Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Music: Call to Worship - Two Views of Gospel Music

Canonical Gospel Music…not the politically-charged bore know as Contemporary
Christian Music

The American musical genres that run the deepest are the blues and gospel music.
Neither of these flavors of music is homogenous, rather they are both a haphazardly
assembled quilt made up of squares of subgenera. The two genera differ in that by origin, the blues being an exclusively an African-American idiom. “Gospel” music can be considered either the spiritual music of African-American churches in the 1930's or, more liberally, to both black gospel music and to the spiritual music composed and sung by white southern Christian artists.

The distinction between these two modes is not absolute, they exist as at the interface of two semi-miscible liquids, mingling with one another, trading and transforming characteristics. Both “gospel” musics derive from the Methodist hymnal (mostly the result of Charles Wesley, brother to Methodism founder John Wesley, spending too much time in pubs learning drinking songs as a basis for the melodies for many of his compositions)and the Book of Common Prayer. The true difference lies in the history of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and pre-civil rights America--black and white churches, segregated. While the interface has blurred post-World War II, the two traditions are still distinct.

The objects of this discussion illustrated the similarities and dissimilarities between the two brands of “gospel.” Joel Dorn, Lee Friedlander, and Hyena records assemble a fabulous compilation of African-American Gospel, where Marty Stuart represents well, the Caucasian, Bluegrass side of things (in spite of the fact that he plays Pops Staples Fender Telecaster and has Mavis on the record).

Various Artists
Gospel Music
Hyena Music

Inauspiciously packaged, resembling one of those knock-offs one sees in county
filling stations by the Harley-Davidson scarves and Minithins, is Gospel Music, an organically eclectic collection of the finest African-American gospel music recorded. This sampler disc serves as a grand introduction to the “Deep River.”

The cover depicts a smeared hand-written sign nailed to a home place, announcing
“Service Sunday Night Thursday Night.” The inner photograph is a black and white photo of Mahalia Jackson beneath covered stage of what could be the Newport Folk Festival, circa 1950s. Jackson is clad in a flowing white dress and she is holding a period carbon-coil microphone at an angle with her eyes closed. Anyone who has ever seen her incendiary performance on the video Jazz on a Summer's Day (New York Video, 2004) would not find it hard to imagine what the figure in the picture sounds like.

This is humid, fertile music, as rich as Mississippi Delta red dirt. The notes provide little detail regarding the discography. These songs my be broadly divided into a cappella performance, small group performance with instrumentation, and solo performance with and without mass choir and instrumentation. The stylist differences are themselves a rich loam of aesthetic and spiritual creation. The a cappella perfomances include the superb songs by The Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet (“Go Where I Send Thee”), The Harmonizing Four (“Motherless Child”), and The Trumpeteers (“Where Shall I Go”). This music is Fifth Century plainchant strained through the cloth of oppression and heat.

Small group performances with instrumentation examples are lead by the Staples
Singers (“Stand by Me” and “This May Be The Last Time”). Pops Staples’ Fender Telecaster is the glue holding the assembly together. The Swan Silvertones are smooth and melodious (“Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep” and “Trouble in My Way). Highlights of solo performances, with and without mass choir and instrumentation, include Dorothy Love Coates (“The Stranger”) and the Reverend James Cleveland (“Get Right Church” and the stunning “He Decided to Die” ). The true show-stoppers are The Soul Stirrers' “The Last Mile of the Way” and Mahalia Jackson's “My God is Real," the latter sung with an intensely soft conviction. This is music of spiritual abandon, in the vernacular, the Holy Spirit moving the performers.

Gospel Music is the perfect introduction to what the Reverend Dr. Martin
Luther King, Jr. referred to in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech: “that old Negro
spiritual.” Experts and novices alike will find a wealth of treasure in this disc, regardless of spiritual inclination.

Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives
Souls’ Chapel


In Defense of Marty Stuart

Like many “country music” artists, Marty Stuart is recalled for his 1989 to 1996 stint as a leading country “hair act” (along with Travis Tritt and as opposed to a “hat act” like Garth Brooks) and not for the deep well of talent and experience he has. This is the same phenomenon that swallowed Glenn Campbell, Jerry Reed and Roy Clark, all studio musicians who exist today in parody.

That said Marty Stuart, is an astute, historically minded neo-traditionalists not unlike Randy Skaggs. Marty Stuart is musically omnivorous, effortlessly passing
relating in the country genres of honky tonk, rockabilly, country-rock, traditional country, and bluegrass. Stuart was born in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1958. Geographically, Philadelphia is just up a country road from Meridian, the childhood home of one James Charles (Jimmie) Rodgers (1897-1933)--the father of country music. It would be no wonder that the young Stuart was surrounded and saturated with country music, particularly of the traditional type. Stuart learned to play guitar and mandolin, and by age twelve he was performing with the bluegrass group the Sullivans. That led to a stint with the Lester Flatt band, where Stuart got his real musical education.

Next came Stuart’s popular country breakout in 1989 and lasted until the artist began to turn his attention to other interests. Stuart collected a comprehensive collection of country music memorabilia and in 1996 was elected to his first term as president of the Country Music Foundation (which oversees the Country Music Hall of Fame) Stuart is considered an astute historian of country music in the same manner that jazz artist James Carter is an historian the saxophone. He remained president of the Country Music Foundation through 2002.

Stuart returned to recording in 1999 with The Pilgrim, steeped in the traditional country tradition, the disc still possessed a strong progressive element. This disc was critically well received, but met with little commercial success. Changing record companies, Stuart signed with Sony's Nashville division and released his label debut, simply titled Country Music, in the summer of 2003, followed by Souls' Chapel.

Souls' Chapel exists at the interface of the two semi-miscible liquids, black and white gospel. Stuart chooses to arrange the vocal harmony in the traditional bluegrass way with the melody sung straight and the harmonies a third and fifth above the melody. This is readily apparent on the opening piece, Pops Staples' “Somebody Saved Me.” He arpeggiates a guitar chord to set the key and the singers take off. The guitar he is playing is the late Pops Staples’ Fender Telecaster, given to him by Sister Mavis Staples. Stuart and his band divine the blues from the song without disrespecting the piece.

Stuart’s smart guitar playing infuses Albert Brumley's "Lord, Give Me Just a Little More Time" with echoes "Baby Please Don't Go." The Stuart original "Come into the House of the Lord" is a gospel juggernaut sporting a funky B3, two guitars and sharp percussion. The highlight is "Move Along Train," written by Pops Staples, which includes a white-hot appearance by Mavis Staples. Stev Cropper and William Bell's "Slow Train" is a soul on soul propelled by Barry Beckett's Hammond B3 and sounding right out of Memphis, Tennessee via Muscles Shoals, Alabama. Stuart withstands the canonic gospel material; composes freely in situ, and delivers his finest hour. The closing “Souls Chapel” is appropriately a blues instrumental, revealing that Marty Stuart is much, much more than
a popular country hair act.

Tracks and Personnel

Gospel Music

Tracks: Precious Lord - Slim & The Supreme Angels; Go Where I Send Thee - Golden
Gate Jubilee Quartet; Oh Mary, Don't You Weep - The Swan Silvertones; Strange Man -
Dorothy Love Coates; Last Mile Of The Way, The - Sam Cooke & The Soul Stirrers;
Motherless Child - The Harmonizing Four; What He Done For Me - The Violinaires; Waiting For My Child - The Consolers; Where Shall I Go - The Trumpeteers; Stand By Me - The Staple Singers; This May Be The Last Time - Original Five Blind Boys Of Alabama; Trouble In My Way - The Swan Silvertones; Get Right Church - Rev. James Cleveland; My God Is Real - Mahalia Jackson; One Day - Angelic Gospel Singers/The Dixie Hummingbirds; By The Power Of God - Tony Ramey & The Soul Searchers He Decided To Die - Rev. James Cleveland.

Souls’ Chapel

Tracks: Somebody Saved Me; Lord, Give Me Just A Little More Time; Way Down; Come
Into The House Of The Lord; The Gospel Story Of Noah's Ark; I Can't Even Walk (Without You Holding My Hand); It's Time To Go Home; The Unseen Hand; There's A Rainbow (At The End Of Every Storm); Slow Train; Move Along Train - (with Mavis Staples); Souls' Chapel.

Personnel: Kenny Vaughan, Marty Stuart: vocals, guitar; Brian Glenn: vocals, bass
guitar; Harry Stinson: vocals; Barry Beckett: Hammond b-3 organ; Glenn Worf: bass guitar; Paul Griffith, Chad Cromwell: drums.

© Copyright, C. Michael Bailey, 2006