Monday, January 29, 2007

An Avatar . . .and a Spiritual

Some of you may have noticed my nifty new avatar in the "profile" section at left. "Gospel Gal" comes courtesy of Design-Her Gals, a company that allows users to create a gal to print on stationery, mugs, business or calling cards, aprons, et cetera.

It's a fun, creative concept, and I was so excited to discover this company--and not just 'cause it's made up of fellow gals! Through its Gal-to-Gal Foundation, Design-Her Gals donates 5 percent of every sale to organizations that help women with Stage 4 breast cancer.

So many families have been affected by breast cancer, including my own. My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer 9 years ago.

I will never forget the visceral terror and grief I felt when I called from college to plan a weekend trip home, only to find out that I needed to go home. To me, "Mom" and "home" are overlapping concepts. And our family's experience with breast cancer caused me to relate to the spiritual "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" in a way I hadn't before. I knew that, without Mom, I would feel lost in the world. Homeless. De-centered, as if I'd lost something grounding that gave me a sense of reference.

In writing about this spiritual, Arthur C. Jones calls it "Arguably . . .the most important of the songs [Africans in America] passed on to us; it is probably not coincidental that it is one of a handful of African American folksongs that has survived sufficiently well to make itself known even to those with little or no familiarity with specific songs in the spirituals tradition."

He explains that although slave children often experienced this kind of pain, "the experience of the 'motherless child' . . .provided a frame of reference from which one might describe the severity of one's inner sufferings. Even one who had never been physically separated from mother could sing, during particularly trying times, 'Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,' assured that others in the community would understand intimately the precise level of pain associated with the difficult life experiences to which the singer referred. To announce, in song, that a life event made one feel 'like a motherless child' was to equate the pain associated with that event with the extreme torment occasioned by the 'daily, yea, hourly' occurrence of mother-child separation." (from Jones, Arthur C. Wade In the Water: The Wisdom of the Spirituals. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1993)

I'm deeply grateful for these songs of the ancestors that give me a language for understanding and expressing myself in times of joy and fear. I am separated from these slaves and former slaves by several generations and social strata, yet their wisdom and the faith they bequeathed me provide inspiration and sustenance.

I'm grateful that Mom is a breast cancer survivor of several years, and one with twice the energy of a woman 25 years her junior (specifically, that would be me).

I'm grateful, too, for opportunities to support important causes like breast cancer research. So I'm not going to keep this fabulous find to myself. I encourage you to click on the Gospel Gal in this post to make your own gal, or a gal for an important woman in your life. Tell them Gospel Gal sent you by to make a small push toward a big goal.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Coming Soon . . .


Some of you are aware that, the blog, has served as the "beta" site for, the dream. As I mentioned in my first post a couple of years ago, I've always had big plans for this website.

Over the last couple of months, I've started to work and plan more steadily toward the next phase--a more traditional-looking site where I'll put some of the interviews and reviews I've done, and where my future work will appear (If you just can't wait until then, or you reeeally want to read some of my older material, well, click here).

Watch this space for an announcement when the redesign is launched, or subscribe by typing your e-mail into the space on the left sidebar. Leave a comment about the kinds of coverage you'd like to see. And get ready to spend even more time talking and thinking together about the music we love.



Sunday, January 21, 2007

Trudy Pitts and 'Mr. C'

I often run into interesting music stories I'd like to share with my readers. But between a lot of busyness lately (and working on--wait for it--a full-scale relaunch of, a lot of those great stories have piled up in my inbox.

Here's one of those stories:

Trudy Pitts and 'Mr. C,' Partners in Music: A beautiful story of life, love and music between jazz organist Trudy Pitts and drummer Bill Carney, who have been together for 50 years. I love hearing stories like this. Listen to their gentle disagreement about their anniversary, their unabashed, everyday romanticism and their description of "instant improvisation." I enjoyed Ms. Pitts' interpretations of "Jesus Loves the Little Children" and "Jesus Loves Me." You can hear more of their music on the NPR site, buy their CD here, and find out more about them (and hear even more clips) here.
image credit:

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Stellar Awards Recap

As always, is on the case. Here is the list of Stellar Award winners, and here is the recap of last weekend's festivities. To find out when the awards will be airing in your area, click here.

Book Review: The Gospel According to the Beatles

Review by LaTonya Taylor

Veteran music journalist Steve Turner explores the spiritual paths of the Beatles—both collectively and as individuals—in this deftly and densely reported combination of cultural history, comparative religion, and biocritical insight. "The gospel of the Beatles is not found in their conformity to an orthodox creed," he notes, "but in their hunger for transcendence."

Turner begins by reporting the furor that erupted over John Lennon's infamous (and widely misunderstood) 1966 comment that the Beatles were "more popular than Jesus now," then compares the Fab Four to magical, shamanistic storytellers who shared the insights they gained through their spiritual explorations with an audience enmeshed in political, cultural, philosophical, and religious upheaval.

Turner wisely avoids the temptation to force the Beatles' hope for freedom, unity, and peace into a Christian mold. Indeed, Turner focuses heavily on their use of drugs and forays into Eastern religion and the occult in search of enlightenment and spiritual insight. Still, Turner thoughtfully demonstrates ways the Beatles' search reflects the continuing influence of Christianity: "They were skeptical and even dismissive of the church, yet many of their core beliefs—love, peace, hope, truth, freedom, honesty, transcendence—were, in their case, secularized versions of Christian teachings."

This review first ran in Christianity Today magazine. Related articles and links

Updates on Pilgrim Baptist Church . . .and Pilgrim Baptist Church

Regular readers know that I was deeply grieved last year when Pilgrim Baptist Church, where Thomas Dorsey pioneered what we now call gospel music, was severely damaged in a fire. I'm writing to offer a correction and some updates.

First, the correction: In this post, I wrote that that Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago is the church that appears in the movie The Blues Brothers--in the scene where James Brown is the church pastor. That was incorrect. There are actually two different churches, both named Pilgrim and both founded in 1917, and both in Chicago. (That sound you hear is me pounding my head against the keyboard.)

Now, the sad part: That Pilgrim Baptist Church (which was called Triple Rock Church in the film) was damaged in a September 2006 fire. More here and here and here.

Finally, the update: The Chicago Tribune reports that Mayor Daley is helping raise funds toward rebuilding Pilgrim. Um, the first one. (Here's the Sun-Times' story.)

And, a promise: speaking of the Godfather of Soul, I had the pleasure of attending what I didn't realize would be one of his last concerts. Naturally, I took notes, and of course I'll be sharing with you. So, stay tuned . . .or subscribe, and you'll get an e-mail once I've posted my thoughts.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Two Songs for Dr. King

If I Can Help Somebody

If I can help somebody as I pass along
If I can cheer somebody with a word or song
If I can show somebody they're traveling wrong
Then my living shall not be in vain.

If I can do my duty as a Christian ought
If I can bring back beauty to a world up wrought
If I can spread love's message that the Master taught
Then my living shall not be in vain.

Then my living shall not be in vain
Then my living shall not be in vain
If I can help somebody as I pass along
Then my living shall not be in vain.

--a favorite song of Dr. King's, famously recorded by Mahalia Jackson.


Tell Him Not to Talk Too Long

If you're around when I meet my day
Don't want a long funeral
And if somebody delivers the eulogy
Tell him not to talk too long.

Just say I tried to feed the hungry
Tried to love somebody
If you're around when I meet my day
Tell him not to talk too long.

Put my casket on an old wagon
Drawn by two fine mule
Bury me in my hometown, Atlanta Georgia
Tell him not to talk too long.

Tell him not to talk too long.

--Mary Lou Williams' 1969 interpretation of a famous speech of Dr. King's. You can hear it on Mary Lou's Mass.

More here on Dr. King and the arts.

image credit:

Happy King Day, friends.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Hershey's Dark Chocolate Gets Harder to Swallow

In a new commercial for Hershey's Dark Chocolate, people cheerfully unwrap chocolate bars with an especially joyous rendering of "Oh, Happy Day" in the background. If the voiceover is to be believed, we all have a reason to rejoice: Because dark chocolate is high in antioxidants, it's good for us.

Apparently we are to put down the remote and get to singing, swinging, making merry like Christmas and unwrapping healthful, delicious dark chocolate bars as quickly as our greedy little hands allow.

Granted, there are plenty of good things to be said about chocolate. It's good for baking. It smells nice. And dark chocolate is good for you. (But you knew that.) But I've never equated chocolate and religious ecstasy. (That may be because I so rarely have the really good stuff.)

OK, so I'm having a little fun here. But regular readers of this blog know that the use of gospel music in this way troubles me.

Part of it is that I hate hearing music I love used to sell stuff, period. I am not thrilled by the "It's a Wickes House" (Brick House) commercial advertising a local furniture store. I did not approve when "I Feel Good" was used to sell laxatives. (No, Godfather! Please!please!please!) And I regret that I owe my first exposure to the Four Tops' "I Can't Help Myself (Sugarpie Honeybunch)" to a Duncan Hines commercial.

But although each of those songs is meaningful to me and my fellow retro-licious pop culture nerds, not one of them is expressly religious. These aren't songs meant to celebrate God's goodness, to proclaim truths about his work in the world, or to encourage his people in the way "Oh, Happy Day" is. And that particular song is incredibly meaningful. Not only because it revolutionized gospel music, but also because, to me, it's a story of how God can use young people to change the world when no one's looking. It's a song that transcends culture and genre, one that never gets old to me. (Perhaps there's also some irony in being critical of the way a song known for moving outside church walls is, well, being used outside church walls.)

More generally, I'm troubled when I hear gospel music used in commercials (more examples here), because I think it trivializes the music, and, by extension, Christianity as it its practiced by African-Americans. It's another of those instances that makes me pause and consider what this music means in the public imagination. I realize, also, that African-American religion isn't the only form of belief taken less than seriously. Consider the casual use of the word "karma," or the widespread practice of yoga without much regard for its Hindu roots (I've got friends on both sides of that one, but I'm just saying).

It's not as though this is an uncomplicated issue. Gospel music is directly and indirectly involved in the selling of many things. Gospel music, for example. And movies, both decent and not-so-great. People (cough) get paid to write about gospel music. Marketers are realizing that it's just good business to take gospel music and its listeners seriously. There are labels, charts, ratings, etc. that all have do, in some way, with gospel music as a commodity. After all, when you read a gospel music review, the bottom line, nestled somewhere between all of the historical context about this particular subgenre and the literary allusions and the carefully nuanced phrases, crafted just-so, is someone's assessment about whether or not you, Dear Reader, should burn or buy, should pick or pan.

Gospel music is just so inextricably linked to African-American culture--and to African-American religious culture, that its simultaneously visible and invisible in our culture. It's everywhere, from the tragic melisma of American Idol (Ever started a run and realized you couldn't find your way back home? Mmm-hmmm. You know who you are.) to the hair-raising testimonials of those Tresstify commercials.

So sometimes I wonder if moments like this--when gospel music is distanced from its Christian context--aren't just part of the tradeoff for the music's mainstream acceptance. They may be inevitable. But that doesn't make them easier to swallow.

It looks like the spot isn't yet on the Hershey website. But keep an eye out for it. And let me know what you think. And if you're interested in another blending of music and chocolate, check out The Chocolate Vault.

More on Ahmet Ertegun and Jubilee Gospel

As I promised when I last posted, I contacted friend-of-the-blog Bob Marovich with my question about Jubilee, a gospel label founded in part by the late Ahmet Ertegun. Here's what he said:

"Here is what it says in the liner notes of the Jubilee Gospel reissue CD, written by Opal Louis Nations: 'In 1946, [Jubilee Records co-founder Jerry] Blaine started up the Cosnat Distributing Corporation with a $6,000 loan from his brother Ben. Cosnat handled a host of small, independent labels, including National. Some time during this period, Herb Abramson and Ahmet Ertegun started a label called Jubilee, with the firm intention of issuing Afro-American gospel music - as the name of the label would suggest. Jubilee put out a pair of singles by the Two Gospel Keys (Emma Daniels, vocals and guitar and Mother Sally Jones, vocal and tambourine) as well as two by the great Sister Ernestine Washington, and Blaine distributed these through Cosnat. The records sold poorly, and the rights were sold to Moses Asch of Folkways Records. Blaine bought Jubilee from Abramson in 1947, and his first releases were extremely good sellers....'"

'Nations goes on to report that those good sellers were Kermit Schafer's famous "Bloopers" LPs and the Orioles' "It's Too Soon to Know." The latter was the proverbial shot heard 'round the world that launched the vocal group craze, which later morphed into what we know as the doo-wop sound.

'According to Hayes/Laughton, the Ernestine Washington platters were recorded in NYC on either January 2 or 4, 1946 with Bunk Johnson's Jazz Band, and are:

Jubilee 2501: Does Jesus care?/The Lord will make a way somehow
Jubilee 2502: Where could I go but to the Lord/God's amazing grace

The discography goes on to say, however, that the Jubilee records were never issued. They were issued on the Disc label instead after the purchase of the matrices by Mo Asch.

'The Two Gospel Keys 78s were also recorded in 1946, but again, Hayes/Laughton says the records were never issued on Jubilee but rather on Disc after the matrices were purchased by Asch. They would have been:

Jubilee 2503: You've got to move/This world is not my home
Jubilee 2504: I want my crown/We're gonna have a good time'"

(By the way, the Hayes/Laughton reference Bob makes is to an item on my wish list:
Gospel Records, 1943-1969: A Black Music Discography (Paperback) by Cedric J. Hayes, Robert Laughton. If you check the price, you'll know why it's on my wish list. )

Bob's knowledge on these matters is why I'm always happy to give him a shout-out (OK, that and the fact that he links to me!). He's the host of Gospel Memories on Chicago's WLUW (88.7 FM, or listen online).

Here's a Washington Post article with more info on Ertegun and his love for jazz. It also mentions Washington's historic U Street, where I recently spent time following another deep, abiding interest of mine: Good Cake. Mmmm.