A capella, negro spirituals, traditionals and other songs. Gospel for beginners – an ideal introduction.
In the annals of African-American history, gospel music – the generic term for the music of the black folk churches, whether these be Methodist, Baptist, or Pentecostal – has played a pre-eminent role. It is generally conceded that the origins of rock and roll reside in the gospel church. Most of the pioneer rockers were either ex-gospel singers or patterned themselves after the great figures of gospel’s Golden Age, the period between 1945 and 1960. Today the fervent lyricism of R. H. Harris, the focused pyrotechnique of Clara Ward, the falsetto ecstasy and startling vocal colorations of Marion Williams are universal commodities, thanks to the efforts of these gospel pioneers’ most notable acolytes, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, and Little Richard. But more than any individual artist’s contribution, popular music owes to gospel a freedom from inhibition, an improvisatory abandon, and a sheer joy in the physical expression of emotions, a secularized amalgamation of body and spirit.
That religious music could be employed for worldly ends is a neat reversal of Martin Luther’s famous remark, “Why should the devil have all the good tunes?” The gospel retort might be that if the world has the best tunes, the church has the best moves, rhythms, and voices. This may be because gospel is, above all, a music of testimony. The archetypal gospel phrase, “How I got over”, depicts the essential situation: the singer has suffered greatly, “abused, confused, misused”, mistreated by society (“doors have been closed in my face”) and by loved ones (“they smile in your face but cut your throat behind your back”). Yet she made it over, relying pretty much on sheer will-power and a self-confidence so clearly without visible support that it seems downright miraculous.
Not surprisingly, it was this gospel energy that empowered the marchers during the Civil Rights revolution of the 1960s, even as gospel cadences and syncopations marked the 1988 campaign of Reverend Jesse Jackson. The greatest of all gospel song-writers, Reverend W. Herbert Brewster, once acknowledged that his major compositions – “Move on up a little higher”, “How I got over”, “Surely god is able” etc. – carried a double message: they were meant to strengthen the cast-down saints, but they were also implicit summons to political activism.
To this extent, people like Brewster or the Alabama singer-composer Dorothy Love Coates have extended the metaphorical procedure of the great spirituals with their hidden codes and deeply social content. Since African-American religious music is three centuries old, it draws upon numerous influences, many of them linked with specific denominations. Methodists and Baptists are steeped in a tradition identified with an eighteenth-century English Methodist poet, Isaac Watts. The eponymous “Dr. Watts-hymns” – some of which, like “Amazing grace”, were not even composed by Watts – are usually performed in a slow, melancholy manner, characterized by intricate note-bending (melisma) and moaned slurs, a major origin of the blue tonality that is the glory of African-American music. Both Methodists and Baptists also enjoy the more raucous, rhythmic numbers, often known as ‘shout songs’, an illusion to ‘shouting’, the folk word for “getting happy” or dancing in the spirit. But the more recent Sanctified denominations (the best known include the Holiness Church and the Church of God in Christ) have proved the freest and most dramatically expressive.
Within these various denominations, music is performed by soloists, choirs, and male quartets. At one time Baptist and Methodist singing was unaccompanied, and until the 1950s, male quartets recorded a cappella. But the Sanctified Church’s use of musical instruments revolutionized the sounds of the other churches. Today a gospel choir may employ piano, organ, guitar, bass guitar, drums, saxophone, and trumpet accompaniment: honoring the latest innovations, some choirs even employ synthesizers.
Much like jazz which telescoped in less than thirty years an amazingly rich and varied musical history, gospel has undergone numerous changes since the earliest gospel compositions of writers like Brewster, Lucie Campbell, and Thomas A. Dorsey. Dorsey had been a blues pianist, an accompanist of Ma Rainey’s, before he was born again, again and again (he was a minister’s son in the first place) and returned to the church with a compelling hybrid of gospel testimony, blues expression, jazz syncopation, and vaudevillean showmanship. But if Dorsey was wildly innovative for his time, today his music represents a hallowed tradition; grounded in folklore, it has assumed the quality of a living folklore, a museum of gospel culture.
Younger musicians have gone through numerous changes, answering their own musical needs as well as responding to newer forms of popular and, as in the case of the classically trained Robert Mayes, of concert music. The earliest gospel harmonies were rivetingly plaintive; the harmonies of “Contemporary Gospel” are far more audacious. The ideal seems to be a combination of Mormon Tabernacle Choir, jazz vocal group, and the congregation of that spirit-filled storefront church down the block. Few artists can bring off such ambitious music without sacrificing the gospel core.
One who has mastered the new idiom is Robert Mayes. Although he is classically trained and an admirer of jazz virtuosi like Art Tatum, he is also rooted in hard gospel soil. A native of St. Louis, he began his career as pianist for Martha Bass, a huge-voiced contralto who had formerly sung with The Clara Ward Singers. He gratuaded to working as accompanist for Bass’ mentor, the legendary Willi Mae Ford Smith who is often regarded as the pioneer gospel soloist. (And her musical power – Thomas A. Dorsey claims that she could have surpassed Bessie Smith – links Mayes to the giants of early blues and jazz.)
After receiving his education, Mayes left St. Louis for Chicago where he became recognized for his ornate piano technique, and his rich, multi-octaved voice (he can soar form a gruff baritone to a floating soprano). For some years he accompanied Delois Barrett Campbell and The Barrett Sisters; they introduced his most popular composition, the irresistible “I want to walk and talk with Jesus”. In recent years he has served as Minister of Music at the Universal Life Church, and has molded its large choir into a unit that can achieve an almost conversational intimacy, so precise is his attention to phrasing and diction.
With the members of The Meta Four Mayes presents an assortment of gospel tunes, ranging from a hymn “My faith looks up like thee” and a spiritual “Rock my soul” to the Contemporary Gospel ballads, “I don’t know why Jesus loves me” and “I love the lord”. The traditional gospel is of Chicago provenance: Thomas A. Dorsey’s “If we never needed the lord before”; there’s even a recent composition, “Sailing on the sea of your love” which recalls 1950’s doo-wop ballads. Spurred by Mayes’ musicianship, the Meta Four exhibit a versatility fully adequate to this wide musical range. Short-changed and under-rated, gospel singers refuse to take second place to any worldly musicians. When it comes to sheer singing, nobody does it better.
(Anthony Heilbut, New York)
Anthony Heilbut is the author of “The gospel sound: Good news and bad times (Third edition, 1985, Limelight Publications) and of “Kultur ohne Heimat: Deutsche Emigranten in den USA nach 1945” (1987, Quadriga Verlag, Germany). He has produced numerous gospel albums including winners of the Grammy Award and the Grand Prix du Disque.