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The Gospel According to Gospel

July 2, 2010 | by

It won't be news to aficionados, but this spring the gospel historian and producer Anthony Heilbut released a new compilation, How Sweet It Was: The Sights and Sounds of Gospel's Golden Age. A copy arrived last week at White Street. The CD contains some knockout live performances: Brother Joe May, Mahalia Jackson at her best, Dorothy Love Coates "groaning and even barking" onstage with the Swan Silvertones.

But it's the companion DVD that I can't get out of my head. It contains twenty-seven kinescope clips from the early sixties, most from a half-hour syndicated program called TV Gospel Time, nearly all of them rare and hard to find. Plug in your earphones, close your door—do what you need to do—and brace yourself for the download. You just can't watch Marion Williams sing "It Is Well With My Soul" without laughing and crying. At least I can't, and I've seen it a dozen times. Ditto J. Robert Bradley's "Amazing Grace." Mahalia Jackson once said, "Nobody need mess with 'Amazing Grace' once Bradley gets through with it." This performance bears her out. As Heilbut writes in his liner notes:

You'll hear a few members of the choir, and Rosetta Tharpe herself, hollering out as he sings. This was not the usual practice on TV Gospel Time, where songs rarely lasted long enough to get people happy. But Bradley could move the coldest church.

In its classic form, gospel was music designed to kill—to slay the congregation in spirit, moving them not just to laughter, tears, and hollers, but to screams and even seizures. The first woman who started shrieking was known, in the parlance of the gospel quartets, as "Sister Flute." Big churches had volunteers in nurses' uniforms to tend to the stricken.

Later these forces were unleashed on white teenagers, to memorable effect. Little Richard, Sam Cooke, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Marvin Gaye, Al Green—two whole generations of soul singers got their start and their sound in church. You know what they can do. And you know the idioms too: You set me free. You set my soul on fire. Have mercy. Help me now. I need you early in the morning/in the midnight hour/in the evening/to hold my hand. Not to mention that rock and roll standby: I feel all right.

But—at the risk of a) sounding like a Christian or b) stating the obvious—in gospel those words make a kind of sense they will never make in secular music. In gospel a grownup can perform them and mean them right down to the ground. The lyrics may not be much in themselves: as Heilbut writes, "the music's success depended more on its singers than its songs." But for all the group participation in gospel, for all its expression of communal feeling (and political protest), these songs deal very deeply with loneliness, abandonment, and death. They ask more of God than we can ask of one another. The very idea of "needing" the one you love may predate the gospel explosion, but it is a gospel idea.

After Williams and Bradley, my favorite performance on the DVD is Madam Emily Bram singing the old standard "I Want Jesus to Walk With Me." The demure-looking Madam Bram introduces the Sensational Nightingales with a sweet smile like Eleanor Roosevelt's. But when it's her turn to sing, the face goes slack with power. "You went walking with Moses down in the land of Egypt, walked with Adam in the Garden of Eden, walked with the children when they crossed the Red Sea—come on, Jesus, take a walk with me." This "hard" gospel is fiercer than mere sexual longing, sadder than the blues, it calls God Himself to account. Last night I dreamt that we were trying to publish Madam Bram's performance as a poem in The Paris Review. Thanks to Heilbut, and the good people at Shanachie Records, you can get it right off your computer.



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  1. Steven Augustine | July 3, 2010 at 10:39 am

    Christ I find Gospel depressing; its ironies too corrosive and its “uplift” truly redeemable only by its upper-class fans. Can you imagine the Ashkenazim singing paeans to Odin?

  2. Lorin Stein | July 3, 2010 at 2:02 pm

    Hmmm, I think you lost me with those idolatrous Ashkenazim.

  3. Steven Augustine | July 3, 2010 at 2:33 pm

    Descendants of slaves singing passionately to the deity introduced to/ foisted upon them by their owners (as a control mechanism) vs descendants of victims of the Holocaust singing praises to the deity of a creation myth connected to Nazis…? There’s an equation to be found there.

    Having worked in a funeral home (as a teen) which served a Black Community, I can’t tell you how many calendars, featuring the Aryan Surfer Jesus, I found nailed (this time casually) over the deathbeds of the loved-ones. And I could swear the Dude was sneering…

  4. pudel | July 3, 2010 at 2:43 pm

    Um, well actually the much-loved Passover song, “Chad Gadya”

    (Then came the Holy One
    Blessed be G-d
    And destroyed the Angel of Death
    That killed the butcher
    That slew the ox
    That drank the water
    That quenched the fire..)

    is widely believed to have been borrowed from the medieval German folk song “Der Herr der schickt den Jokel aus”

    (Da geht der Herr nun selbst hinaus
    Und macht gar bald ein Ende draus.
    Der Teufel holt den Henker nun,
    der Henker hängt den Schlächter nun..)

    so it’s not *too* hard to imagine, on either the Odin or the Nazis.

  5. Steven Augustine | July 3, 2010 at 2:51 pm

    Ehrlicht gesagt: not a perfect analogy. Jews singing to a God who descended directly from their tradition doesn’t generate a cog dis; neither do Jews borrowing German cultural bits (in that there were quite a few Germany-based Jews, even during the Middle Ages; in fact, you know, of course, that Jews predate Germans in Cologne!)

  6. Steven Augustine | July 3, 2010 at 2:52 pm

    (erratum: ehrlich; my wife will chuckle)

  7. Steven Augustine | July 3, 2010 at 3:08 pm

    Or, if you will: imagine a Navajo choir singing Gospel. No cringes to be had there?

    I think we’re so deeply-branded with the comforting meme of the rapturously Christian Negro that it’s difficult to deconstruct. But just a little unwrapping reveals some serious food for thought. Whites, having created God in their own image, have the luxury of not thinking too much about the effects on the psyche of internalizing the notion that your oppressor is related to the Owner and Creator of the Universe! Laugh. (However, if you think this is *only* funny, try floating the concept of an Afro-imaged Jesus or Holy Father on a Yahoo News Comment Thread).

    I ask only that we ponder the contradictions, my friends.

  8. ursula birdwood | July 3, 2010 at 3:17 pm

    Having seen How Sweet It Was, I agree with Lorin entirely. But I’d add: watch the choir and the backup singers. Their faces, their expressions (not to mention their harmony), are extraordinary…

  9. Steven Augustine | July 3, 2010 at 3:20 pm

    Extraordinarily duped/brainwashed.

  10. Lorin Stein | July 3, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    The history of Christianity and slavery is super-complicated. To those who are interested I recommend Albert J. Raboteau’s 1978 classic Slave Religion: The Invisible Institution. As Raboteau shows, slave religion cut many ways. It was just as often a force for dissent as it was for white control. This is reflected in slave spirituals. Many of the oldest draw their tropes entirely from Old Testament promises of justice and vengeance. (One school of thought regrets the “Christianization” of the black church, which it treats as a relatively recent development.)

    Leaving aside the origins of African-American religious music, I think it would be hard to argue that the black church in the years 1945-65 was an instrument of white mind control. These “dupes” were, many of them, leaders in the Civil Rights movement, and if you listen to the music, I think you find it hard to disentangle the politics from the faith.

  11. Steven Augustine | July 3, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    “I think it would be hard to argue that the black church in the years 1945-65 was an instrument of white mind control.”

    You perhaps aren’t aware of the internalized self-hatred that many Blacks (yes, even participants in the Civil Rights Movement) suffer from as a result of the Cosmic Brainwashing we’re discussing. Being unaware of it is one thing; are you also uninterested as a matter of *policy*? You can’t be; I won’t let myself believe that.

    “These ‘dupes’ were, many of them, leaders in the Civil Rights movement, and if you listen to the music, I think you find it hard to disentangle the politics from the faith.”

    And it all turned out so well, in the end, too. Snark aside: what’s your reading on the current state of Blacks in North America? I think things are in a state of emergency. Things are not changing for the better on *any* front. I wouldn’t place the weight of the blame on Chronic Liberal Resistance to being questioned/challenged on these things, but…

    *Your* investment in the argument is grounded in a pleasure that isn’t even a big part of your daily life; my side of the argument is driven by a lifetime of thought and experience. Not curious enough about these thought and experiences to even *consider* unpacking the cited contradictions?

    As for this: “One school of thought regrets the “Christianization” of the black church, which it treats as a relatively recent development,”… I find it striking what “Christianization” is being used as a euphemism for.

    Where are the Public Black Intellectuals on this matter? The professionals are worried about tenure and parrot the comfiest normative tropes.

    Anyway: I express this with zero piss-offedness!



  12. pudel | July 3, 2010 at 4:40 pm

    An interesting/opposite take from James C. Scott’s *Domination and the Arts of Resistance: hidden transcripts*:

    “Slaves in Georgetown, South Carolina, apparently crossed that linguistic boundary [of permissible euphemism]when they were arrested for singing the following hymn at the beginning of the Civil War:

    [I’m excerpting..]

    …We’ll soon be free
    When Jesus sets me free
    We’ll fight for liberty
    When the Lord will call us home.

    Slave owners took the references to ‘the Lord’ and ‘Jesus’ and ‘home’ to be too thinly veiled references to the Yankees and the North. Had their gospel hymn not been found seditious the slave worshippers would have had the satisfaction of having gotten away with an oblique cry of freedom in the public transcript.”

  13. Steven Augustine | July 3, 2010 at 4:54 pm

    Rather a minor mitigation, though, wouldn’t you say?

    I’m hoping someone will address the core of my argument:

    “Whites, having created God in their own image, have the luxury of not thinking too much about the effects on the psyche of internalizing the notion that your oppressor is related to the Owner and Creator of the Universe! Laugh. (However, if you think this is *only* funny, try floating the concept of an Afro-imaged Jesus or Holy Father on a Yahoo News Comment Thread).”

    I know why *Whites* aren’t much bothered by the tacit culture-wide acceptance of a Euranthropomorphic God (wink), but, erm, nothing there worthy of scrutiny…?

  14. pudel | July 3, 2010 at 4:56 pm

    And aren’t we basically rehashing the old internalizing vs. appropriating debate? All instinct leads me to agree with you, SA, but all experience leads me to the constructivist line, that things are real insofar as they’re real in their consequences, that regardless of *how* you come to believe it, *what* you believe will set you free probably will. Which seems evident watching the rapturous expressions on gospel singers’ faces.

  15. Steven Augustine | July 3, 2010 at 5:03 pm

    Pudel! First: thanks very much for engaging!


    “Which seems evident watching the rapturous expressions on gospel singers’ faces.”

    Goodness, what’s a rapturous facial expression (during a *performance*… rock singers do it all the time; are we arguing that Blacks are too simple/pure to behave like *performers*… to use Artifice?) compared to a lifetime of being wretched by most (if not all) Real Metrics?

  16. Steven Augustine | July 3, 2010 at 6:04 pm

  17. pudel | July 3, 2010 at 6:49 pm

    SA! You too! (And thanks on the link.)

    I guess the main thing for me, and the reason it’s hard for me to think of The Oppressor God in Black and White terms, is that I feel the way you do about all God-related topics. I realize this is a ridiculously banal and undergraduate-sounding thing to say, but I do feel that all religion is the belief that your “oppressor is related to the Owner and Creator of the Universe”. Which is why I like the Old Testament or the Greco-Romans on this, to at least be up front about the fact that your deity is a thug. But assuming all of this is just myth used as instruction for how to live, the only version I find compelling is Coetzee’s in his Eros chapter in Elizabeth Costello, where, rather than be our saviors, the gods are like vampires, sick of eternity and sick of apathy, and jealous of us as a result: “In marking us down for death, the gods gave us an edge over them.” This has now gone *really* undergrad, but I feel like that’s what we’re really talking about when we’re talking about religion. And all the rest are just variants of God-as-oppressor.

  18. Steven Augustine | July 3, 2010 at 7:22 pm

    Pudel old chum!

    I’m the last one to believe in a Bearded, Vaguely-Levantine, Anus-Free Sky Giant… we share that sensibility.

  19. Lorin Stein | July 4, 2010 at 2:58 pm

    Sorry to have let the thread drop. I didn’t mean to seem uninterested–on the contrary! It’s just that I generally spend the weekends off-line.

    This weekend in particular, Steven, I’ve been thinking about your Aryan Surfer Jesus. I realize that you’re quite right–when I listen to the sermons of C.L. Franklin, for example, or to Sam Cooke singing his tweaked version of “Were You There,” or to Ruth Davis singing “When He Spoke” (etc., etc.) I’ve taken it for granted that the Christ under discussion was not, in any sense, a “white” man. (Ditto the Moses and Job of the spirituals.) You’ve made me very curious to read a history of pictorial representations of Jesus in the black church.

    Thanks to all for these comments.

  20. Steven Augustine | July 4, 2010 at 5:11 pm

    Lorin: I appreciate your comment and the genuine curiosity motivating it!

    My only interest in pursuing these kinds of arguments to some Nth-point, beyond the standard, is to shake things up a little. Not, certainly, for shaking-up’s own sake. And I’m not here to rehash a familiar case from the annals of American Victimology… my points/theories/arguments rile as many Blacks as non-Blacks… but it’s clear to me that the standard approaches to “racial healing” (PC euphemisms/ Oprah-catharsis/ summer jobs at the inner-city McDonalds) haven’t even come *close* to working. You may not remember that hallucinogenic interval, before Obama’s inauguration, when Liberals were arguing that his election meant the end of racism, but I do! Laugh. On no other topic do I find people (of all colors, as the cliche goes) *so* impregnably resistant to critical-analysis of their presets.

    It’s my theory that, for structural reasons, a “Black” is more of a cultural artifact (or product) than an ethnic or cultural category of human. Ie: the concept hasn’t moved that far on from the antebellum, which presented Black (Wo)Man to her/himself as a commodity or tool. The product is a little more abstract now (in the Information Age we’re holograms; cf: THX 1138) but Black is still a product… and humans don’t do very well as products. Humans who aren’t treated as humans go nuts; ditto humans who don’t treat other humans as humans. (Apply this to “Woman”, as a product, as well, of course)

    To address your question: there have been definite local movements (esp. during the 60s and 70s, but some probably pre-dated Marcus Garvey) to standardize an Afro-imaged Christ for Black contemplation/consumption, but these were almost always not organic but self-consciously “militant” projects and ended up being cosmetic overlays (like the Black Santa movement; if the culture-at-large doesn’t buy it, it’s very hard to make it stick).

    One point I’ll leave you with: I’m sure we all know quite a few Atheists (I’m an Agnostic, myself: zero proof that the Universe *isn’t* mounted on an Ur-turtle’s back). But even Atheism is not pure; it’s ethnocentric, as I’ve discovered, because as Atheists reject the concept of the Christian God, they consider the Pantheon of Greek Gods (for example) to be so quaint that it isn’t even worth a serious debate. The Hindu Pantheon even worse (though pleasantly colorful); Voodoo the most “primitive”. I’ve never heard an intellectual Atheist bother to seriously refute (as they do with the pseudo-monotheistic Holy Trinity) the probability of the existence of Baron Samedi. But shouldn’t all three superstitions be assigned an absolutely equal value of un-dis-provability? This discrepancy is brainwashing at its subtlest.

    I was always taught that Monotheism represented an evolutionary advance in Religious Belief. Just a few moments of critical analysis reveals that hegemonic propaganda nugget for the bullshit it is.

    I think we’re *full* of these hegemonic propaganda nuggets. My interest is in cracking these nuggets open! Any nugget that it *hurts* to crack open should be a target. Isn’t that what intellectuals should do with their leisure time?

    Again: I salute the spirit behind your respectful attention.


  21. Wayne Trujillo | July 14, 2010 at 11:30 pm

    Great review/post. Not only is it well-written and informative, but extremely entertaining. I love the descriptions of both the artists and the music in general. This review is somewhat like gospel music, itself — witty, descriptive, expressive, emotional and engaging.

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