Thursday, December 09, 2004

Sweet Little Jesus Boy: A Spiritual for Christmas

For me, it's just not Christmas until I've listened over and over to the song "Sweet Little Jesus Boy." It's a spiritual credited to the writer Robert MacGimsey. Some of the lyrics:

Sweet little Jesus Boy,
they made you be born in a manger.
Sweet little Holy Child,
didn't know who You was.

Didn't know you come to save us, Lord;
to take our sins away.
Our eyes was blind, we couldn't see,
we didn't know who You was.

In the other verses, the writer, in the broken language of an ex-slave, writes about how the Holy Child grew up and was mistreated, but lived his life as an example to the people he served. The writer apologizes for not recognizing the Savior.

I love that song, partly because the arrangements I've heard of it are soul-stirring and beautiful. But I also love it because it pierces my soul. It's sweet and mournful at the same time. Even though it's a Christmas song, it reminds me that the story of Jesus is about so much more than his birth. He came and lived a sinless life. He allowed himself to be sacrificed for our sins so that we could have peace and know God. And he faced terrible rejection. John 1:10-11 tells us: "He was in the world, the world was there through him, and yet the world didn't even notice. He came to his own people, but they didn't want him" (The Message).

The people of his day didn't recognize Jesus. And those who did recognize him sometimes found the cost of following too great. Too much. Not worth it. And so they left. They said, "No thanks." They abandoned him, hoping to find an easier way.

My face wasn't among those in the jeering crowd that screamed for Jesus' death 2000 years ago, contorted with rage and betrayal and hate. I wasn't cheering as the Roman soldiers whipped and beat him. I didn't turn away, angry that he wasn't going to change the world with my politics or my ideas about power or humanitarianism. I didn't stand in front of him, wondering if he was who he claimed to be, and then leave downcast, feet shuffling, disappointed.

Yet I do sometimes live as though I don't know who he is. I get caught up in my own problems and drama and busyness and stress, and fail to see his hand in my life. I bark and complain and make self-centered demands—Doesn't he see me? Doesn't he know I need his attention?—without remembering the ways he's already chosen to shine on me. I forget that the sweet, harmless baby who lay in a feeding trough is actually a king, a king with nail-wounded hands and compelling eyes, a king who promises adventure and gestures toward me, speaking in one-word sentences: Come. Follow. Sacrifice. Look. Listen. Live.

I don't remember, don't believe with all my strength, that the child born in Bethlehem—a town whose name means House of Bread—is the Bread of Life. The child would become the nourishment and satisfaction for my hungry soul, the Bread broken again and again, with plenty for all.

Just seem like we can't do right,
look how we treated You.
But please, sir, forgive us Lord,
we didn't know 'twas You.

The good news, the sweet, shining, truest story of all, is that the humble-born infant, the Holy Child who saw and sees with the all-knowing eyes of the Eternal, is willing to forgive me, to open my blinded eyes, to give me yet another chance to know who he was and is. May I listen to this song—and to God's heart—until I get it right.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

"Shut Up!" The Gospel Music Career of Little Richard

In this segment from WHYY’s Fresh Air program, rock historian Ed Ward discusses the brief period of Little Richard’s career in which he sang gospel music. It wasn’t as informative as I’d hoped, but it did make me want to find out more about the Pompadoured One, whose real name is Richard Wayne Penniman.

This 2000 article from the Chicago Sun-Times is a start. Dave Hoekstra reports that Mahalia Jackson was a major influence on Penniman, and that he was ordained as a Seventh-Day Adventist minister at Alabama’s Oakwood Theological College (also the alma mater of several members of Take 6). He’s also mused aloud about eventually doing an all-gospel show.

Hoekstra writes:
“Nearly all of Penniman’s dramatic phrasing and swift vocal turns are derived from gospel. The architect of rock’n’roll mixed that ministry. . .with theatrics he learned from the traveling medicine shows that rolled through his native Macon [Georgia]. Colorful medicine men would wear lavish capes, robes and turbans, all of which left an impression on Penniman.”

This is intriguing—a mixture of gospel, medicine and theater. Music, medicine and theater. It would be interesting to explore the interaction between these three elements that is present in gospel music, gospel concerts, and different forms of worship. Perhaps I shall in a later post. Awop-bop-a-loo-mop-alop-bam-boom!

Penniman also credits his piano style to Esquerita, a pianist he met while traveling with a preacher, and Brother Joe May, a Missouri-based gospel music singer.

Has anyone seen The Little Richard Story, the biopic mentioned in the article? Are there any good biographies that really explore Penniman’s life and the tensions he felt between his faith, homosexuality and his love for both gospel and rock’n’roll?

A couple of other Little Richard links:

An Encyclopedia Encarta article, which notes that Penniman’s father was a Seventh Day Adventist, a bartender and a bootlegger. (?!)

Some of the information on this website conflicts with that in the encyclopedia entry, but it’s interesting nonetheless. I’m curious about whether his R&B track “Ain’t That Good News” was a spoof on the spiritual “Ain’t ‘a That Good News.”

Listen to Penniman sing gospel on Little Richard Sings the Gospel, Pure Faith and It’s Real.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Why I'm Thankful for Gospel Music

Well, one reason anyway: miracles happen when I hear it.

Check out this audio, and you'll hear what I mean: It's of writer Anne Lamott reading the chapter titled "Knocking on Heaven's Door," from her spiritual memoir, Traveling Mercies. I've linked to version that appeared on; I'm not sure how close it is to the one that appears in the book.

This is going to take some work, but it's worth it, I promise:

1. Go to, the website of the radio program This American Life.
2. In the window on the left, scroll down to "Search This Site," and type in "Anne Lamott."
3. Tap on the first listing that comes up on the right, titled "Music Lessons."
4. Choose whatever audio system you listen to.
5. Once that window pops up, move the bar that controls the timing to 39:57 into the audio (although the whole program is enjoyable, this is where Lamott's reading begins).
6. Enjoy!

This story (and, for the record, much of Lamott's work) pierces my heart every time I read it. A loving, grouchy, Jesusy lady who isn't always sure how she feels about her fellow man finds herself in a situation that's one part scary and two parts annoying. But remembering a miracle she's seen--a miracle wrought in part by God's work and gospel music--is enough for her to rest in for a while. The audio also includes a rendition of "His Eye is on the Sparrow" performed by Renola Garrison (the woman mentioned in the story) with accompaniment by pianist Anne Jefferson.

Here's my favorite quote:

"I can't imagine anything but music that could have brought about this alchemy. Maybe it's because music is about as physical as it gets: your essential rhythm is your heartbeat; your essential sound, the breath. We're walking temples of noise, and when you add tender hearts to this mix, it somehow lets us meet in places we get to any other way."

May the sweet wonder of God's work in our lives--and the beauty of His good-news music--allow us to meet Him and those around us in fresh and loving ways.


More on Gospel in the Public Imagination

My post on Gospel in the Public Imagination caught the eye of my friends over at GetReligion, who gave me a shout-out and referenced it on their blog. The GR crowd generated some really interesting comments. I'll quote two of them here:

"'What does gospel music mean in the public imagination?'
--it is thoroughly aestheticized cultural detritus that is accepted and approved if stripped from its origins. Of course Keillor's audience knows gospel is "black Christian worship music," but that is OK as long as "black"=voters patronized by white liberals as a specially protected, historically victimized culture group with the inevitably odd practices and beliefs of all "ethnic" folk. Gospel's OK as long as there is no accompanying sermon about the evils of homosexuality. Similarly, bashing Revelation prophecy enthusiasts is OK because we know that means crackers and rednecks, not the black men and women on urban cable access shows. Farrakhan is not, in our cultural logic, a "fundamentalist." "Black religion" is all good but we keep its non-aesthetic contents out of view. "White religion" is conditionally good insofar as it is not hostile to the Democratic Party platform and other triumphs of Enlightenment. Failing that test, white religion is possibly more menacing than Al Quaeda."

and another:

"On Gospelgal's question: 'What does gospel music mean in the public imagination?' I am writing this Sunday morning from the South of France where I attended a large Gospel concert at Le Dome in Marseille last night. Probably 1500 people there, very revved up with the music - big rock show staging and lights and sound, almost all the songs in English, with many favorites old and new.
But when the singers talk in French about Jesus and what he means to them - a pall and and a hush. When one leader asked how many folks believed in God, maybe 10% of us gave a shout out for him. Everyone here loves the music - until it talks explicitly about its subject. "

Here's how I weighed in:

"[The above posters] kind of picked up on what I was wondering: In the public imagination, is gospel music OK as long as it's just 'ethnic music' connected to 'black religion?' ("Well, those are just their customs.") Is it enjoyable as long as it's not connected to actual red or blue religion and the controversial beliefs/voting patterns that can result?

In Keillor's case, this might be part of the answer: (from

" . . .indeed, the Sanctified Brethren are there in Lake Wobegon. My people. People who take Scripture seriously and defend their revelations with fervor and thus are not always the easiest neighbors to get along with. But surely worth paying attention to. And some of them have a sense of humor. I do suspect that my liberal pals have an easier time about Born Agains if they are black than if they're white, but maybe that's just a suspicion on my part."'"

This was a really exciting discussion to me. Not only were we talking about music, but that gospel-driven interchange became a way to think about politics, race matters, matters of faith, et cetera. Good music, good times, and a little something to think about.

Oh, and welcome to any new lurkers I may have who've bounced here from GetReligion! Don't be strangers, now.

While You're in Your Post-Dinner Daze this Thanksgiving...

. . .Check out this amazing multimedia website and oral history project supported by the University of Denver Center for Teaching and Learning:

"Sweet Chariot: The Story of the Spirituals"

As far as I'm concerned, it's Christmas!

Here's some information about the project, from the DU site I've linked to above:

"The Spirituals Project, in collaboration with The University of Denver Center for Teaching and Learning, has developed a comprehensive multimedia educational website for use in courses at the University of Denver and for members of the public at large who are interested in learning about the history and ongoing cultural influences of the spirituals. Entitled Sweet Chariot: The Story of the Spirituals, this website includes an historical overview as well as sections outlining the evolving cultural and musical contexts of the spirituals; issues of survival and resilience in the spirituals tradition; the historical use of spirituals in the service of freedom and equality; the influence of the spirituals on the performing arts and on American literature; and a section on the present and projected future influences of the spirituals tradition. The site includes sound clips of songs used to illustrate various points, excerpts of interviews with artists, composers and community workers, and links to library and Internet resources for those interested in further study. The project is supported by the University of Denver Center for Teaching and Learning.

Oral History Project
Supported by grants for the LEF Foundation and the Union Institute and University, The Spirituals Project has interviewed a number of professionals and lay people around the country who have been involved actively in efforts to keep the spirituals tradition alive and vibrant in the twenty-first century. Included among the people interviewed to date are the noted composer/conductors Brazeal Dennard, Roland Carter, Jackie Hairston and Hale Smith; singer/conductors Horace Boyer, Francois Clemmons (Harlem Spiritual Ensemble), Vincent Stringer (National Spiritual Ensemble) and Linda Tillery (Cultural Heritage Choir); pianist/vocal coach Sylvia Olden Lee; and the late great singer/educator William Warfield. Oral excerpts and associated written transcripts from some of these interviews are available on the Sweet Chariot multimedia website.

This is amazing--and I'll post more thoughts later. In the meantime, check out this interesting sidebar, which is part of the introduction. Bold emphases are mine:

What is the Difference Between the Spirituals and Gospel Music?
Many people ask what the difference is between the spirituals and Black gospel music. Simply put, the spirituals are the Southern sacred "folk" songs created and first sung by African Americans during slavery. Their original composers are unknown, and they have assumed a position of collective ownership by the whole community. They lend themselves easily to communal singing. Many are in a call-and-response structure, with back-and-forth exchanges between the leader and the group. A formal concert tradition has evolved from the original spirituals, with solo and choral arrangements based on original slave melodies, employed for performance by amateur and professional artists. Black gospel music originated in the churches of the urban North in the 1920's, and has been the predominant music of the twentieth century Black Church. Each gospel song has an identifiable composer. Gospel fuses musical elements of both the spirituals and the blues, and incorporates extensive musical improvisation, with piano, guitar or other instrumental accompaniment. While the gospel tradition descended directly from the spirituals and the blues, the spirituals have also continued to exist as a parallel cultural force.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Gospel Gal's Late-Breaking Political Roundup (Or, "Gospel Music In the Public Imagination")

I am a nerd. In fact, I am the type of nerd who squeals with delighted glee when she discovers the local NPR affiliate on a road trip.

That’s what I was doing yesterday on my way home from the St. Louis area (birthplace of ragtime, yippee!). Tuning in to public radio, I was excited to find that I was going to catch Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, one of my favorite radio programs.

And then, I heard something blogworthy.

Keillor began this week’s show with a rant about “born-again Christians” and why he believes they shouldn’t be allowed to vote. I was a bit taken aback for several reasons.

The first is that I’m not sure who he was talking about. For example, was he mocking the general voting patterns of born-again Christians as defined by, say, George Barna? Fundamentalists? Evangelicals? Charismatics? The Left Behind crowd? Somewhat leftward-leaning activists ala the Sojourners bunch? (I’ve already offered my disclaimer about being a nerd, right?) And to be honest, I wasn’t sure that he was sure who he was talking about—just that whoever it was a) wasn’t listening (Hel-oooooo) and b) deserved a potshot.

The second thing that caught me off guard was the dry vitriol—in contrast to the gentle, lovingly humorous treatment he directs toward the Lutherans in his Lake Wobegon stories. I’m a Christ-follower—and a Lutheran school alumn—with a rather irreverent sense of humor, so I’m usually pretty good for a laugh at the expense of my people. This was quite a bit darker and sharper than that (and far from the gentle “how many [fill in the plural form of chosen denomination] does it take to screw in a lightbulb” jokes that came later). But hey, it’s his show.

But the real biggie (and the reason I’m blogging about it for the gospel gals and gospel guys out there) is as follows: Just after he finished his monologue/rant/tirade/otherwise simply wonderful introduction, Keillor introduced the show’s musical guest. It was gospel singer Jearlyn Steele. During the course of the show, they sang “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” and “Let Us Break Bread Together On Our Knees.”


Keillor lent his warm, steady bass to these beloved gospel numbers—two of the most precious to the most traditional of the flock—as if he hadn’t just trashed the folks who wrote and sang those very songs.

Garrison Keillor is no dummy. For years I’ve enjoyed his folksy wit and admired his ability to convey truths about the human experience through his work. I’ve even gotten used to his heavy breathing, the dark, sonorous speaking voice and the wheezing of nose hair.

I should add, too, that I don’t know if he is currently a part of any faith tradition. So I don’t know if he was being ironic, thumbing his nose at born-agains or even saying, “Hey, everybody, even the sharpest barbs are offered in good fun. Let’s sing, shall we?” Perhaps he’d booked Steele for the show months before the election, and just happened to be in a particularly foul mood about the red-state victory. Maybe the opening monologue is completely spontaneous. I don’t s'pose I’ll know soon. But I think this incident presents the readership with an interesting question:

What does gospel music mean in the public imagination?

In this case, Keillor failed to connect gospel music with the people of faith who sing it (and vote, red or blue, as they believe their faith compels them to). At least from my end of the radio, Keillor seemed to sing the music with the same delivery he usually brings to any folk song. So . . .is the message of gospel music not distinct enough to distinguish it from folk music?

I think of most forms of traditional gospel music as folk music (notated spirituals like the work of the late Moses Hogan and choral gospel like the work of Richard Smallwood et. al feel more like art music to me). But the definitions we’ve explored on the site so far speak about the spiritual/theological dimension of gospel music. In fact, part of the never-ending debate over what is or isn’t gospel music concerns that spiritual element. For example, is a song like R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” that has inspirational lyrics and a gospel sound a gospel song? In the public mind, is gospel music only folk music, or is the distinction clear enough. Hmmm. Sounds almost like a microcosm of the “civic religion” discussion.

All right. The rambling has begun. Here are a few more recent examples of gospel music in the public/political imagination:

This article in the online version of the London Times suggests we gauge a politican’s ability to connect with the black community by watching him sway and tap his foot to gospel music. I offer the following choice tidbits in a spirit of bipartisan sauciness:

“Albert Gore III and John Forbes Kerry, two of America’s most blue-blooded and buttoned-up white politicians, swayed awkwardly to gospel music and preached a message of black revenge in churches . . .”

OK—we’ve got the multiple adjectives, just in case we’re not completely sure these guys aren’t necessarily in their element. And, um, “black revenge”? Like what, Nat Turner style? Frankly, this sounds like a painful experience for everyone involved.

The article continues:

“Mr. Gore looked utterly incongruous, failing miserably to tap his foot in time to the febrile mix of gospel music, electric organ and wailing worshippers inside Jacksonville’s Abyssinia Missionary Baptist Church . . .”

*Sigh* We get it. He’s out of his element. And puh-leeze, can somebody describe an Af-Am church service without using words like “febrile” and “wailing?” I guess that’s how it looks if you haven’t grown up attending those sorts of services, but I’ve read so many of these descriptions that sound like some sort of freakish voodoo ceremony. . .the natives are getting restless . . .

“ . . .President Clinton, a Southern Baptist whose ability to connect with black congregations—he could even sway in time with the music—has seen him become the first white politician included in the [gospel gal's note: Arkansas] Black Hall of Fame.”

I hope any budding politicians out there are taking notes: ability to sway + ability to clap on 2 and 4=ability to connect with black congregations. Because that’s what really matters. *Shaking head*

Moving On . . .

A Detroit Free Press article includes this quote from Donnie McClurkin regarding his appearance at the Republican National Convention: “We cannot be political and spiritual at the same time.” (Do you agree?)

Quotes to Chuckle Over:

“There ain’t nothin’ better than some gospel music and weightlifting.”
--Daryl Tapp, Virginia Tech defensive end, to the Daily Press

“All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard no horse sing.”—Louis Armstong, quoted in African American Quotations)

More on Kanye: features this editorial on Kanye and “Jesus Walks” from the perspective of radio executive Christopher Squire.

From the editorial:
“ . . .Gospel is not a trend . . .it’s a lifestyle. It is more than the emotion of the moment; it is the commitment of a lifetime. It doesn’t mean that you are perfect; it means that you are committed. Committed to a message that is designed to bring men and women to a full knowledge and understanding of Christ . . .a life-changing experience.”

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Brother Ray on the Invention of Soul Music

"Maybe I put together two things that hadn't been put together before, but...give credit to the church singers and the bluesmen who I got it from. I got enough credit. Let people know that it didn't come from me. It came from before me."

--Ray Charles, to biographer David Ritz

Ritz, David. "Last Words of Brother Ray: At the End of His Life, Charles Set Out to Put the Record Straight." Rolling Stone magazine, July 8-22, 2004, p. 98.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

And the Nominees Are . . .

The Stellar Award Nominees are posted on the official website. More commentary later.

Paul Robeson on Singing

A delightful thought, pure, sweet and lyrical, on singing—and preaching.

“Yes, I heard my people singing!—in the glow of parlor coal-stove and on summer porches sweet with lilac air, from choir loft and Sunday morning pews—and my soul was filled with their harmonies. Then, too, I heard these songs in the very sermons of my father, for in the Negro’s speech there is much of the phrasing and rhythms of folk-song. The great, soaring gospels we love are merely sermons that are sung; and as we thrill to such gifted gospel singers as Mahalia Jackson, we hear the rhythmic eloquence of our preachers, so many of whom, like my father, are masters of poetic speech.”

--Paul Robeson
(courtesy of

Another Definition...

From some people who ought to know: the folks at the Center for Black Music Research:

“The term ‘gospel music’ refers to African-American Protestant vocal music that celebrates Christian doctrine in emotive, often dramatic ways. Vocal soloists are the best-known exponents of gospel, but vocal and choral groups of widely varying sizes have also helped to define the style. In gospel, simple melodies are heavily ornamented by blue notes, glissandi, and a dramatic use of a wide vocal range; and the form conducts an ongoing dialogue of influence with blues, jazz, pop, rap and folk styles.”

There are a lot of interesting things about this definition, so I’m going to do some thinking out loud about it. A few thoughts in formation:

I’d agree that traditional and modern gospel music are rooted in African-American culture. When you say “gospel music,” most people probably think of black gospel music. I do. But I’m not completely sure I’d limit the definition quite so tightly. Early sacred music (like that in the compilation Goodbye Babylon, for example) was very folksy and its roots are multiracial (if not exactly interracial). Of course, much of that music predates what we know as “gospel music.” Maybe “sacred music” is more accurate. I wonder, too, if it would be more accurate to say “music rooted in or derived/adapted from the African-American Protestant tradition.”

This definition doesn’t seem to leave any room for (predominately white) Southern gospel. And haven't there been controversies when white artists were nominated for "black gospel" awards? This is a foggy memory, but if anyone in the blogosphere remembers what I mean and can point me to some specific examples let me know (Angelo & Veronica come to mind; I can't remember the specifics, but I recall a lot of conversation and discussion generated as a result). My point being, I think this definition raises some interesting questions: Is "Southern gospel" gospel? Can non-black artists sing gospel? And is it the sound or the message that makes gospel music gospel music? Y'all know how to comment, right? . . .

In any case, I’m wondering what presuppositions guide this definition. I'm wondering, too, if it comes from a primarily anthropological, sociological, historical or commercial perspective.

I also had some thoughts about the “vocal/choral” limitation. It would be interesting to hear a definition that talks more about what gospel music sounds like instrumentally. Last year (?) Light Records released some really nice instrumental albums of gospel music: the Reflections series—albums of instrumental gospel featuring organ, piano, saxophone and guitar. Even if these albums weren’t recordings of well-known gospel songs, I think the discriminating ear can hear the gospel-ish sound in them. In fact, if I remember correctly, one of the major complaints people had with Ray Charles back in the day was that he paired a gospel sound with nonreligious lyrics, right?

I resonated with the “ongoing dialogue of influence” part of the definition. It sounds grand and lyrical to me—and I like the fact that it includes so many musical styles (rap, even!) and describes the influence as a dialogue, a give-and-take. And by mentioning "Christian doctrine" it seems to distinguish itself from music that is "merely" positive, inspirational or uplifting. Interesting!

So, food for thought:
Who can sing/play/perform gospel music?
What does gospel music sound like to you, sans vocals?
How do you hear the “ongoing dialogue of influence” between gospel music and other forms?What are the benefits of defining a genre of music? The drawbacks? Can music or other forms of art really be defined?

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Gospel Gal Goes Out to A Program

"If you want to hear singing,
Good old gospel singing,
Go out to the programs,
Whenever they're in your town."

--"Let's Go Out to the Programs"
The Dixie Hummingbirds, 1953

(quoted in Jerry Zolten's Great God A'Mighty! The Dixie Hummingbirds Celebrating the Rise of Soul Gospel Music. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc. 2003)

A couple of weeks ago, I went out to see some good old-fashioned quartet singing. The artists were The Inspirational Souls of Chicago; Rev. Andrew Cheairs & the Song Birds of Grand Junction, TN; Lee Williams & the Spiritual QCs; and Harvey Watkins, Jr. and the Canton Spirituals.

I saw and heard a lot, and got a lot of bloggable fodder, so you'll read more about it in the future. But here are a couple of thoughts:

As I listened, I theorized that more than other genres of gospel music, the quartet tradition seems to demonstrate what historian Craig Werner refers to as

"the ongoing call and response between the gospel vision and what novelist Ralph Ellison called ‘the blues impulse.’. . . Where the blues men and women focus on the immediate problem of finding the strength to face another blues-torn day, the gospel vision holds out the hope that, if we stick together and keep faith with the spirit, a change is gonna come."
(This quote comes from Werner’s Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul. )

So many of the songs I heard have a bluesy, rural feel and tell stories of hard times made bearable by love and hope, faith and family. These songs tell the truth, but offer the promise of eventual joy and peace.

Zolten quotes a longtime friend of the Dixie Hummingbirds:

"The music gave us a spiritual lift," says the Reverend Gadson Graham, pastor of the Canaan Baptist Church in Paterson, New Jersey . . . ‘When they sang their songs, the Birds just made us feel like we could deal more with what we had to deal with."

So, anyway, while my hands were clapping and my toes tapping, my scholarly juices got to flowin', too.

How do you hear the dialogue between the blues impulse and the gospel vision in your favorite music (gospel or not)?

An Online Exhibit on the History of Gospel Music

The Chicago Historical Society has an interesting online exhibit about the history of gospel music and the lives of several of gospel's foremothers and forefathers. Check out the photos and sound clips!

One of my favorite quotes:

"It's evangelistic, it has a rhythm and carries a message with the
feeling and fever that many sacred songs do not have, the gospel is good

--Thomas A. Dorsey
Good news!

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Check Out Mavis Staples...

. . .tomorrow night on NBC's Conan O'Brien (11:35 p.m. CST). Mavis will be performing "Have a Little Faith" from the album of the same name.

Friday, October 15, 2004

More "Jesus Walks" videos

Relevant magazine has a brief rundown of biblical imagery in the "Jesus Walks" videos, and also links to a couple of videos you may or may not have seen.

The listing feels a bit cursory, but maybe it will generate some other thoughts. Enjoy!

The Artists We Cherish Most

"The artists we cherish most give the most. We love Shakespeare or Van Gogh or Walt Whitman because they pour it all out, heart and soul. They mirror the ambitions of our heart; they sing the songs we wish we could sing. In music, the manic artists--Mozart, Maria Callas, Charlie Parker--defy the gods of reason and, in doing so, thrill us through and through. They risk their lives for the sake of art, and we reward them with immortality. In black music, as developed in these troubled United States, the risk is even higher. Categories are constructed like cages. Venture out and risk rebuke.

"Yet the great gift cannot be contained. The gifted go where they will, following a muse that recognizes neither restriction nor fear. The great gift transcends the gifted and, like its mysterious source, lives as an offering of unlimited love. Thinking of those who possess the gift, we get happy in a hurry. Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Mahalia Jackson, Thelonious Monk, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye--brave hearts who broke through barriers and, in doing so, came to symbolize freedom."

--David Ritz, in "The Greatest Gift," liner notes for Raymond Myles' A Taste of Heaven: The Sound of New Orleans

Whose music makes you "get happy in a hurry?"

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Zomba Acquires GospoCentric Records

In business news, Zomba Label Group has acquired GospoCentric Records, whose artist roster includes Kirk Franklin, Dorinda Clark Cole, and Byron Cage. GospoCentric founder Vicki Mack Lataillade will stay on as president.

A couple of new Gospel Gal reviews are posted this week: The J Moss Project and Darius Brooks' Your Will.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Gospel Gal's Semi-Regular News Roundup

Here's a lineup of some of the relatively recent news of interest to Gospel Music Lovers out there. If you've become aware of a story or news Gospel Gal should know about, drop me a line.

Here goes:

Producer Rodney Jerkins chats briefly with Billboard about his recent projects, which include a couple of tracks on Kierra Sheard's debut album I Owe You. The money quote for gospel music fans? "I just wish the urban secular world would take more of a look at the gospel world to see what's really happening there." Gospel Gal has made that wish herself, Rodney. One step in that direction may be J Moss's new album, The J Moss Project.


The dust is settling from the recent shakeup brought about by Edgar Bronfman Jr.'s purchase of Warner Music Group. Sylvia Rhone, formerly Chairman/CEO of Elektra Entertainment Group (home of Yolanda Adams, and, until recently, Karen Clark Sheard), has now joined Universal Music Group as president of Motown Records and executive veep of Universal Records. Ch-ch-changes . . .


In "Faith and the Top 40," The St. Petersburg Times uses R. Kelly's Happy People/USaved Me to open a discussion on Christians doing secular music and vice versa. It's a fairly decent article, and worth a read.

GG has a couple of quibbles, though. The Big One is that the writer treats this phenomenon as a recent development, which it isn't. At all. Before there were Al Green, M.C. Hammer and Smokey Robinson, there were folks like Sam Cooke, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, et. al. So the premise of the article lacks adequate knowledge of music history (not just gospel music history). And mentioning Pat Boone as a representative of Christian music? Doves, soft colors, and kind smiles as typical of Christian CD decor? Seriously? Ummmm no. A quick trip to the local Christian bookstore or a phone call to the folks at CCM magazine would have cleared those misconceptions up with a quickness. These examples indicate slightly sloppy reporting--irritating because their inclusion perpetuates some rather outdated images. It's an indication that, as my friends at like to say, the mainstream press doesn't always get religion.

No hard feelings, though. The article also mentions the recent Kanye West/Stellar Award goings on. The controversy prrrrobably could have been prevented by a little research. For example, listening to the whole album before nominating it for Rap/Hip-Hop CD of the year on the basis of "Jesus Walks" (which you can watch here). Or taking note of the advisory on the front. GG likes a good song, too, but she hopes those are among the "corrective actions" the Stellar Award nominating committee has in mind for the future. *Ahem.*

In any case, things seem to be quieting down now, but there are a couple of articles worth looking at. This one, from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, asks a couple of Interesting Folks about whether West should have been included on the ballot, and also discusses the definition and purpose of gospel music. Also, Bomani Jones has an interesting take on the whole thing. Jones self-identifies as a non-Christian, and he raises a lot of good points.

And briefly . . .Billboard takes note of Smokie Norful, and Mary Mary's Erica Campbell and husband welcome a daughter.

Thursday, September 30, 2004

Gospel Music and Theology: "Lord, I'm Out Here on Your Word"

I love gospel music. And I enjoy hearing almost every new form it takes as it evolves (as a matter of fact, I’m listening to ShonLock’s “Boogie Bounce” as I write this). I believe that the “gospel” in gospel music should be defined by the message, not the sound, the artist or even the constraints of the gospel music industry (most of the time). At the same time, I’m concerned by a trend I see in a lot of the music that’s currently out there. I believe that as the music has improved, the theological underpinnings behind the work haven’t always.

Specifically, I think a lot of the music we hear now is only telling one side of the story. Presenting an incomplete picture of life as a Christ-follower. It highlights the glory—the miracle on the way, the dance-like-it’s already-here, the reach-up-and-receive side. And parts of that are true. God’s promises to provide for us, to care for us, and to bless us when we act in faith are real. We need that encouragement. We need that uplifting part. We need to bob our heads, clap our hands and stomp, to bask in the hope and realization of victory.

But there’s another part, too. Like Jesus’ disciples during the days of the early church, and like many of our Christian brothers and sisters around the world, there are times when we are called to suffer for our faith. Sometimes we’ll suffer because of our own bad choices, or those of others. There are times we will suffer, simply because we live in a fallen world. Jesus shared this with his disciples: “ . . . In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) So our ultimate hope, then, is not necessarily in overcoming our tribulations here on earth. It’s in our belief that God is good, that he is with us, and that he triumphs ultimately.

More gifted voices than mine have described the way the spirituals blend hope and solemn realism. One of my favorite spirituals is “Lord I’m Out Here On Your Word,” which can be heard on The Fisk Jubilee Singers’ 2003 album In Bright Mansions . (I’ve written more about this album here). Here’s the chorus:

Lord, I’m out here on your Word
Lord, I’m out here on your Word
If I die on the battlefield
Lord, I’m out here on your Word

If anyone in the blogosphere knows of a way I can find this song online and link readers to it *legally,* please leave a comment and let me know. In the meantime, let me describe the way this song begins: A lone baritone sings the first line as a simple declaration: Lord, I’m following your plan. Then his voice rises, a bit, insistent, almost too forceful: Lord, I am at this point because you brought me here. If I die on the battlefield . . .

If I die.

The song acknowledges the possibility that one may die on the battlefield. Despite our faith, despite our commitment to follow and serve and live for God’s purposes, things don’t always turn out the way we hope they will. Just as we experience moments of joy and triumph, we also know struggle and pain. The story of the original Fisk Jubilee singers bears this out. These young ex-slaves enjoyed some amazing moments. For example, they sang before important figures of the day such as Henry Ward Beecher, Charles Spurgeon, and Queen Victoria. They bravely faced the social burden of showing the world that African Americans were educable. But they also faced terrible hardship, illness and social conflicts. Yet they trusted, as we can:

If I die on the battlefield, Lord, I’m out here on your word.

There’s a touch of bravery, of hopeful resignation that is both yielded to God’s will and unbroken by tragedy. Acceptance that caring for us, making good on his promise, is God’s responsibility. A sense that making it work together for good, making our lives resolve, is something that is up to him and his obligation as the One Who Cannot Lie. An acknowledgment that he is God, and he is faithful, if our change never comes, if specific prayers aren’t answered the way we hope, if we grapple with sins and struggle to make our way until we breathe our last.

Lord, I’m out here on your Word

For I know the plans I have for you, saith the Lord . . .

Lord, I’m out here on your Word

The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord. . .

If I die on the battlefield

. . .and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection: And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented;(Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.

Lord, I’m out here on your Word.

Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen.


Friday, September 24, 2004

Welcome to

I love music. But gospel music is my first, truest and deepest love. For a while now, I've wanted a place to write and think about the music that has meant so much to so many and has shaped my life in myriad ways.

I don't always have a place to talk with folks who care as deeply for this good stuff as I, so I've created as a place where I can write, and anyone who's interested can come and join me.

Perhaps someday it'll be a big, fabulous site with news, views and more. I've got the storyboards for it worked out--just need to wait for my html skills to catch up! Eventually I'll build the online equivalent of a concert hall or a fabulous e-cathedral, but for now, it's just me and my readers in this tiny online storefront church. Or maybe is an old wooden edifice in a small rural town, built with lots of love and carefully maintained. But maybe that's appropriate. After all, aren't those the places where so much of the music we love is rooted?

I don't have a row of deacons to come out and signify the beginning of the service, so instead let's begin with an inaugural question: What, exactly, is gospel music?