In yesterday’s post on online education, I mentioned that I’m spending part of my summer working with my friend Sam on a series of short documentary films for the online version of our Western Civ/church history course, and that we’re sensitive to the challenge of producing something polished enough to appeal to our media-savvy students.
The visual side is less concerning: even amateurs like us have access to digital cameras and editing software of pretty high quality. But as we watch films that serve as models for us, we’re struck by the importance of music: both that providing background texture, and the songs that themselves serve as voices telling the story.
So, what kind of music do you pick for a series of documentaries covering Christianity’s interaction with Western culture from its origins through the Enlightenment? Why, gospel music, of course!
It may seem like an odd choice, in that African-American history itself only comes up twice in a course that doesn’t get to the United States until its conclusion ca. 1800. But it stops with the slave trade (and its abolition in the British Empire in 1807). And the course starts with Martin Luther King, Jr., and his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which introduces several of the key themes of the course (the nature of justice, what it means to be human, how Christians interact with politics, etc.) as well as our “cloud of witnesses” theme: in making his argument, King appeals to a wide array of figures from the history of the church and of Western culture (from Socrates and the Apostle Paul to Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther to Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln).
And more broadly, we felt like hearing gospel music in these films would be usefully disconcerting: unexpected on first listen, but then a persistent reminder from descendants of people taken from their homes into slavery that every Christian, like Abraham in Hebrews 11, inhabits Western and every other culture “like a stranger in a foreign country” while “looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (vv 9-10).
Unfortunately, I know almost nothing about gospel music. So as part of my summer research, I retrieved the one of the few gospel CDs in my collection, one I had once come across in a bargain bin…
Various Artists, The Glory of Black Gospel (Vol. 1)
This is the first of six volumes in a series released by a German company that draws chiefly on the catalog of the defunct Vee-Jay label, which dabbled in gospel alongside R&B and other genres in the 1950s and 1960s (though it’s perhaps best known now for having been the American distributor for the first Beatles singles). Of the eighteen artists, some are familiar even to a novice like me: Mahalia Jackson and The Staple Singers; and I at least recognized the names and basic sounds of The Blind Boys of Alabama (not to be confused with disc-mates The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi), The Swan Silvertones, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. (The Platters are also on here, though their cover of “Crying in the Chapel” seems rather out of place.)
Most contributors are less familiar, but it’s a treat to encounter new favorites. I don’t know nearly enough about this style of music to offer any great insights, but two seemingly paradoxical qualities stood out as I listened to the disc again:
1. It’s great pop music
Music charts being what they were in the mid-20th century, I’m not sure it’s possible to know just how popular any of these songs actually were. And surely gospel music performed by African-Americans didn’t cross over to white audiences in the same way as R&B — at least, not until it spawned soul. But if they weren’t widely popular, they should have been.
The disc kicks off with perhaps its most famous track, The Staple Singers’ “This May Be the Last Time.” While probably best known for the similarly-titled Rolling Stones’ song it inspired (Mick Jagger acknowledged the connection when he hosted Saturday Night Live this past May, having a vocal sextet sing The Staples’ version before he and Arcade Fire played “The Last Time“), the track holds up fantastically well on its own — the reverberations of Pops Staples’ guitar and the unworldly harmonies of his children make a timeless sound unlike anything else recorded. (Any movie about the end of the world ought to have this on its soundtrack.)
(The Staples also contribute one of the highlights on the second volume of this collection: one of the most memorable of the innumerable covers of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” It’s followed by the The Original Gospel Harmonettes singing an ode to ecumenism, celebrating that Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Holiness, and other Christians are all in “the righteous army of the Lord.”)
It’s vastly less familiar, but the next track is equally exhilarating: The Caravans’ “It’s Jesus In Me.” I’m not sure who takes lead vocals (AllMusic suggests that it’s Cassietta George), but she’s a powerhouse. The song rocks and rolls more than you’d think possible for a song featuring an organ. And who doesn’t enjoy a call-and-response vocal that uses “Sanctify!” as a hook?
The hits keep on coming, ranging from up-tempo dance-alongs like “See How He Kept Me” (by The Argo Gospel Singers) and “Going Home with Jesus” (Brother James Anderson, with driving piano and nice guitar fills in support), both of which would have fit right in with “secular” music on radio in the late Fifties and early Sixties, to slower, virtually a capella numbers like the Harmonizing Four’s eery “Wade in the Water,” with its bass lead (from Clarence Ross, I think).
2. It’s evangelical in the broadest, best sense
It may seem redundant to say that gospel music can be about the Gospel, but…
Well, consider the token appearance of the genre in an episode of NBC’s Smash entitled “Previews,” when the token black member of the fictional Broadway show’s cast decides to engage in some team-building by inviting the fracturing ensemble to his family’s church. (“I could use a little faith,” agrees one member of the chorus.) Shockingly, he and a purple-robed choir end up singing a gospel number, but — bear with me — they almost instantly cede the spotlight to the show’s ingenue, Iowan-out-of-water Katharine McPhee. (Here’s a taste of the scene from NBC.com, entitled — I swear — “Smash goes gospel!”) Setting aside the uncomfortable hints of the White Messiah Myth, the number exemplifies the therapeutic deism that often passes for Christianity on network television — invoking a vaguely-defined deity “with a plan” who will help us “stand and endure” and “be strong.”
The Gospel of The Glory of Black Gospel, however, is unmistakably that of Jesus Christ, with song after song yearning (as Alex Bradford sings on “Too Close”) “to see his face.” And the lyrics are saturated in Scripture, Old and New: The Swan Silvertones encourage Mary — “don’t you weep” — and Martha — “don’t you moan” — to trust in the same God who brought the Israelites out of Egypt; The Highway Q.C.’s offer up the prophet Daniel as a model for prayer on “It’s Me.” And there’s plenty of Revelation to go around…
But for all the tracks that yearn for the “heaven somewhere” that’s “Up Above My Head” (Tharpe’s contribution), there’s a recognition that the suffering of this world is meaningful, not likely to be forgotten even after we’re “home with Jesus.” Mahalia Jackson, not surprisingly, offers the compilation’s most compelling moment, in which she promises that she’s “going to tell God / just how he’s been treating me / one of these days.”
Release Date: 2001
Three Favorite Tracks: “It’s Jesus in Me”; “This May Be The Last Time”; “I’m Going To Tell God.”
Other Nominees: The White Stripes, Get Behind Me, Satan; Wilco, A Ghost is Born; Sheryl Crow, The Globe Sessions; Gram Parsons, GP/Grievous Angel; Soul Asylum, Grave Dancers Union; Low, The Great Destroyer; Semisonic, Great Divide; R.E.M., Green; Steve Earle, Guitar Town.