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.