Thursday, June 23, 2005

Musical Tribute, Celebration Services for Ronald Winans

Detroit-area readers (or those of you who can get to Detroit) may want to attend a musical tribute for Ronald Winans. Eurweb and the Detroit Free Press report that the musical tribute will be held at 7 p.m. today at Perfecting Church, 7616 E. Nevada, Detroit. This is also the place to send cards and flowers for the Winans family.

The service, also open to the public, will be Friday at 11 a.m. at Detroit’s Straight Gate International Church, 1010 Grand River, Detroit.

More on Ron Winans:

He’s now singing the gospel in heaven
Artist Ronald Winans will be remembered as a sweet, gentle man who could ‘rip up a stage’
The Detroit News

NPR’s News & Notes with Ed Gordon ran a tribute to Winans. It’s nice that they did the tribute, but I couldn’t help but notice they didn’t use many clips of Ronald. That’s him at the beginning singing "I Shall Not Die But Live" from his final album, but that's Marvin on “The Question Is” and Carvin’s lead on the chorus of “Tomorrow.” There’s plenty of material available that actually includes Ronald singing (for example, the song “Uphold Me” was one of his trademarks)—so this seems rather shabbily done.

Take 6’s Alvin Chea on Winans: “Take 6 is deeply saddened by the loss of our big brother Ronald. We say our "big brother" because the Black Gospel community is truly that -- a family. We all root for each other, pray for each other, compete against one another but most importantly we love each other. Ronald was an "Ambassador of Praise," whose music, not only with his three brothers, but also with his beloved choir, transformed lives. . . . Ron will be missed; his loss is a loss for not only the Black gospel community in Detroit but the world at large, his scope and influence was as large as his smile."

From The Detroit Free Press:
“I celebrate every day I wake up. It’s a blessing every day. I’m here and whatever God has allowed to happen to me is for a purpose to bring Him glory, and for that I’m glad.”--Ronald Winans, 1956-2005

Gospel Gal Sees Take 6!

There’s someone like this at every concert: You know, the person who knows every song that’s being performed and sings along. When the performers are introducing a song, she guesses ahead of time which one it’s going to be and stage whispers it to her neighbor. She’s excited with every new song and occasionally leaves her seat to get a photo. IR-I-TAT-ING.

I never understood this concertgoer until Saturday, when I became her. This wouldn’t happen anyplace other than a Take 6 concert.

Take 6 is my favorite group of all time. No ands, ifs or buts. My very favorite. The first “real” cassette my parents bought me was Take 6’s eponymous debut. (I think the other two were Sandi Patty’s Another Time, Another Place and Amy Grant’s Heart in Motion.) Since then, I’ve been a diehard fan—even sticking with them through the Join the Band and Brothers years. Hey, once I become a fan, I’m a committed one. And, as I’ve mentioned before, it’s not Christmas until I’ve listened to their arrangement of “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” (and “O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion”).

I’ve had more than a few friendships that I can trace directly to a shared enjoyment of Take 6. I can sing the soprano note or lead on most of their songs, most of the way through. I am known to be personally offended if I think other acapella groups are trying too hard to sound like Take 6 (resisting--urge--to--name--names).

For all of this, I’d never seen Take 6 perform live (of course, I have the Live album, but still, no substitute). Whenever I check their website, my impression is usually that there aren’t many dates in the U.S.—and never any near me. I figured this is because the jazz scene is more lively overseas. Anyway, last Monday when I read that they’d be performing Saturday at Kansas City’s Rhythm and Ribs Festival, I knew I was going to find a way to be there. (Barbecue? Live music outdoors? American Jazz Museum? Take 6? Count me in.)

I’ve interviewed and met some cool artists, and can’t think of too many times I’ve really been starstruck. But I thought there was a real risk here. If my life had a soundtrack, most of it would be their music. So that is the line I’d prepared to share with them if there was an autograph table. I figured it was pleasant, lightly poetic, and appreciative without being too gushy. It’s also true.

Anyway, I was really, really impressed by the energy and joy they brought to their performance (although, as I said, I brought enough of my own!). When you think about it, they’ve been singing many of these songs for 17 years, yet their stage presence seemed easy and relaxed without feeling sloppy or tired.

It felt like they were singing all of my favorite songs. The set included “So Much 2 Say,” “Something Within Me,” “Smile,” “Oh, Mary, Don’t You Weep,” “My Friend,” “Fly Away,” “Grandma’s Hands,” “Wade in the Water” and “Over the Hill Is Home.”

There wasn’t an autograph table, but Alvin, David, Claude and Joey came to the side of the stage afterward to sign people’s programs. I’d tucked my copy of Beautiful World in my backpack, and it now bears the signatures of “Take 4.” Anyway, maybe there will be a next time, and Mark and Cedric can sign it then. Then, maybe I'll remember my line. Or better yet, they can all sign my copy of the album they’ve got coming out this fall! I can’t wait.

In the meantime, maybe I’ll download a Take 6 ringtone for my phone. It seems like something a loyal fan should at least think about . . .

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Everything's OK

I've got a big stack-o-papers on my coffee table. (Well, actually, I have stacks-o-papers everywhere, but that's neither here nor there.) This particular stack is of stories I've been meaning to write about for

Several of those stories are about the Rev. Al Green, and his recent album, Everything's OK. I think his journey is rich and interesting--sort of a modern-day narrative about Christians, gnosticism and popular culture. Anyhoo, my friend/mentors over at found this article, which they discuss in this post. It's good stuff.

Green's discussion of jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong made me think of this delightful essay, which recently aired on NPR. When I heard the author say "Jazz is the sound of God laughing. And I believe in it, "I thought, "Me, too!" This is the kind of essay I wish I'd written and published first. Listen and enjoy.

And speaking of jazz and gospel, it would have been cool to hear this collaboration between Ramsey Lewis, Smokie Norful and Darius Brooks. But the music led me elsewhere this past weekend, and it was so very worth it. More about that in my next post.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Gospel Singer: God on Michael Jackson's Side

Gospel Singer: God's on Michael Jackson's Side

In an e-mail blitz, Kurt Carr says God "protected" the accused child molester from a conviction and a jail sentence, claiming that "God blocked it"—which is also the title of Carr's latest hit single.

Claiming that God was on Michael Jackson's "side" and "protected" him from a conviction on child molestation charges, a prominent gospel artist says, "God obviously has a work for Michael Jackson to do."

Carr says God "truly blocked" jail time for Jackson Kurt Carr, whose latest album, One Church, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard gospel chart in March, made the comments in a prepared e-mail statement released through his publicist on June 16, two days after the Jackson verdict in which a California jury found him not guilty on all 10 counts against him.

In the same e-mail statement, which went to about 120,000 Black Gospel Promo subscribers, Carr went on to pitch his recent hit song, "God Blocked It," saying that God "truly blocked the 20 years of prison that Michael faced, and the mercy of God was on his side."

Carr appeared to be capitalizing on the verdict to promote his merchandise, ending the e-mail with this sentence: "Below are the words and the link to listen and buy" the song, songbook and CD. The e-mail also included a link to JET magazine, which featured Carr in its June 20 issue.

The lyrics to "God Blocked It" include the following lines: "There were dangers awaiting me / Destruction was sure to be / But thank God for angels that were … looking out for me." And: "The devil had a plan to kill me I know / But God intercepted his plan and told the devil, No! / God blocked it! God blocked it! / He wouldn't let it be so."

Carr defended his statements in the e-mail blitz in an interview with Christian Music Today.
"I was saying how the song really applies to [Jackson]," Carr said. "I'm not judging whether he's innocent or guilty. [But] I believe that God is sovereign, and if [Jackson] is meant to go to jail, he would've gone to jail."

Carr went on to explain that he simply hopes Jackson will wisely use his time for good things: "The point that I wanted to make … is that I believe that God has work for [Jackson] to do. There is no one on this earth [who] is as big a humanitarian than he is with world peace and hope. … And basically what I'm saying is, 'OK, bro, you're free, and I pray now that you would use this gift—the gift of freedom—to move people with godly principles."

Carr insisted he wasn't trying to capitalize on the Jackson verdict.

"I don't need a gimmick to be successful," he said. "I don't need a gimmick to get my songs played. It's one of the biggest songs of the year. It's one of the biggest songs I believe I'm ever going to have. I don't need a gimmick to promote the gospel."

Carr had performed "God Blocked It" on June 14—the same day as the Jackson verdict—at the Bobby Jones International Gospel Industry Retreat in Florida, said his publicist, Veda Brown. When the verdict was announced, the buzz among several choir members was that the song applied to Jackson.

Brown, president and CEO of Black Gospel Promo, which circulated last week's e-mail, asked Carr how he would relate the verdict to the song. When she published his comments, she added the links to purchase information for Carr's products.

Neither Carr nor Brown thought Carr's statement was controversial.

Brown said she saw Carr's statement as "more of a ministry of encouragement" in reference to the news of the week. She said she has received positive responses to the e-mail, which went to a list of Black Gospel Promo subscribers that include media, distributors, retailers and consumers interested in gospel music.

On June 14, a California jury returned a not guilty verdict on 10 counts against Jackson including child molestation, conspiracy and alcohol charges. Jackson faced 20 years in prison if convicted.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Ron Winans Passes Away

Ron Winans, 48, died earlier today. When I told my 20-year-old brother, he said, "You always think people like that will never die. [The Winans] raised me!"

It's true. For many, songs by the Winans and songs recorded by Ron's Family & Friends Choirs are the soundtracks to our lives. My first gospel concert ever was a Winans concert in Denver, Colorado, in 1989. I've written a little about it here. Ron Winans had a wonderful voice, could sho'nuff lead a choir, and served as a mentor to many, many gospel artists. His miraculous recovery from heart problems 8 years ago inspired many.

Here's the release that went out (I've inserted my own paragraph breaks):


(Los Angeles, CA - June 2005) -- The multi-award winning musical dynasty, The Winans Family said good bye to Ronald Winans, the second eldest of the ten siblings, on the morning of June 17th Winans endured a massive heart-attack in 1997, but because of much prayer he experienced a miraculous recovery after the doctors had given him up for dead.

In recent weeks, Ronald was admitted to the hospital for observation after the doctors realized he was retaining an abnormal amount of fluid in his body. On Thursday the doctors announced that they didn't feel Winans would make it through the night and he peacefully succumbed due to heart complications early this morning.

The entire family gathered together at Harper Hospital in Detroit, Michigan to be with Ronald until his final moments. "The family wishes to thank everyone who joined us in prayer and will continue to extend their unwavering support during our time of loss," states the seventh son, BeBe Winans.

Winans who was to turn 49 years old on the 30th of June was part of the quartet, The Winans. The four brothers Marvin, Carvin, Michael & Ronald were discovered by contemporary gospel pioneer, singer/songwriter/ producer, Andrae Crouch. They released their first album in 1981 titled, Introducing The Winans. It was with this release that the world would become familiar with the name, Winans, which is now synonymous with gospel.

In January 2005 Winans released his final CD, Ron Winans Family & Friends V: A Celebration which was recorded live at Greater Grace in Detroit.

Brother and sister dynamic duo, Bebe & CeCe Winans made a huge impact in the music world. Their innovative, contemporary sound propelled gospel music to new heights. Their mega-hit, "Addictive Love" rested in the #1 spot on the Billboard R& B Charts for several weeks.

As a whole the family has made an incredible mark in the music industry racking up a myriad of awards and accolades. Often referred to as the first family of gospel, their achievements include 31 Grammy Awards, over 20 Stellar and Dove Awards and 6 NAACP Image Awards. Ronald will be missed but not forgotten and his contribution to the gospel music world and the church will live on forever. Arrangements are incomplete at this time.

Here's the Detroit Free Press story.

A fairly recent GospelCity interview with Ron Winans.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Freedom Songs and Some Convoluted Connections: Part III

One of the things I really want to learn more about is the role of gospel, roots and folk music in the Civil Rights Movement. It’s one of those topics I know a little bit about, but I’d love to have the opportunity to really dig into.

Here are a few scattershot quotes about the freedom songs:

“Music, folklore, and poetry have always been important windows in understanding the political culture and history of African Americans. During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, “freedom songs” served many functions: they promoted solidarity, increased faith, expressed sorrow, and strengthened the wills of movement activists. Many of these songs were traditional songs of protests, whereas others were adaptations of spirituals or labor union songs. Marchers adopted “We Shall Overcome” as the unofficial theme song for the movement, and “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round” was widely sung, in slightly different versions, across the terrain of the Black Freedom movement.”
--From Let Nobody Turn Us Around: Voices of Resistance, Reform, and Renewal, edited by Manning Marable and Leith Mullings.


“If you cannot sing a congregational song at full power, you cannot fight in any struggle . . .it is something you learn.

In congregational singing you don’t sing a song—you raise it. By offering the first line, the song leader just offers the possibility, and it is up to you, individually, whether you pick it up or not . . . .It is a big personal risk because you will put everything into the song. It is like stepping off into space. A mini-revolution takes place inside you. Your body gets flushed, you tremble, you’re tempted to turn off the circuits. But that’s when you have to turn up the burner and commit yourself to follow that song wherever it leads. This transformation in yourself that you create is exactly what happens when you join a movement. You are taking a risk—you are committing yourself and there is no turning back . . .

When you get together at a mass meeting you sing the songs which symbolize transformation, which make that revolution of courage inside you . . .You raise a freedom song.”

--Bernice Johnson Reagon, “We’ll Never Turn Back,” in Everybody Says Freedom: A History of the Civil Rights Movement in Songs and Pictures, edited by Pete Seeger and Bob Reiser. Quoted in The African-American Odyssey. Ms. Reagon was one of the SNCC Freedom Singers. She is the founder of Sweet Honey In the Rock.

During the Civil Rights Movement, Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, an activist based in Mississippi, was known as “the woman who know how to sing.” A SNCC volunteer, Sally Belfrage, described the impact of singing on the college-aged volunteers at a training session at the Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio:

“No one seems quite certain what to do but the singing fills in the gaps. They are all very young, very defenseless in all but the purity of their purpose, which connects them in a bond of immediate friendship. . .Out on the lawn [during their first moments together, students] formed in haphazard circles around the guitars, looking at each other self-consciously as they sang the words they scarcely knew. Then there was a change: a woman whose badge read ‘Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer’ was suddenly leading them, molding their noise into music.

If you miss me from the back of the bus,
You can’t find me nowhere,

Come on up to the front of the bus,
I’ll be ridin’ up there . . .

Her voice gave everything she had, and her circle soon incorporated the others, expanding first in size and in volume and then something else—it gained passion. Few of them knew who she was . . . .But here was clearly someone with force enough for all of them, who knew the meaning of ‘Oh Freedom’ and ‘We Shall Not Be Moved’ in her flesh and spirit as they never would. They lost their shyness and began to sing the choruses with abandon, though their voices al together dimmed beside hers.”
--From God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights by Charles Marsh

Extra Credit:

Marable and Mullings suggest Guy and Candie Carawan’s Sing For Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs and Kerran Sanger’s “When the Spirit Says Sing!”: The Role of Freedom Songs in the Civil Rights Movement for more on the topic.

Read Reagon’s essay, “Freedom Songs: My African-American Singing and Fighting Mothers” in one of her books, If You Don’t Go, Don’t Hinder Me: The African American Sacred Song Tradition.

Craig Werner’s Higher Ground is a detailed, thought-provoking discussion of how soul music (specifically, the soul music of Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield) played a role in the freedom movement.

More on the music of the Civil Rights Movement can be found here.

Freedom Songs and Some Convoluted Connections: Part II

The re-opening of the Emmett Till case (particularly the exhumation of his grave this week) has me thinking about the song “In the Mississippi River:” It was written in 1964 (during Freedom Summer) by Marshall Jones and Matthew Jones, two civil rights workers working for SNCC. The Jones brothers were members of the Freedom Singers. You can hear them sing it on Let My People Go! A Jewish & African American Celebration of Freedom, among other places.

The song refers to the bodies of black men law enforcement officers discovered as they dragged rivers in search of missing civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner. (If anyone can find lyrics online, please comment).

“In the Mississippi River” has a haunting quality, apart from its subject matter. You hear a lone voice raise the beginning of the song, then it’s joined by another, bringing harmony but also bearing witness in a way that reminds me of the court testimony of Till’s uncle, Mose Wright, who bravely pointed at the defendants when asked who had killed Till: What he is saying is true. I have seen that too. There he is.

Then, backing vocals join for the counting, which is straightforward:

You can count them, one by one
It could be your son
Count them, two by two
It could be me or you

These counting lines have a solemn, repetitive, plodding movement to them—as sense of rolling inevitability, like slow-moving pallbearers. It's clear that the singers were acknowledging the reality: in some times and some places, a black person was only a misunderstanding, a perceived transgression, or a mere whim’s distance from a violent death. The music has a spare urgency to it, a testament in part to its rural roots, but also to the plainness of the truth. There are ad-libbed references to the Tallahatchie River. That’s a reference to Till’s murder.

The Emmett Till story is one that I’ve always felt deeply connected to. Although I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why this might be, I’m still not completely sure. The obvious reason is that Till was killed when he was 14, and I was a child when I first encountered the story. I don’t think there’s a good age to discover things like this, but I was probably a little too young when I first read about Till—younger than 10. I’ve always been a voracious reader, and as a result I could read and understand things I didn’t necessarily have the emotional maturity to process (although I don’t think I’ll ever be able to process this).

As I got older, I saw how my handsome, quick-witted and charming brothers interacted with people of all races—and how that contrasted with my Southern-bred grandfather, and the care he took to address everyone with titles, even in informal settings and among young people. (My brother pointed out that Grandpa had called his friends “sir.”) It made me think of how precious little margin for error there was for people my grandfather’s age, when it came to interacting with White people.

Later, as a college student, I went to the site of the store where the incident began. I know people who have a very keen sense of spiritual discernment—who can perceive the presence of spiritual forces. I wouldn’t describe myself this way, but I did sense the presence of evil while I was there—and I honestly believe I would have been able to sense it even if I didn’t know the story behind this small, unmarked abandoned building with rusted metal signage. When I visited Chicago, I saw The State of Mississippi and the Face of Emmett Till, the play Till’s mother Mamie Till-Mobley wrote with David Barr III. Years later, I found myself in an unfamiliar part of Chicago and ended up crossing Emmett Till Road on my way to someplace else. For some reason, this story has never let me go. I’m fascinated with it, even as I try to keep myself from looking at the photos of Till’s mangled face.

I had hoped to interview Mrs. Till-Mobley someday, but she passed away in 2003. Her insistence that her son have an open-casket funeral forced the world to see what racism could cause people to do, even to a child. The news coverage of this story was instrumental in helping people reach the “breaking point” that led to the Civil Rights movement in the south. Her bravery in attending the murder “trial” and even giving press comments about it was striking. She continued to share her son’s story until her death. Her gravesite is next to her son’s. I can’t help but think of Mary when I think of the struggles Mrs. Till-Mobley faced and the strength she displayed. May her struggle and the story of her son Emmett Louis Till never be forgotten.

Folk singer Bob Dylan wrote and recorded a song about Emmett Till. Lyrics are posted here.
Information about Keith Beauchamp’s documentary The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, which has been instrumental in the reopening of the case. Here’s an interview with Beauchamp.

Freedom Songs and Convoluted Connections: Part I

A few months ago, I found myself watching public television and crying. This is not really out of the ordinary for me—I like public TV, and I am easily moved. For example, I can be counted on to weep whenever I hear the song “Rainbow Connection” from the Muppet Movie (no, I am *not * joking, but I’ll write about the Gospel According to Kermit later).

This particular lachrymal flood was brought on by A Chanukah Mitzvah, a children’s show about Chanukah. At the end of the show, a choir sang some beautiful songs with themes and musical patterns that reminded me of praise choruses. I was reminded of the Jewish roots of my faith and had a desire to learn more about Judaism.

I’ve also wanted to learn more about Judaism because I’ve always been deeply impressed by the Jewish tradition of social justice and tikkun olam. My understanding is that these traditions are what motivated many Jewish brothers and sisters (including Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were martyred with James Cheney) to work alongside African Americans during the Civil Rights movement. I’ve continued this learning journey by reading Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King, Jr. & The Jewish Community by Rabbi Marc Schneier.

Many of the spirituals reference the Exodus story: “Go Down, Moses” and “I’m On My Way (to Canaan Land)” are a couple of these. I think it’s safe to observe that black and Jewish people have occupied similar social positions at different times in history. (Others have noted the contributions of Jewish musicians to jazz music, and I’ve occasionally heard references to similar elements of self-deprecation within African-American and Jewish approaches to humor.)

Given all of this, I started to wonder if there might be connections between our musics in some ways. Are there similarities? Is there something like the spiritual in Jewish music? Every now and then, when I’m interviewing someone who might know, I slip in a question along those lines. I’ll let you know if I ever get enough for a full post. I’m still searching.

Anyway, I was absolutely delighted to discover Let My People Go! A Jewish & African American Celebration of Freedom. The album was recorded by Kim and Reggie Harris and Rabbi Jonathan Kligler. It’s dedicated to the memories of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

From the liner notes:

“Jews and African Americans both draw abiding inspiration from the Exodus, the Biblical account of oppression, slavery, and the possibility of liberation. For Jews, this is the story of how they became a people, a story which they retell each year at the Passover Seder. For African Americans, this is a central story that animated their struggle for liberation from slavery and gave them strength and hope. For many Jewish and African Americans, the modern Civil Rights movement is the liberation struggle of our time and calls up the ancient images of Moses and Pharaoh and the Creator of the Universe, who insists that all God’s children be free.”

Here’s The Seder (The Order). You can see how traditional Jewish songs and songs from the Passover Haggadah meet spirituals and freedom songs. Ha Lachma Anya blends lyrics from the Haggadah with handclapping rhythms that originated in enslaved black communities. (The song “I Have a Million Nightingales” is a poem by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, set to music by Jewish songwriter and cantor Linda Hirschhorn.)

Bchol Dor Va’Dor (In Every Generation)/I’m On My Way
Ha Lachma Anya (This is the Bread of Opression)
Avodim Hayinu (Slaves Were We)
In the Mississippi River
Remembering Phil Ochs
What’s That I Hear
The New Colossus/Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor/Motherless Child
Democratic National Convention 1964
Mah Lecha Ha’Yam (Sea, Why Do You Flee?)
Man Come Into Egypt
Ilu Finu (Were Our Mouths Oceans of Song)
Let My People Go: Story of an Activist’s Life
Freedom Road
I Have a Million Nightingales
Venomar Lefanav (Let Us Sing a New Song)
We Shall Overcome: Evolution of a Song
Ani Ma’Amin (I Believe)/ We Shall Overcome
I Won’t Turn Back

Let My People Go! is available from Appleseed Recordings. It’s a beautiful album with informative liner notes. Parts of it left me, well, crying. A great project.