Monday, January 17, 2011

Martin Luther King on Freedom Songs

"An important part of the mass meetings was the freedom songs. In a sense the freedom songs are the soul of the movement. They are more than just incantations of clever phrases designed to invigorate a campaign; they are as old as the history of the Negro in America. They are adaptations of the songs the slaves sang--the sorrow songs, the shouts for joy, the battle hymns and the anthems of our movement. I have heard people talk of their beat and rhythm, but we in the movement are as inspired by their words. 'Woke Up This Morning with My Mind Stayed on Freedom' is a sentence that needs no music to make its point. We sing the freedom songs today for the same reason the slaves sang them, because we too are in bondage and the songs add hope to our determination that 'We shall overcome, Black and white together, We shall overcome someday.'

"I have stood in a meeting with hundreds of youngsters and joined in while they sang 'Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round.' It is not just a song; it is a resolve. A few minutes later, I have seen those same youngsters refuse to turn around from the onrush of a police dog, refuse to turn around before a pugnacious Bull Connor in command of men armed with power hoses. These songs bind us together, give us courage together, help us to march together."

--from Why We Can't Wait

This King Day, I'm enjoying Voices of the Civil Rights Movement: Black American Freedom Songs 1960-1966. I also recommend the documentary Soundtrack for a Revolution. Freedom Song is a fictionalized story about the civil rights movement that offers some insights into the importance of freedom songs.

Another treat: Leonard Lopate's annual tribute to MLK. Here's a link to last year's broadcast. And here's this year's!

An earlier post, with additional favorites, is here.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Queen: Albertina Walker, 1929-2010

One of my favorite ways to entertain myself involves a combination of music history and network theory (the field of study that introduced the idea of "six degrees of separation" into popular culture). Basically, I like to think about an artist or musician, then figure out how many degrees of connection it takes to connect that person to another of a different generation, genre or style.

For example, here's one way of connecting praise and worship artist Mary Alessi with the Clark Sisters:

Mary Alessi's twin sister Martha Munizzi . . .
. . . has co-written songs with Israel Houghton . . .
. . . who was a member of Fred Hammond's Radical for Christ . . .
. . . which Hammond founded after Commissioned . . .
. . . whose sound was patterned after the Clark Sisters.

So it's possible to connect these artists within five degrees of separation. (Bonus points if you knew that Karen Clark-Sheard recorded Munizzi's "Glorious" on her 2003 album The Heavens Are Telling, which gets you there within four degrees.)

I like this parlor game because it's a great way to push the limits of gospel geekery in the company of fellow gospel music lovers. It's a reminder of the different relationships and influences that exist between seemingly disparate artists and sounds. But it's also a great way to identify the figures who had a genre-shaping, cross-generational influence on a musical form. Those names are the ones that come up, time after time.

Albertina Walker will certainly be remembered as one of those key figures.

Walker, who died last Friday at the age of 81, was known as the "Queen of Gospel Music." No doubt one reason is her lifelong commitment to the music. Walker started singing at her Chicago church, West Point Missionary Baptist, at the age of four. As a 17-year-old, she joined "the Gospel Caravan," a group of female singers who provided backing vocals for gospel singer Robert Anderson. A few years later, Walker formed the Caravans, one of the most influential groups of gospel's golden age.

"Robert was retiring, and . . . I didn't want to record by myself," Walker said in an interview taped for Malaco's Gospel Legends DVD Collection. "I always wanted to sing with a group." So she convinced her record label to allow her to record with a group of young women who she called "The Caravans." James Cleveland, later to be known as "the King of Gospel Music," accompanied the group for many years.

The Caravans' "Tell Him What You Want," "Lord, Keep Me Day by Day," "You Can't Hurry God," "The Blood Will Never Lose its Power," "No Coward Soldiers," and "You Can't Beat God Giving" are the kinds of songs that become deeply rooted in church life, whether or not members of a congregation are aware of their origins. (Gospel music historian and radio announcer Bob Marovich recently dedicated a special broadcast to Walker and the Caravans that is an excellent introduction to their discography.)

As a soloist recording after the Caravans disbanded, Walker brought her easy contralto to widely known songs like "Please Be Patient with Me," (1979) "I Can Go to God in Prayer" (1981), and "I'm Still Here" (1997). A slew of honors, including a Grammy, 11 Grammy nominations, four Stellar Awards and multiple Hall of Fame inductions testify to her impact on the industry. And no one will forget her regal, rhinestone-studded sunglasses -- emblematic of a distinctive level of church-lady fashion sense many will attempt, but few will attain.

While all of these honors make a strong case for Walker as gospel royalty, I'm most intrigued by something that leads back to network theory: Almost all of the biographical information I've read about her -- and many of the obituaries that have been posted since Walker's passing -- note that she is known for developing others through the group. Indeed, in addition to Cleveland, Shirley Caesar, Inez Andrews, Dorothy Norwood and Delores Washington were all part of the Caravans before they disbanded in the late 1960s. One of gospel's early "supergroups" came about because Walker was willing to step back, and let someone else shine. And those gospel stars made room for others, with the result that all of their musical legacies -- built through webs of connection -- have grown by degrees.

In his entry on the Caravans in his book Uncloudy Days: The Gospel Music Encyclopedia, Bil Carpenter writes that "Walker, a shrewd leader, recognized that her voice wasn't always the best fit for every song and she routinely showcased the talents of others." Historian Horace Clarence Boyer notes the distinctive way the Caravans employed the "swing lead" technique in an early performance of "Stand By Me": While in most performances soloists might trade lead during each verse, in this one, the women of the group shared the lead role, switching between leads to complete a line.

It isn't wise to idealize anyone, and Ms. Walker certainly wasn't perfect. But I think there's something instructive about her story.

She was a magnificent singer, but she felt no need to hog the spotlight or impose her considerable talent on a song the way some artists might these days. Her Albertina Walker Scholarship Foundation for the Creative and Performing Arts, with its annual benefit concerts, raised lots of money to help young people achieve their dreams. And though she battled asthma and emphysema, she continued performing until the end. "The Lord lets me sing," she told the Chicago Tribune in 2004. "The only time I'll stop is when the Lord says."

Walker will be remembered as one of the greats, the "Queen" indeed. But she was much more than a gospel diva. She was a servant to her art, to her community, and to her God. She didn't just sing "I'm Willing"; she was. She wasn't just entertaining audiences when she declared, "You Can't Beat God Giving"; she gave.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

For Walter Hawkins, 1949-2010

Monday night, I found myself shuffling boxes around, looking for a particular CD.

I moved a couple of weeks ago, and my place is in a worse-before-it-gets-better stage, with half-opened boxes and unassembled furniture piled against the walls. Right now determination, a couple of narrow goat paths, and my utility scissors are the only things keeping me from being lost beneath an avalanche of my own possessions.

Still, I felt compelled to rummage through several boxes until I found my copy of one of those “Best of Gospel” compilation CDs. When I received this one a couple of years ago, I was not at all surprised to find that 3 of the 12 songs on the CD were by Walter Hawkins and the Love Center Choir. The Hawkins family’s imprint on gospel in general—and Walter Hawkins’ imprint in particular—is just that significant.

Walter’s brother, Edwin, is known for his arrangement of “Oh Happy Day,” among other songs. Walter Hawkins, his sister, Lynette, his former wife Tramaine Hawkins, and The Love Center Choir gave us gospel classics like “Going Up Yonder,” “I’m Going Away,” “Be Grateful,” “When the Battle is Over,” and others.

When I learned Monday morning that Walter Hawkins had passed away Sunday at 61, I knew that, no matter what else I did, I’d have to listen to “I’m Going Away.” That song, in particular, is one of the reasons I believe in gospel music.

There are certain things I value in traditional, choir-driven gospel music: Clarity of the gospel message. Accessibility to the local church choir and musicians combined with an aspirational quality—meaning the kind of song a choir can sing next Sunday, and continue to sing better through the years. Singability for the choir, and saaaangability for the lead. Demanding music that doesn’t scrub out the spontaneity or experiential nature of gospel.

Additionally, I believe strongly that good gospel for the church setting stays on the side of congregational song rather than concert performance. If the congregation can’t sing a song without getting ensnared in a labyrinthine thicket of vamps, key changes, and vocal acrobatics, that song may position the congregation as an audience, rather than as a body of people worshipping together.

A lot of these ideas are shaped by the fact that I grew up listening to the Hawkinses and the groups that followed them. While it’s hard to define what makes a song “classic” or a sound “authentic,” these are the qualities that come to my mind.

If you listen to “I’m Going Away,” (recorded on Hawkins’ second album, 1978’s Love Alive II) you hear a song that is at once personally and collectively testimonial, in form as well as in lyric. It begins with light flourishes from the piano, and that suspenseful pause before the tenors sing the first “I’m going away.” As other instruments join in, Hawkins expands on this thematic foundation to answer the questions: Where is ‘away’? How long will you be there? Why does it matter?

“To a place/I’ll live eternally/a special place/prepared just for me.”

Bits of the song’s lyrics appear in songs in other genres, particularly blues and spirituals. And tributaries of black history flow into Hawkins’ stream of relentlessly Christian testimony. The ideas they represent about travel and movement both drive and permeate the African-American experience. In “I’m Going Away,” lyrics like “One of these mornings/won’t be very long/You’re gonna look for me and I’ll be gone” give voice to the hope of the enslaved freedom-seeker, recount the Great Migration narrative, and speak for traveling bluesmen who let no grass grow under their feet—bluesmen like Georgia Tom, also known as Thomas Andrew Dorsey, a key originator of gospel music.

Later, we hear the echoes of a struggle outside of church walls by people fighting to cash the promissory note of democracy in courtrooms, on buses, at lunch counters: “There’ll be nobody there to put me out.”

There’s a promise for anyone who’s ever wept over the newspaper or fought the battles of everyday life: That Jesus, our Savior who suffered, wipes away tears. That sorrows end, that trouble don’t last always. The song connects “today” and “that by-and –by” with a relevance that I believe is a hallmark of a song that becomes a classic. It embodies the tension historian Craig Werner identifies 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."

And, oh, that call and response.

As the song builds, you hear members of the congregation affirming Hawkins’ testimony, assenting to shared experience and hope. From the sprinkling of applause after Hawkins’ first line, to the throaty “Yeah! Come on, now” from the tenor section in the second verse, to the soprano who ad-libs behind him through the bridge. As the song goes on, the choir’s role expands.

By 3 minutes and 16 seconds in, it’s all over, and it’s just begun. Here you hear the narrative polyvocality that creates one song out of two, and contextualizes the individual experience within that of a community. As the choir rocks steadily into the repeated “I’m going away,” Hawkins sings over them, giving specificity to that general vision. If you’ve ever sung lead over a song like this, you know that the interchange between your voice and the collective voice of the choir is the difference between having a perfunctory rehearsal and having church. The community girds you from beneath, lifts you up and over a cloud of witnesses, empowers you to speak your piece, as long as you’re willing to speak for everybody.

To me, this conjugated litany is what church, as in “my church home,” and Church, as in “the communion of saints,”--sounds like, looks like, feels like: I’m going away. You’re going away. We’re going away. And the present progressive tense—“We’re going—describes the rhythm of the Christian life. We’re standing on promises, even as we’re marching to Zion. We’re living as victors, longing for victory.

As the song ends, portions of Andrae Crouch’s “Soon and Very Soon” and “It Won’t Be Long” are sung in rounds.This intertextual reference sounds both like a gracious acknowledgement of a fellow artist and a clever bricolage that, like the other references in the song, avoids pastiche.

Hawkins’ ability to create these kinds of songs is why his music will last. These qualities are why his music continues to inspire other artists, and why I’m pretty sure no one will need to rehearse before someone in some church this Sunday sings “I’m Going Away,” “When the Battle is Over,” “Be Grateful,” “Goin’ Up Yonder,” or one of a host of others.

And it’s why, Monday night, I sat crouched among a host of boxes in my disorganized home, earbuds in my ears, heartbroken to have lost such a pioneer so soon and so young, yet satisfied that he’d finally made the trip he’d spent his life singing about.

image credit:

Monday, February 08, 2010

From the Vault: An Interview With Horace Clarence Boyer

Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer (1935-2009) was a well-known historian and practitioner of gospel music. I interviewed Dr. Boyer in 2005, when I was working on an article about the status of gospel music 25 years after the first Stellar Awards. I found him to be such a warm, interesting person whose personality delighted me as much as did his deep knowledge of gospel music.

As is often the case, so much of the good stuff from an interview with a person of Dr. Boyer’s stature ended up on the cutting floor when I was writing the article. But now, as I promised in my last post, I’m sharing it with readers, in its slightly-edited entirety. You’ll notice that I don’t say a whole lot—because, when an elder of the tradition speaks, it’s best to listen.

LaTonya Taylor: What are the most significant ways gospel music has changed over the last 25-35 years?

Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer: Well, it’s interesting that we’re looking at the last 25 years, because in that period there is also a structural division. The main structural division in black gospel occurred in 1969, and that was when Edwin Hawkins released “Oh Happy Day.” Now, “Oh Happy Day,” if you’re old enough, you will remember, became a number one on the top 40 charts for two weeks. Now this is a black gospel song. This is the first and only time it’s ever happened. It did two things: number one, it took black gospel from the black church—I shouldn’t say it took—it moved black gospel from the black church, and the black auditorium, and Carnegie Hall, and moved it into popular record stores and theaters and hip-hop joints.

So that now, black gospel falls into two categories: concert music or popular music and church music. Popular music means music that is designed to titillate the taste of people. I mean, Elton John tries to write a song that people will like and will sell. Gospel music before that period was written to state one’s testimony, and belief in God, and to praise his name. So when Edwin Hawkins all of a sudden became a superstar from playing [on the radio], then record producers came to singers and said, “can you give me something like Edwin Hawkins did,” because it was a crossover. And so now, we have –since we have that market, we have to have music now that speaks to that market.

So that in addition to being a testimony, it is also a music designed to please the musical taste. And so the taste is first, and then the testimony is second. Now, that was the first thing. The second thing was that it borrowed so heavily from the popular music of that day—of 1970, that is to say, Rhythm and Blues, and jazz, and Latin music, that it began the major fusion of black gospel overtly with other popular musics. There was always the influence, because everything in the ghetto influences everything else. It was a ghetto music, basically, even though Mahalia Jackson was at Carnegie Hall, and it had been done at the Newport Festival. It was not on the Tonight Show, or it was not on Good Morning America and The Today Show, and it was not on the popular television and sitcoms, which it is now. Now, that was from 1969-70.

In 1988, there was a group called Take 6 to make its debut.

LaTonya Taylor: Yes.

Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer: And Take 6, while not getting a number one hit, came closest to Edwin Hawkins, in awakening a new taste for gospel. You see, the Edwin Hawkins line was the rhythm and blues line. The Take 6 line was the jazz line. There we got Duke Ellington, and Count Basie, and Lionel Hampton, John Coltrane, and Dizzy Gillespie. That’s what Take 6 is. They do jazz. They don’t do rhythm and blues. Now, that awakened that taste.

And then, around the mid-90s, 1995 through 1997, Kirk Franklin came out. And Kirk Franklin employs house music: hip-hop, rap, the rhythms, the choral melody, the interjections that people like P. Diddy, and Jay-Z, and Snoop Dog uses. So, then, right around the same time, we get Richard Smallwood. And Richard Smallwood brings in another line. Richard Smallwood has a bachelor’s in piano, classical piano, from Howard University in Washington D.C., and is an extraordinary pianist of European classical music. So now he combines elements of black gospel with elements of Bach, Handel and Chopin.

So, what I’m saying to you now is that this great fusion has placed gospel music squarely in the minds of people who buy popular music and who don’t necessarily have to be Christians to like it.

As a matter of fact, I haven’t seen the statistics lately, but three or four years ago, the record-selling public was like this: Rock was first, country was next, and I think jazz and gospel were kind of on the same line, and classical came afterwards.

LaTonya Taylor: Wow.

Horace Clarence Boyer: Yeah. Now, remember that there is a tremendously strong white gospel movement that hasn’t become popular music. There’s Amy Grant, and then there’s Petra, and there’s a couple of others, but it hasn’t hit the market like Kirk Franklin. Was he at the Stellar Awards?

LaTonya Taylor: Yes, sir, he was. And he performed with a marching band!

Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer: [Delighted laughter]

LaTonya Taylor: It was amazing!

Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer: Of course it was! Now, he’s the gospel James Brown.

LaTonya Taylor: Yes.

Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer: He’s that little hip-hop guy. And of course, some people don’t even go penetrate far enough in it to realize that it’s sacred music. I’ll tell you something. It is so ingrained now that it’s almost impossible to tell the difference in song between popular secular music and popular gospel music. So that it’s really American popular music, and--I’m going to go out on a limb here and say this, since I’ve been studying this music for so long--I think that Kirk and his generation probably think of gospel music as being music with a text about the Trinity and heaven and hell, and not necessarily a melody or a rhythm about heaven and hell. And I guess the difference is, the gospel music of Mahalia Jackson and Roberta Martin, the Ward singers, had its roots in the hymn, and the Negro spiritual, and the sanctified shout songs. The music today does not have its roots in that.

LaTonya Taylor: What are your thoughts about that? Do you feel positively or negatively about that?

Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer: Well, I’ll tell you, I’ve grown tremendously in the last 10 years. Because, before about 10 years or so ago, I was just appalled. But in that time, I’ve come to realize that it is gospel music moved with Edwin Hawkins’ recording, and I experienced this, I saw gospel music move from a late adult to a middle-aged kind of music, meaning, 30-year-olds. The 55- and 60-year-olds, those were the gospel singers and the gospel music lovers. When Edwin Hawkins recorded “Oh, Happy Day,” he was like 26 years old. And he was the oldest member in his choir. Can you see that that shifted gospel music down, 10 years younger?

LaTonya Taylor: Oh.

Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer: People like Kirk Franklin, and Take 6, and Smokie Norful, they’ve moved it down farther, so that the gospel music lovers are the 13-, 14-, 15-year-olds, and by the time you’re 25, you’re getting into that not-to-be trusted group.

LaTonya Taylor: Oh, no! I just crossed over! [laughter]

Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer: Yes! It’s an extremely youthful music. Now, listen, the 40-year-olds are no longer the ones buying gospel records, they’re no longer the ones attending the concerts. So, when I recognized that shift, I realized something interesting about young people, and I’m sure my mother must have said the same thing about me and my brothers and sisters: You can either let young people be young, or you can kill them.

And this is exactly what is happening, since the shift. See, most people don’t realize that there’s a shift happening. It’s not the 45-year-olds who are supporting gospel. It’s not the 45-year-olds who are supporting rap. It’s the 13-18 and the 25-year-olds. And this is what has happened. So now that I realize that it is their music, by them, for them, I’ll have to say, fine.

I think that before this generation, I mean in the last 20 years, we had thought that the Lord worked best with music that was pious and old-world sound and style. And they have shown us that piety can be as raucous as James Brown. Now, I’m saying that because I think I know it’s true. I’m not sure that I have accepted it, but then I’m going to be a senior citizen in about 15 minutes! [laughs] So I have to realize that. But I went to a concert by Kirk Franklin maybe six years ago, and my wife and I were 40 years older than everybody there. So, you see what I’m talking about now? And it’s their music, it’s not mine. Incidentally, there is, on the other hand, some music for the 50-year-old and for the 60-year-old. I’m sure Shirley Caesar got an award.

LaTonya Taylor: No, but she was at the [2005] Stellars.

Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer: Now, Shirley is on the borderline. She represents the older style. But she has to work with those [younger] people, so she has to give in a little bit to their style.

LaTonya Taylor: It’s interesting to me that you didn’t always feel positively about these developments.

Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer: No, I didn’t. I just absolutely thought they were on their way to hell.

LaTonya Taylor: Did you feel this way when you wrote How Sweet The Sound?

Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer: The book came out in ’95, and I really had intended to cover gospel music up to that time. But I said, you know, I really can’t do it justice in 15 pages, and I’ve been threatening myself to write a new something, and I’ve just never gotten around to it.

But I didn’t feel positively. When I wrote that book, I was still convoluted about it, so I didn’t want to cover them. But I’ll tell you what I’ve noticed about myself. I listened to that gospel to find out what’s going on and to see which of it I like. So it isn’t my music right now, but I look at someone like Kirk Franklin and Smokie Norful and Karen Sheard, and—what talent they have. They really know how to put over a song. Whether I like the content and the style or not is a different matter. And I think if you were to talk with a 35-year-old, they would give you a completely different picture.

LaTonya Taylor: Let’s talk about content. What do you see? What concerns you, and what encourages you?

Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer: I just read a wonderful article in the New York Times this morning, about a new record producer who is working with white rock—gospel rock, and that’s rock’n’roll. And he’s encouraging his artists to avoid in-your-face gospel. It was about a group called Skillet.

They just got a Grammy nomination for gospel rock, and I think this is the first time. And the producer said that groups from the 1980s have tried to stay away from the words “Jesus,” and “God,” and “Lord.” Like the Staple Singers did, see. The Staple Singers started singing what I call message songs, morality, and human relations, respect yourself, and those kinds of things, rather than thank you Jesus, that kind of thing.

This weekend I’m doing a gospel festival, and I’ll have 120 singers. Last year, about 20 members of the group were Jewish. When I work with some groups, although I’ve used songs that have the words “God,” and “Lord,” I didn’t sing the Jesus songs, although with this choir I will.

With the gospel songs, in a sense, everybody wants to be a crossover. I feel there’s a little tempering of the language. Concerning content, gospel has only had a really small element concerned with social issues, but I think the music is so popular with young people, and young people are the society, that I wish they would speak to drugs. I wish they would speak to school, I wish they would speak to pregnancy. I wish they would speak to getting a job. I don’t know how to work this in. But Andrae Crouch would occasionally do things in his day like that.

Here’s something I want to say. The music has advanced beyond the music of the fiftyish group; the lyrics and the texts have not advanced. If anything, they’ve receded as one has gone forward. Do you understand what I’m saying?

LaTonya Taylor: You’re saying that the music has improved, but the lyrical content has not?

Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer: I don’t know that the music is better, I think it’s much more contemporary. It’s much more of today. Where the music concerns itself with the sounds that abound today, the texts of the songs don’t cover areas of today. Forty years ago, we didn’t have the drug problem, we didn’t have the unwed pregnancies that we have. We didn’t have the murder and the guns and the knives. We didn’t have the people who don’t work. If the music can be so contemporary, why not have the lyrics be contemporary and speak to those issues. Do you see what I mean?

LaTonya Taylor: Yes.

Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer: I still think that we need “Jesus” and “God.” And we need it in there, but the Lord, I think, wants us to pay our bills [laughing together]. A baby to have a Daddy who’s in his life. And these issues don’t come up when they say, “I’ve got to speak the language of my people, I’ve got to yield to my people.” Well, that’s fine musically, but is gospel only the beat and the tune, or is it—and here’s the difference between the Negro Spiritual and gospel--the Negro Spiritual being the 20th century’s music of free people, and free people have to have responsibilities, because when we were slaves the responsibility was on someone else to direct our lives. And freedom and gospel says that we must use our relationship with the Trinity to direct our own lives. So that’s kind of important.

LaTonya Taylor: That’s such an exciting distinction.

Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer: Yes, you see, the Negro Spiritual—“Go Down Moses,” “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See”—that was music of the slaves. Our lives were not our own. We were asking the Lord to deliver us so that we could assume our own ownership. Now that we have our own ownership, we’ve got to be completely in charge, because he gave us that, but we’re still acting as if we’re back there. As if somebody else is gonna handle education. As if somebody else is gonna handle war. As if somebody else is gonna handle pregnancy. Somebody else—and here’s the point: We’ve never here in the United States really used our popular music to speak to social matters like they do with reggae and calypso, you know, and like they do in some Spanish music. But gospel has been the most—our religious music has been the most faithful in speaking to our ills.

We’ve fallen down on that, particularly. If artists feel that they’ve moved ahead of the time, with the beat and with melody, why not move ahead of the time with our concerns? And you know, the fact that the music is so popular hasn’t helped with those areas, because our pregnancy without a husband rate—the young girls having babies--is epidemic. I wonder if we could speak to that in gospel.

LaTonya Taylor: Would you say, then, that current gospel music doesn’t reflect a post civil-rights mentality?

Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer: It does not. That’s right. It does not reflect a post civil-rights mentality. It does reflect a post civil rights emphasis on the extrinsic things, like the beat and the melody. But it’s the words that have always meant—I mean, “Go down, Moses. Tell Old Pharaoh to let my people go.” That’s more important than [hums a tune]. But now, I think—I think the melody has certainly developed more in terms of today’s essence than the text.

LaTonya Taylor: What would remedy that? More theological training, more social consciousness?

Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer: I think a different reading of the Bible and the realization—and this is a preachment that everybody’s been preaching for a long time but they don’t really explain it—if God gives us our next walk, he’s not going to walk for us. So we’ve got to take what he’s given us and do it for ourselves. That means we have to be concerned about our social life, our religious life, our economic life, our academic life, so we have to attend to those issues, right along with God and Jesus and Christ and Jehovah.

So, we have to realize that gospel is the only vehicle that we have that will speak to social issues just as the Negro spiritual did. Now, for example, in the old days, in the ’50s, James Cleveland would say, “Lord, help me pay my rent. I need a job. Help me get my car fixed.” “These old clothes that I’m wearing are ragged.” Those are some social issues. We don’t have that in these songs.

LaTonya Taylor: What has replaced that?

Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer: Well, the paraphrasing of the Scriptures. The quoting of the Scriptures, and the response to thanks, praise and requests.

LaTonya Taylor: Do you have a specific example in mind, by way of comparison?

Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer: Yes. I know that Kirk Franklin has a tune called “A Brighter Day.” He says we’ll have a brighter day. But does he say we’ll have a brighter day when there’s no more drugs? He doesn’t say that.

LaTonya Taylor: So, you think that more specificity about social issues would be one solution.

Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer: I think that’s a good point, because generalities don’t work. And when we have generalities—thank you Lord, for everything--that’s fine. But if we could speak specifically to something, I think it might work. And I don’t have any real good examples that I could give you in that.

LaTonya Taylor: How does gospel music, as you see it, affect church life?

Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer: Well, this is a very strange situation, because in the black church, as you remember now, is the most conservative institution in the culture. It moves the slowest. So, believe it or not, the music that was celebrated at the Stellar Awards is seldom sung in the church service. That is not the kind of music that is sung in the church service. A kind of music that is much closer to the Negro spiritual and to the Protestant hymn, and to the sanctified Pentecostal songs are sung. The teenagers don’t run the church service, so they can’t take over the music there.

So [consumers] buy records for [church service music], and they go to concerts by Richard Smallwood or John P. Kee or Hezekiah Walker. But those are not church services. Now, sometimes they will add the church service elements to it, and they will have an altar call, to come to Christ. So, in church the music is different.

The other side of that is the 25-35 year-old person who’s into this music, will—and I’m going to put this in quotes—“receive the call from the Lord to go preach”—so that you then hear the hip-hop musicians who are now the pastors, and they take that 25-year-old, hip-hop group along with them. So you have two kinds of churches. The traditional, mainline churches, and then you have the churches of the young people who do want to do this kind of music in their churches, so they go along with it.

But the church as we know it and the church that sustains the community doesn’t do much of that music. Because that’s popular music, it’s not church music. The Stellar Awards might include a couple of awards for church music, but they’re talking about record sales. So, as I used to tell my students who would come to me complaining about what was being put out on recordings and felt awful toward the record producers, record producers are not in the business of preserving culture. They’re in the business of making money. So the Stellar Awards are great, but the Stellar Awards are not about church [laughs]. They’re not celebrating that. They’re celebrating the gospel music business.

LaTonya Taylor: Speaking of the gospel music business, I’ve been thinking about the way gospel music is portrayed in films. I’m thinking specifically of The Fighting Temptations, which I didn’t have a high opinion of.

Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer: Now, that brings up an interesting point. Because I gave a lecture on Monday night at the State University of New York in Fredonia. And the gospel choir sang. And they sounded fine, but when they started their gospel rock—normally we would go from side to side, at one time they would go from side to side, and the next time they would rear way back, and throw their arms up, almost as if they were social dancing. And I said, “I have seen this on television where, they’ll put on the robes, so that they’ll know it’s gospel, and then they’ll have—gospel is joyful, but I think they’ll have a kind of joy that—and this is where young people say it’s a generational matter—it’s a kind of joy that makes you think of heaven rather than makes you think of making love—physical love.”

No matter what you say, with the conditioning of our society, there are certain scenes that make you think of heaven. And there are certain scenes that make you think of hell, or some secular ideas. There are certain sounds that do the same, too, because they’ve been associated with that for so long. Now, when I see the church scenes on television and in the movies, I’m saying, “Now, exactly what is this? Mardi Gras?” Because they’ve exaggerated them so, and sometimes I’ve seen this in concert.

I used to say that people did not want to make a distinction between the sacred and the secular. So they did them both and told you which was which. And sometimes it gets to that. And they always say, “Yes, but I have to speak to the people in their language.” That’s ridiculous! That’s ridiculous if it means kowtowing to the basic elements of everything. My mama had seven children. I don’t remember my mama and daddy ever bowing down to us. We had to come up to them. That’s how we got where we are. You can’t build a society on doing that, and you can’t build a society on the beat. The beat can only take you so far. And if I said one thing, as a matter of fact, nowadays the beat is what you hear first and then you hear [the gospel message], and I don’t think it was that way earlier. I think you heard melody with words. And I’m not so sure that that’s wrong. It’s different, and for a person over 50 it seems to be away from the point. But away from the point—I’m sure my mother said the same thing about her children. So, it’s difficult to say something’s not right, because we’re going through a 50-year period of change.

LaTonya Taylor: In some ways you’re thinking about the distinctions between matters of generational taste. But it sounds like you’re also wondering if presentation styles veer too much toward the secular side.

Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer: Yes, I definitely think that. Now, everybody says, what is sacred and what is secular? You can keep dividing these up until you don’t have a point of departure. And that’s why I think sometimes it’s generational, because here’s the thing that’s interesting: I won’t be around when the 25- and 30-year-old gospel singers have children. They’re going to be saying the same things that I’m saying, because my mom said the same thing to me, and she said her mom said the same thing to her. So, I gather that while I think some of this music is right for the secular market, in 30 years it’ll sound like a dirge from the Mass.

I want to say one more thing: I think that the musicians today are much more talented and learned than the musicians of any period before, and I guess that’s the way it should be. I mean, having studied music classically and learned all of these techniques, I hear some devices and techniques that these people are creating that are just fabulous. It’s just that they don’t always sound like they go with the line “Jesus, I love you.” [laughs warmly, delightedly, with amusement]. The music just causes you to jerk your head around for a minute.

LaTonya Taylor: So, you hear an increased level of musical sophistication.

Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer: Oh, yes. Yes. Absolutely.

LaTonya Taylor: Gospel music is just about everywhere—including television commercials. What are the benefits and challenges of that ubiquity?

Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer: This is what most people don’t understand: Gospel music is a song, but it’s also a style. I’ve heard people say, “Give me a gospel feel on that.” And when you go to buy a synthesizer, they have a gospel rhythm. And a gospel beat that you can punch in. Because they have a jazz beat. And they have a rock and roll. A country beat, and gospel is in there, so that that proves to you that gospel is popular music, because if it was not gospel music, nobody would know what to call it.

In addition to that, I mean, when Madonna, and Michael Jackson, and Paul Simon, and everybody starts using a gospel choir behind them, you can tell that that’s what’s happening. And many of them will use gospel—for example, I heard “This Little Light of Mine,” which is a Negro spiritual, but I heard it in a gospel version—and it was just raring on television. People like gospel, and what they want from gospel is not the wonderful singing quality of a Mahalia Jackson or of a Marian Williams, who was a Kennedy fellow, or of a Roberta Martin. They want the wild, the raw, because it combines the primitive and the nature, and it actually—it actually makes people feel good about themselves for a minute. Because there is something uplifting about that, which you can tell is gospel. And that’s why the Blind Boys are so popular and the Dixie Hummingbirds after all these years. The Blind Boys, when they sing, just lift that thing up into something else.

LaTonya Taylor: How do you feel about the gospel sound without gospel lyrics—the gospel you see on the fried chicken commercials, or other non-religious venues?

Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer: Now, remember that I came by this music as a confession of faith, and as a statement of my religious beliefs. And back in the ’50s when I was a teenager, we were working hard to get people, particularly educated black people, and white people, to like this music, because we thought it deserved a larger audience. So, we took it to non-sacred places, thinking that we would take non-sacred places, and make them sacred. And instead of making the places sacred, those places took the music and used it the way that they wanted to. And so, we initiated it, and now we’ve lost control.

LaTonya Taylor: Is this just the way we use music of various cultures in America, though? We take it and sell it?

Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer: That’s right. Now I’ll tell you what: there are some music from the Jewish service that unless you are a committed Jew you are not going to hear. There is music among Native Americans that unless you’re a member of that tribe, you’re not gonna hear. And that’s the way you protect your integrity. See, I remember when Andrae Crouch was opening up for BB King. So now, what can you say if we take our religious music and we use it in The Color Purple or anything? It’s our own fault, and I’m saying our fault meaning a bad thing only because to me it was a religious music and I’m still having difficulty seeing it used outside of that space. Now that’s generational, isn’t it? Because a 17-year-old didn’t hear it in that space in the first place. They heard it on the radio, or in a club. However, when they go to church they hear a different kind. And the kind of thing performed in church, you just don’t hear very much on the radio, because it’s an older music and older folk don’t just run in the world, [laughs], so they have to wait until they go to church to hear it.

That reminds me that Shirley Caesar was born in 1938. And that means that Shirley is like 65 or 66. Albertina Walker was born in 1928. 29. That means she’s over in her 70s. Those people are unusual! Andrae Crouch was born in ’42. That means that he’s a little over 60. You can only name about eight people like that out there, and then you get to people in their 40s or younger.

The older gospel singer is kind of a relic, and they’re doing a music unlike what is being done today. You can see how I’m dancing around, trying not to be negative, because I don’t think it does any good, and I don’t think I feel that way, other than that I can’t quite endorse what’s going on. I don’t necessarily think it’s wrong, because I’ve abdicated, and I’ve given it over to the young people, and it’s theirs.

In European classical music in the 1950s, we were working on two projects. One, was music in 12-tone, where there was no central key, so there was no harmony as we know it. We were working on music that was created by accident. So we’d drop something on the piano, and that would be the sound. We hit a precipice and we fell over—so we had to come back and start creating music with melodies to them. This is gonna happen to gospel.

LaTonya Taylor: Keep going.

Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer: Because we’re getting so far away from the moments of meditation, and the moments of contemplation, and the moments which make us think of heaven and the great things, that after a while we will find that this doesn’t serve the purpose, and we’ll come back and separate it from our secular life.

Right now, no one wants to admit it, but even young people know that when they hear Missy Elliot and then when they hear Kirk Franklin, and they sound the same, and Missy is singing secular rap, and Kirk is singing sacred gospel, they know something is wrong. They don’t want to admit it right now, because it would just destroy them. But they are getting around to it. Because when I talk with them, and they relax for a minute, they’ll say, “Well, we know it’s a little bit out,” but they don’t want to make that change.

But here’s the thing that’s so interesting. From 1940 until 1960, secular music borrowed—Ray Charles borrowed from gospel to make himself a sound. I mean, you know, James Brown was the preacher. I meant, they went straight to the black church and picked up everything they could. I meant, Elvis Presley just loved it. Elvis even picked up the Brown sound. Elvis doesn’t sound Irish [laughs]!

LaTonya Taylor: [laughing too] No, he doesn’t.

Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer: Or Italian, you know. And Michael McDonald? You can bet that’s not Cuban music. Not hardly!

LaTonya Taylor: No, indeed!

Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer: So you see, that the Brown sound and the Brown style—well, if somebody else can do that, then I know that black people, in gospel music, can find them a sound. They found hip-hop. They created rhythm and blues. Gospel can create something else, more in its own line. And they will! They absolutely will.

I edited a hymnal for the Episcopal church, and people were asking me when they were going to get a new one. I said, Baby, they can’t even publish these fast enough to sell them. So you can’t fight success. And gospel music is making a lot of money. I mean, gospel singers can become millionaires. Some people charge $35,000 for some concerts. Now, to be sure, by the time someone like this pays everybody off, they ain’t got but twenty-five. When you make that kind of money, you got a manager and an agent, and this and this. But $25,000 a concert, and you’re a gospel singer. Now, I know the Beatles wouldn’t have opened their mouths for that.

LaTonya Taylor: Despite being more famous than—

Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer: That’s right! But gospel is now big business.

LaTonya Taylor: Could Praise and Worship be seen as movement toward a more contemplative direction?

Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer: Yes, I think so. I don’t think the music is as good as what they’re doing in black gospel. But it certainly hasn’t stolen its very identity from other, secular musics. I think that’s a very good example. I think if we could take—if they could take their energies, and go in the direction of—now some praise and worship music is a little insipid [chuckling] because it’s designed for immediate consumption and learning right away, and it’s mono-emotional—one emotion at a time.

If we could do with that what Andrae did with what he had, and what Thomas A. Dorsey—he’s the author of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”—you know, sophisticate it a little bit—without borrowing hip-hop elements, a drum set—I think that would be a wonderful alternative, don’t you?

Richard Smallwood’s music is an example. You don’t feel like you’re in a dancehall when you listen to his music. And he does it by borrowing some of the elements of baroque and classical music, which did not have a secular connotation attached to them in the first place. They were just musics, so you could use them in that setting and not be thrown over into the secular world.

LaTonya Taylor: Well, this is interesting, and I’m fascinated. You’ve been so generous with your time.

Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer: Well, thank you very much, and I hope I was not too negative. I’m trying to be a scholar, and scholars have to be objective. It’s just, when you’re over 60, though, it’s hard to be. You’ve lived through so much, and I don’t think I have to do that now! I have disciples who will pick that up. I try to monitor myself, so I hope it was of some value.

LaTonya Taylor: Very much so.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Reflections on Music, Ministry, and "Moral Failure"

Well, Blogosphere,

Here goes another one of those posts that begins with a commentary on how little I’ve posted lately.

One reason is that, at least right now, I’m not as interested in mainstream gospel music as I’ve been in the past. More than usual, I find myself drawn to the quirky, the rare, and the old-school (Watch this space for a review of Fire In My Bones: Raw+ Rare+ Otherworldly African-American Gospel, 1944-2007, which meets all three of these criteria). I’ve also pursued some of my interests in other genres, so I’m not listening to as much gospel as before.

Another reason is that, these days, a lot of my writing energy goes into my graduate work. I am doing some academic work related to gospel music, and perhaps I’ll post some of that work here, and/or use my blog to test a few ideas.

So, as I’m revisiting this space, I’ll probably blog on a few things I’ve “slept on.” Expect a few posts that are the equivalent of Fred Hammond’s 2001 album In Case You Missed It—And Then Some. Hopefully the “And Then Some”—the analysis, reflection, and conversation—can make up for the “You Missed It.”

For example, I didn’t learn until recently that Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer passed away in July. He was truly a giant of gospel music scholarship and performance. I interviewed him a few years ago, and I will post that interview here in the next few days.

I also didn’t know about several sad stories with similar themes.

This year, two artists affiliated with Cross Movement Records, a record label/ministry focused on holy hip-hop—The Ambassador, of the group Cross Movement, and Da’ T.R.U.T.H., another CMR artist—have both been suspended from ministry with the label, and, to some extent, within their own congregations. The explanation for the label’s decision in each man’s case has been “recent findings of moral failure in his marriage.” (Da’ T.R.U.T.H. has published an apology on his website, which can also be read here.)

I first became aware of the Cross Movement in 2000, when they performed at a conference presented by The Impact Movement, a ministry of Campus Crusade to African-American College Students. Although I don’t listen to much hip hop, I appreciated their theological rigor, their independence, the members’ decision to live as missionaries, and the high moral standards to which they held themselves. (I also dug “Know Me,” and to this day the song “What Do You See” is among the most powerful I’ve ever heard.)

Around that time, the group had disciplined a couple of members. When I interviewed them in 2002, I asked them about the mindset behind this kind of action/accountability:


In terms of lifestyle standards, what are some of the things that you expect of one another, and some of the ways that you hold each other accountable?

Tonic (John Wells): I think for us within out group, within our ministry, within our record company we try to take biblical principles and biblical standards and hold each other to a high level of integrity, because we value a lot of things. One, we want to keep a good ministry reputation because we think it’s valuable to those who are looking on, those who are looking to us to be examples. As we look to be examples of Christ, we can’t say one thing and do another. Or we can’t say one thing and then watch our brother do something else and that be acceptable. So we have set up an accountability between us as a group that if we find each other wayward or in fault that we deal with it.

And there’s no consequence too great. We won’t step beyond what God requires, but there’s no consequence too great for us. So if there’s a situation where somebody finds themselves in a funny situation and is just unrepentant, then we deal with it as a group. We’re prepared always to ask one another to step down or to step out with prayer and still continuing to encourage one another.

Do we expect too much of our Christian artists?

Phanatik (Brady Goodwin): I wish that that was the problem that we were facing. I think that we don’t expect enough. Or maybe the areas that we do expect too much are not in the right area. Like the beat wasn’t banging enough, or it didn’t sound like the number one hit on the Billboard charts. We might expect too much in that realm.

But when it comes to just the representation of the faith, the claims that they make, I don’t know if we expect enough of the artists that are claiming to be Christians. We strive to take hold of that for which [God] took hold of us. We strive to be perfect as he is perfect. We don’t look at each other and say “You’re not perfect yet? I’m through with you.” But I really do think that just as humans we tend to let each other off the hook too quickly. You’re not this? Don’t worry. You don’t have to be. You probably never will be, so I ain’t even going to look for it from you. You don’t have the fruit of the Spirit on your tree, no patience, no self-control, no love, no gentleness? I wasn’t expecting it anyway. That ain’t Christianity. So I offer that. I just think that we could expect more without being too hard on each other as Christians.

Tonic (John Wells): No, I don’t think we’re being too hard. I think there’s a world and a generation of young people and people just in general who are on their way to hell with no return. And I think if that’s what we’re looking at, if that’s what we’re facing, then I don’t think we can afford to say, hey, you’re being too hard.

When we look at the influence that Christian music is having now, there’s just too much work to be done. It reminds me of Jesus saying the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. For the Lord God to have to say, dang, I can’t find no helpers, I can’t find no workers…the standard isn’t high enough.

Ambassador (William ‘Duce’ Branch): That question “Are we expecting too much?” It’s funny. We’re not expecting jack. The question is, “Did we get our expectations from another source?” Because we only think like this because we were raised up reading the Bible. And when you read the Bible you talk about high expectations. How about [when Jesus said] hate your mother and father before you think about trying to swing with me, because whoever doesn’t hate his mother, father, sister, brother, children for my sake can’t be my disciples, not worthy to be my disciple. What about back in the [Old Testament] days? We’re not under [Old Testament] law now, but I’m saying…. What about if you found two people sleeping together that’s not married, [the punishment for adultery was to] bring them up to the middle and stone them? God is the one with these standards out the window, these standards no one can possibly reach outside the enablement of God. And we still won’t do that today because of the weakness of our flesh till he comes back. I think if we were expecting this of people, we got some nerve.


A couple of years ago, I interviewed Da’ T.R.U.T.H. and published his thoughts on music and discernment in a magazine for teens.

Although I hadn’t posted on them, I was aware of news reports about the paternity suit filed against J. Moss (check out this interview he did with Gospelpundit), and domestic violence allegations against BeBe Winans.

And, earlier today, I learned that Take 6 first tenor Claude McKnight is now speaking openly about years of behavior he describes as the result of a sexual addiction.

It’s a tough time to be someone who respected these artists. I know that the gospel/Christian music industry is not without its scandals, but I respected what they stood for and the groundbreaking things each had done with his work. On some levels, that remains true. After all, I enjoy the music of many people whose personal lives are messy, or who don’t claim to be followers of Christ.

Part of my disappointment about these stories is rooted in the fact that some of these men are about my age, while others are artists I grew up listening to. So to have scandals erupt among these folks is a world-wearying milestone.

A more acute disappointment is personal. After all, respecting these artists as musicians and fellow Christians is one thing. But, along with many of my other single sisters, I respected them as the kind of man we wait for. We were happy to know there were good, godly men out there who were also family men, or who were trying to live for God as single men. We hoped that, even within the (gospel/holy hip hop) music industry, there were some who were committed to living in a wholesome way. To have so many “fall” in such a short time and in similar ways adds to the disappointment.

I want to emphasize that I don’t know the details of these artists’ lives. And you’ll notice that I haven’t linked to much information about their problems. But for those of us who enjoy gospel music because it is a way of observing and celebrating our faith, I think these stories offer an opportunity for sober reflection on our lives as individuals. I’m taking some time to prayerfully reflect on my own life and my own vulnerabilities.

Beyond that, though, I hope that ministers, industry folks, and artists themselves take this opportunity to ask some systemic questions. Again, I’m not making assumptions based on direct knowledge of any of these situations. But I hope this crisis (and yes, that’s what it feels like) doesn’t go to waste. Here are a few questions:

· Is participation in the music industry, as it currently exists, compatible with marriage and family life?

· If so, which artists are modeling this effectively? If not, is anyone thinking creatively about how to make it so?

· Is anyone speaking candidly about the challenges of ministry/industry, and about costs for spouses and children?

· What potential outlets of spiritual and emotional support/accountability can artists create for themselves and their families?

· Are people being honest with themselves about temptations and strategies for avoiding/overcoming them?

· Are our churches ignoring some important realities about our physical, emotional, and spiritual needs? Are they teaching something incomplete or incorrect that leads to these kinds of situations?

· What important questions aren’t being asked?

These questions are worth talking about.