Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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With God on Their Side

In The Gospel Sound, still the definitive--and damn near only--study of the subject 20 years after it first came out, Tony Heilbut called gospel "the best-kept secret of ghetto culture." And apparently nobody told, because just last month in Entertainment Weekly, Dave Marsh amplified this (unattributed) sentiment--gospel, he wrote, "remains America's best-kept musical secret." Since gospel has never achieved the crossover renown of its secular competitors blues and rhythm-and-blues, not to mention its secular descendant soul, or for that matter such African-American subgenres as boogie-woogie or zydeco, this secret business isn't totally far-fetched. But anyone who hopes to weigh in on the vast subject of African-American singing feels constrained to pay homage, so that in the end there's more pious bullshit spouted about gospel than about any popular-music style except good old rock and roll itself. A funny kind of secret--certainly not one the culturemeisters are conspiring to keep.

If anything, the culturemeisters hope to sell it--in their never-ending search for something they haven't repackaged yet, the overseers of the CD reissue boom have now passed blues and made their peace with God. True believer Heilbut has been lovingly amassing the 13 compilations and new solo albums on his Shanachie-distributed Spirit Feel label since 1987, but the rest of the action has been recent: the Billy Altman-compiled "gospel" (black) Something Got a Hold on Me and "sacred" (white) I Hear Music in the Air on RCA, five impressive Fantasy-distributed titles on Specialty, a Mahalia Jackson box and five single CDs on Columbia/Legacy, gospel blues by Blind Willie Johnson on Yazoo (not as good as Praise God I'm Satisfied) and the Reverend Gary Davis on Folkways (not as good as When I Die I'll Live Again), with MCA scheduling a Mighty Clouds of Joy comp for the fall (and maybe a Dixie Hummingbirds thereafter, if somebody up there likes them). At the same time there's been a flurry of gospel revival among black-pop culturati, from the gathering vogue for such singing Christians as Take 6 and the Winans to the ridiculously grandiose Jam & Lewis-sponsored, Sounds of Blackness-perpetrated The Evolution of Gospel.

It would be small-minded for a cultural pluralist to take exception to the renewed availability of a rich and widely neglected body of music, and I wouldn't be writing if I wasn't fascinated; I hope Savoy's storied catalogue gets snapped up soon. But I also wouldn't be writing if my responses hadn't failed to satisfy yet again--if the resistance I'd always dismissed as a personal tic hadn't taken on critical conviction. Basically, I'm a grit-and-passion man--like most white people, I know too much about the middle class to identify easily with black music's more genteel aspirations. Grit and passion are Specialty's specialty--hour-plus collections on Dorothy Love-Coates, the Swan Silvertones, the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, and the Pilgrim Travelers, plus a generous compilation featuring many other legends and one-shots. Nevertheless, I've continued to find myself strangely indifferent to this classic, seminal, authentically popular strain. I enjoy it, I admire it, and occasionally I get a kick out of it--singing Brother Joe May's "Do You Know Him" even though I've been there and backslid, or finding the Five Blind Boys' "This May Be the Last Time" more reminiscent of the old Rolling Stones hit than Jagger-Richards's copyright lawyers might wish. But up to and including the Swan Silvertones, who converted me in 1986 with Rhino's Michael Ochs-compiled, Vee-Jay-period Get Right With the Swan Silvertones, I definitely didn't love it. And then I played the Golden Gate Quartet's urbane Swing Down, Chariot and craved more.

Although Heilbut is now a passionate admirer of the Gates' less "commercial" early tracks, it's not hard to understand why he originally felt the group was "antiseptic." Though they derive the close harmonies and scat rhythms of their greatly modified jubilee style from earlier jubilee sellouts the Mills Brothers, at times their precise swing and clever effects recall Germany's Comedian Harmonists; they go over so well among the European unfaithful that they've been based in Paris since 1959. Their message too escapes the strictures of rural black Christianity--taken up by New York progressives, they backed CP blues symbol Leadbelly for RCA and were given to Biblicized propaganda like "Stalin Wasn't Stallin'" (pusillanimously omitted from the new CD) and "No Restricted Signs" ("in Heaven," that is). But I still think they're peachy--elegant, possessed by mother wit, and with their spiritual convictions in the right place, somewhere near their brains.

I remain basically unmoved by Columbia-period Mahalia Jackson--"the musical daughter of Bessie Smith . . . effectively modified into a black Kate Smith," as Heilbut wrote. But parts of the Alex Bradford-led Abyssinian Baptist Choir's 1960 Shakin' the Rafters--especially the miraculous "Said I Wasn't Gonna Tell Nobody"--motorvate like no whole-church recording I know. And though the other Columbia/Legacy prize is as uprooted as the Gates, it addresses my reality: Pops Staples may have learned guitar from Charley Patton, but the Staple Singers' Freedom Highway, compiled from their late-'60s Epic recordings, is folk-friendly and pop-ready, hooky and liberal and smoothly controlled. I even found myself enjoying The Gospel Tradition: The Roots and the Branches, jerrybuilt from Columbia's odd assortment of obscure blues, "sacred" country, and John Hammond-nurtured lefties (Josh White's quintet includes Bayard Rustin), more than Specialty's apparently unexceptionable Greatest Gospel Gems, strong on male quartet, or The Gospel Sound of Spirit Feel, long on female soloists. The reason, I think, is that it's odd. More even than heartfelt or proud or rebellious or self-made--and without question, evangelical Christianity of these descriptions has been a wellspring of what I love best about American culture, rock and roll included--I like my religion odd.

Though I'm an atheist who grew up in a born-again church in Queens, I've figured out that in some ways my religious upbringing did me good. So I don't come at gospel with lapsed bitterness, and would consider it equally simplistic to charge gospel's smattering of secular humanist (often Jewish) aficionados with indulging a naive longing for what they wouldn't want if they knew better. Musical attraction is more complicated than that. I must point out, however, that one reason a person might maintain a distance from gospel is that the words suck. I'm not qualified to weigh the positives and negatives of the cultural center Christianity's redemptive dream has provided black sufferers, and I'll vote for Calvin Butts whenever he gives me the chance. But where reggae Rastafarians, say, evoke an all-purpose universal Other, the oppressive potential of the Jesus myth is too familiar to have much power for nonbelievers, and tends to bend gospel's potentially liberating synthesis of black and King James English into escapist doggerel. What's more, it's completely legitimate to let this bother you. Although there are all kinds of ways lyrics that express suspect ideas or sentiments can make themselves felt anyway, gospel rarely manages the trick. I've yet to encounter a white non-Christian friend of the stuff, even Heilbut, who doesn't wish it would stop going on about the Lord.

Obviously, then, it's the music that captivates the smattering. Yet here, too, rarely cited limitations help keep gospel a secret. More than any other American subgenre, gospel is preeminently vocal, so much so that the subspecies of opera-lovers known as "canary fanciers" are among its most ardent outside supporters. Even if you credit claims that everything from Ray Charles's changes to the rhythm of rock and roll originated in the sanctified church, these goodies are voiced very differently in a pop context, and in pop such supposedly surface inflections are crucial. Though Sister Rosetta Tharpe is a surprising acoustic guitarist and the Dixie Hummingbirds' Howard Carroll an impressive electric one, most gospel instrumentalists keep to the back of the track, and however tricky or propulsive the rhythms, the rhythm sections and rhythm parts are rudimentary. As usual with music that's supposed to be good for you, paeans to its riches are often disguised admonitions to appreciate nuances that are more fun, and maybe more rewarding, when somebody is kind enough to put bells on them.

But I'm being too subtle myself. When a whole genre doesn't get over, the problem is just as likely gestalt as minor details like lyrics and music, and finally, I think nonbelievers are turned off by gospel's insularity, its patience, its hard-won moral certainty. Straining to explain why his From a Whisper to a Scream: The Great Voices of Popular Music, essentially a celebration of black singing since the '50s, devotes less than 10 pages to the gospel artists who supposedly made it all possible, British canary fancier Barney Hoskyns is refreshingly critical. He observes that gospel "makes the human voice . . . a pure vehicle of testament," and "veers close to equating intensity, even volume, with passion." The consequence is a "formularized, manipulative technique" that leads, Hoskyns thinks, to "a kind of anonymity about the performances." And while this may be appropriate in conduits of the divine, it's unsuitable for secular communication. The gospel singers whose struggle Tony Heilbut chronicles and struggles to mitigate talk constantly about how they have to be themselves, an understandable trope in a subculture perpetually 'buked and scorned. Yet for those of us unattuned to sectarian subtleties, their personal quirks and oddities are subsumed in communal values of rare solidarity and coherence.

Rare, and vanishing--for outsiders, in fact, an escapist fantasy. Writes Heilbut: "Any gospel singer, even the hippest, can summon up feelings of nostalgia for a simpler time when everybody believed and participated in the old-time religion." And this nostalgia for a lost community was in flower 20 years ago. Classic gospel radiates gemeinschaft in a world whose immersion in gesellschaft is proven by every second-generation star to follow Sam Cooke into the land of Mammon. For better or worse--and come on, it ain't so bad--that's the world rock and rollers live in. Heilbut dedicates his book to "all the gospel singers who didn't sell out." So I extend my fondest wishes to all those who did. They're my soul siblings.

Village Voice, Aug. 27, 1991