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.