-tier even for The Eagles.

Mobile Fidelity released on one CD two albums by the Gospelaires of Dayton, Ohio, Bones in the Valley (1961) and Can I Get a Witness (1968), and comparing them is fascinating. Bones is hard-edged soul-rock-gospel with prominent drums and an irresistible bounce to the beat. Robert Washington’s gritty voice was the lead, while the backing singers often barreled up into their falsetto range—see their take on the traditional altar-call hymn “Coming Home.” Witness has a lot more funk to it, and the backing musicians (electric guitar, organ, bass, drums, etc.) are more together; the walking bass lines are prominent, as are the harmonies, which almost become a lead of their own. The mixing is generally poor, and four songs in the middle of the disc are, frustratingly, under two minutes each—be forewarned. Still, both albums are prime examples of vibrant soul shouting.

If I’m going to skip James Cleveland’s immeasurable work with choirs, I can at least refer you to his work with the Cleveland Singers. Heaven, That Will Be Good Enough for Me on Savoy will do nicely. There’s more variety in the volume and tempos than in most gospel recordings and also some terrific traditional gospel piano playing. The organ’s interjections are a cut above as well. “Two Wings” is a reworking of the classic spiritual and illustrates perfectly what I said before about black gospel’s comfort with the bizarre parts of the Old Testament. Isaiah 6:2 says, “Above [God] stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.” The songwriter asks for these wings so the world can do him no harm and so he can go where God wants; if I’d faced discrimination and physical threats like many of these musicians did, I’m sure I’d be begging for that same supernatural protection. Heaven also has fantastic album art by someone named Harvey; no one knows who he or she was, but Harvey painted about 200 album covers for Savoy. Some are pedestrian, but many are dreamlike, beautiful, and persistently strange. 

Alabama singer and pianist Prince Dixon recorded with Mississippi’s Jackson Southernaires in 1973 and 1981; both albums are on one Hightone release, Best of. With one of the most luxurious vocal blends out there, the Jackson group is the perfect foil for Dixon’s slightly nasal, powerful voice. There’s a touch of New Orleans in his piano playing that’s backed by full-sounding guitars, bass, drums, and organ, and the Southernaires’ harmonies have a distinct Southern Gospel flavor (Southern Gospel is black gospel’s white counterpart). This album almost makes up for the lack of an album—that I’ve been able to find—by the Christian All Stars of Akron, Ohio; YouTube has an amateur video called “I Got Married to Jesus” recorded in a church service, an off-the-charts, single-chord swamp boogie that’s simply unbelievable.

Speaking of being off the charts, Moses Tyson Jr., from Vallejo, California, is an absolute poet on the Hammond B-3. His album Music is sometimes over-produced, but the playing is spectacular, especially an intense cover of “I Can See Clearly Now,” an instrumental but for some Floyd Cramer-like choir interjections. His rhapsody on “How Great Thou Art” is a cross between Mahalia Jackson and Jimi Hendrix. Tyson is a good singer, too, but I wish he’d do an instrumental record with just a small combo.

Margaret Allison and the Angelic Gospel Singers sold over a million copies of “Touch Me, Lord Jesus” in 1949; Allison’s testimony of miraculous healing introduces their 1982 remake on a Malaco album titled after that song. Allison had a unique, crisp piano style, and the trio is backed by organ, guitar, bass, and drums in excellent arrangements. It’s my second favorite gospel album, and one of the most listenable of all.

Pride of place in my collection is held by the Dixie Hummingbirds’ Diamond Jubilation on Rounder. Another Larry Campbell production, it includes Dr. John and The Band’s Levon Helm and Garth Hudson as backing musicians. “Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” “I Bid You Goodnight” (the Grateful Dead’s concert closer), and “Rasslin’ Jacob” are the traditional songs, and there are several by lead singer Ira Tucker Jr., as well as Bob Dylan and Julie and Buddy Miller. For sheer energy, panache, and musical quality, it’s the cream of the crop and receives my highest recommendation. The gospel quartet style ties the strands of rock, blues, Cajun, and southern gospel into one glorious knot.

If you can’t decide where to start, try the Rhino sampler, Jubilation! Volume One. It has many of the hits by some of the best in all the post-war styles, and it reminds me of how a preacher I know used to welcome visitors to his church: “We’ll treat you so many different ways, you’re bound to like one!”