“Preaching With Singing” is three minutes and 33 seconds of preaching and singing. The Elder Oscar Saunders testifies to the mighty love of Jesus, who “bought me with His own blood,” while the congregation interjects passages from hymns like “Jesus Is Mine” and “I Sing Because I’m Happy”. It’s a rambunctious round of music, as though each element—the preaching and the singing—was trying to outpraise the other. Midway through the sermon, a female voice rises up to lead the congregation in a few lines of a different song: “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and deeds to bear/ What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!” Almost as soon as you have identified the song—”What a Friend We Have in Jesus”, a 19th-century hymn penned by Joseph Scriven as a gift for his mother—the voices pivot fluidly into the next song, leaving you with that singular gospel idea: faith as an unburdening of woes.
Having grown up in a Southern Baptist church in rural West Tennessee, I’ve sung “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” more times than I can remember, but I’ve never heard it quite like this. I recall a more staid version from the bright green hymnals in the pews of our sanctuary, a somber sing-along with rough harmonies yet a sense of communal reassurance. It was always set to the same tempo at which every other hymn was paced, but singing together with 200 other congregants instilled a sense of churchly unity; you were part of a larger group bound together in song. Yet, on “Preaching With Singing” the melody of “What a Friend” is bouncier and more urgent than I could have ever imagined, the sentiment more vivid as that female voice (which remains, sadly, uncredited and most likely lost to history) soars above the congregation. Its spiritedness makes you want to believe in such a higher animating power, which may be gospel’s great musical achievement. Even nonbelievers can listen to this music and understand the bone-deep thrill of faith.
When I Reach That Heavenly Shore: Unearthly Black Gospel, 1926-1936, compiled by the notorious 78 collector Christopher King and released by Tompkins Square, collects 42 tracks similar and dissimilar to “Preaching With Singing”. They come from a variety of sources and locales, but the defining aspect of this compilation may be the era it represents. These songs predate the commercial heyday of gospel in the 1940s, depicting instead a time when radio was broadcasting this music to new audiences and when many of the elements that would define the genre were only just being set in stone. For that reason, When I Reach That Heavenly Shore offers a glimpse of gospel’s early calls and responses, its first hallelujahs and amens. “This gift of extemporaneous expression is at the heart of the recordings contained in this modest collection,” King writes in the liners. “The variety of regional approaches to sacred song in this collection—shape-note hymnody, verse ‘lining,’ unbridled ecstasy, and plaintive mourning—are all informed by the then recent experience of slavery and by the then current state of Jim Crow.”
Gospel would become the soundtrack to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, with hymns like “We Shall Overcome” and “This Little Light of Mine” lending a moral dimension to the cause of equal rights. Especially on such numbers as the Jubilee Gospel Team’s “Stations Will Be Changed” and Blind Joe & Emma Taggart’s “I’ll Be Satisfied”, there is a sense of earthly striving, as though there is little difference between social and spiritual struggles. As Edward W. Clayborn, self-billed as “The Guitar Evangelist,” rips through “I Shall Not Be Moved”, he hints at the significance the song would later obtain, as the fluidity of his picking signifies an excitement over the heavenly promise that the wrongs of this world will be made right in the next. Listening to these songs in 2014—a year when the violent loss of black lives has gone bafflingly unprosecuted—is a powerful experience: glorious because this music can speak to us across nearly a century, tragic because these fears are still relevant and unresolved after so much time.
As King states in his liner notes, When I Reach That Heavenly Shore displays the breadth of gospel styles in pre-WWII America, from the intense sermonizing of Rev. A. W. Nix to the rural acoustic blues of Mother McCollum. The differences between these styles are often obvious, even if King provides no background on any particular track or performer. There are copious Bible verses to bolster the songs’ spiritual messages, but there is little sense of who these people were, what circumstances shaped their craft, or what their larger contributions to music or ministry might have been. Anything to settle and contextualize their tracks or to humanize these artists would be helpful, even just a broad discussion of trends in gospel during this particular era.
One of the precepts of gospel music, of course, is a certain earthly anonymity: These congregations and ministers sing not to distinguish themselves, but to glorify God. In this case, the “Unearthly” in the subtitle makes a bit of sense, even if it reads as weirdly mystifying and potentially erases the accomplishments of these artists. Previous Tompkins Square gospel comps have employed similarly evocative, albeit highly questionable adjectives, like “raw” and “otherworldly.” (Using “other” in this context is extremely problematic, as it relegates African American experience even further to the margins of what is considered the norm.) And there is nothing unearthly about Rev. Emmet Dickinson’s “What the Men Wanted the Women Was Sitting On”, a sermon that balances the sexual trickery of women with the lustful idiocy of men, or Rev. J.M. Gates’ “Dead Cat on the Line”, which unspools one of the weirdest metaphors imaginable for our lack of communion with God. These are earthly messages, grounded in everyday experience and nearly convinced that man is unworthy of redemption.
That word “unearthly” resonates uncomfortably throughout, as excusing the absence of historical materials. It dislocates the artistic accomplishment from the mouths of the artists and assigns it to some vague ether between Heaven and Earth. That may seem largely academic, as it barely affects the immediate enjoyment of the songs collected on When I Reach That Heavenly Shore. But gospel is ultimately a music that thrives on empathy—singers communicating spiritual ecstasy to Christians and non-Christians alike. If these songs can stir a spiritual desire even in the nonbeliever, then it also ignites a desire to know more about the people recording these incredible professions of faith.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1ueAQcv