Classic African American Gospel offers a broad overview of black sacred music ranging from traditional spirituals to contemporary gospel hymns. This collection of post-1940 field recordings was hand-picked from the Smithsonian Folkways vaults by prominent ethnomusicologist Kip Lornell (author of Happy in the Service of the Lord: African American Sacred Harmony Quartets in Memphis), who also produced the CD and wrote the extremely informative liner notes. Lornell’s stated aim was to “highlight the diversity of African American gospel music releases on Folkways [the label founded by Moses Asch in 1948] and Smithsonian Folkways [the Smithsonian Institution acquired the label in 1987 following Asch’s death].” The 24 tracks selected for inclusion certainly achieve this goal.
There are several broad styles represented on Classic African American Gospel, including a number of spirituals, most sung without accompaniment. Highlights include: “Low Down Death Right Easy” performed by Dock Reed in 1950 (track 16); and “Been in the Storm So Long,” a moaning spiritual that dates from the antebellum period, performed by Georgia Sea Islands native Mary Pinckney (track 22). Of particular interest is “Soon, One Morning” (aka “Somebody Calling My Name”), performed in a call and response style by Rev. Willie Gresham with his congregation at the Greater Macedonian Baptist Church in Athens, Georgia, in 1977 (track 7). Many African American spirituals were used during the Civil Rights Movement, and a prime example is “Go Tell It On The Mountain,” performed during a rally by activist Fannie Lou Hamer in 1963 in Greenwood, Mississippi (track 21).
The vocal quartet/quintet tradition is well represented by “Oh Lord, I’m So Glad I Got Good Religion,” performed by Alabama’s Starlight Gospel Singers in 1954 (track 2); “Dry Bones: Ezekiel Saw the Wheel” performed by the Missionary Quintet in Nassau, Bahamas, in1953 (track 8); and “Moses Smote the Water,” recorded in 1945 by the Thrasher Wonders of New York City (track 6). Interestingly, two of the Thrasher brothers featured on this recording later joined the Drifters, the famous group founded by Clyde McPhatter in the 1950s.
Also of particular interest are the selections demonstrating the influences of jazz and blues on gospel music, many performed by musicians better known for their secular recordings. Examples include: “Just Got Over At Last” by noted blues singer/pianist Little Brother Montgomery (track 5); “Oh, What a Beautiful City” (aka “Twelve Gates to the City”) by blues vocalist and harmonica player Sonny Terry (track 11; this is quite different from the well-known version recorded by Golden Gate Quartet); and “If I Had My Way” with the Rev. Gary Davis on vocals and guitar (track 5). On the jazz side, there is a fabulous rendition of “Where Could I Go” by Sister Ernestine Washington (a well-known C.O.G.I.C singer) accompanied by a dixieland style jazz ensemble featuring New Orleans trumpeter Bunk Johnson, recorded in 1946 (track 10; this gospel hymn composed by J.B. Coates was later covered by Elvis). Another fascinating performance that bridges jazz and gospel is “It’s Time to Make a Change” by Madison’s Lively Stones, a trombone “shout band” representing the unique house band tradition of the United House of Prayer for All Peoples church (track 24). This selection really opened my eyes to a whole subgenre of gospel music, which comes from a tradition similar to the “sacred steel” (i.e., steel guitar) music of the House of God church, as popularized by Robert Randolph and the Family Band.
Perhaps my favorite tracks are those emanating from the Pentecostel or Holiness denominations, with their sanctified shouts, strident call and response singing, and guitar and tambourine accompaniment (the previously mentioned tracks 10 and 24 also fall under the Holiness category). Prime examples include: “You’ve Got to Move,” performed by the Two Gospel Keys (Emma Daniels and Mother Sally Jones) in 1945 (track 12); “Don’t Let his Name Go Down” performed by the First Independent Holiness Church of God and Unity in Marion, Alabama in 1954 (track 20); and “Let the Church Say Amen” by Elder Charles D. Beck of the Church of God in Christ (aka C.O.G.I.C) from 1956 (track 13). “Holy Ghost” by Juanita Johnson & the Gospel Tones (track 9) is a somewhat more contemporary version from the 1970s, with Hammond organ accompaniment, while “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say” by Bishop Bowen & the Combined Gospel Choirs (track 14) features a preacher leading the call and response (Lornell also makes note of a hilarious parody recorded in the 1920s by medicine show entertainers titled “I Heard the Voice of a Pork Chop Say”).
The contemporary gospel mass choir movement is represented by two recordings from 1998, including “Thank You, Lord” by Alvin Dockett & the Blessed (track 3), and “We Praise Your Name” by the famous Mississippi Mass Choir, founded in 1988 (track 19). Last but not least, “He’s My Rock” from 1959 (track 17), is a wonderful example of a gospel hymn performed in an urban style by Brother John Sellers in 1959, which showcases the introduction of the Hammond B3 organ, along with guitar, bass, and drums (played here by none other than famed jazz/R&B drummer David “Panama” Francis).
The compilation is highly recommended for classroom use, and for anyone else desiring a brief overview of African American sacred music. If you’re interested in further study, the liner notes offer a selected bibliography, discography, and videography. If you’d like to learn more about pre-1950 gospel music recordings, I would highly recommend the fabulous Dust-to-Digital 6-CD box set, Goodbye, Babylon. Also, Document Records, a company based in the UK, specializes in reissuing early gospel and blues music. One final note, all of the selections on Classic African American Gospel were drawn from full-length albums which are all identified in the liner notes and available for purchase from Smithsonian Folkways. If something really peaks your interest, you’ll know where to go for more (I just ordered the complete Saints’ Paradise: Trombone Shout Bands from the United House of Prayer and can’t wait to hear it!).
Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss