2. Norman Blake, “Spanish Fandango”
3. Brother Willie Eason & His Gospel Guitar, “I Want To Live (So God Can Use Me)”
4. Fred McDowell, “Amazing Graze” [At first I didn’t like it and was going to skip to the next candidate, but then it suddenly turned hypnotic. This is not your mama’s “Amazing Grace” and it ain’t Joan Baez’s either. He and accompanying singers give the same treatment to “This Little Light of Mine.” Another cliché of Christian and “spiritual” music.]
5. Ralph Stanley, “Go Down Moses”
6. The Missionary Quartet, “Dry Bones: Ezekiel Saw The Wheel” [This is what most people think of as “Black Gospel.” If you don’t recognize the title, you will certainly recognize bits and pieces.]
7. Johnny Cash, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” [Sister Rosetta Tharpe gives a slower bluesy interpretation that probably predates Johnny Cash’s. She is an interesting figure in the history of blues and rock and roll. She would often perform in blues venues (a strict no-no for the religious of either gender. For a long time there was God’s music and there was the devil’s music. The guitar (the quintessential blues instrument) was regarded as a tool of Satan by the more pious. The guitar is often absent in earlier recordings of African-American religious music. She included religious songs in her performances. She believed this was part of witnessing to those with little exposure to the Gospel.]
8. Bill Monroe & The Bluegrass Boys, “What Would You Give In Exchange For Your Soul?”
9. Laura Rivers, “That's Alright (Since My Soul Has Got A Deal Up In The Kingdom)” [A hypnotic acappella performance.]
10. Precious Bryant, “When the Saints Go Marching In” [This is not the clichéd version everyone knows.]
* * *
Why so much gospel this week? For one, most secular listeners avoid religious themed music of all kinds excluding completely on principle. I think this is a mistake. When godly music is avoided in the same as ungodly music is avoided by Christians., the Christians win. It’s the same pattern, just inverted.. A much more unchristian attitude is to pick through the rubble for hidden valuables, picking and choosing according to non-christian criteria. Investigate. Appropriate. Assimilate. Good music is good music, regardless of genre.
Speaking of genres in music, the notion of genres in the recording industry started out as a marketing strategy. Before that there was hi-brow (= culturally important, even morally important) and low-brow music (bawdy songs, drinking songs, folk songs, etc) At the beginning in the Jim Crow era there was music for whites [hillbilly – rebaptized as country – and music for other Whites] and the Coloreds. African-Africans were thought to want their own music, hence the phenomenona of Race Records and Race Charts. From reading liner notes, Jimmie Rodgers (the yodeling brakeman) was popular among Black and Whites. This is hardly surprising given the way that musicians (the good ones, anyway) hear and recognize good music. If it’s a good song, they’ll want to work up their own version of it. Back at the beginning when making records was an interesting source of some extra cash, musicians made their bread and butter by performing at dances, house parties, street corners, anywhere they could get paid for making music. Everyone was on the lookout for something popular. Whether it was a “Colored” song or a “White” song really was unimportant. What was important was finding something people wanted to hear which would result in more gigs and more money. The Barrier between Races has probably been its most porous in music. Good Music is Good Music.
Genres are a useful marketing strategy for consumers: the purchaser has some idea of what the music will sound like. The downside of this is ghettos. People often become locked into listening to one genre, ignoring everything else. Lazy conformity is mostly to blame: one doesn’t want to stand out too much from friends, family and acquaintances. Have you noticed that being a fan of particular genres brings with it lifestyle expectations: attitudes toward drugs (reggae anyone?), clothing (punk and the various sub-genres of Metal no one can keep track of?), politics less so. There are lifestyles associated with different genres. You get the idea. I think time is also a consideration. There so incredibly much really good music readily available, more than at any time in human history. When the much greater mass of mediocre and awful music is included, hardly anyone has time to search outside their one or two preferred genres for good music (however you want to define it) in unfamiliar genres. It can be difficult and expensive to explore a new genre only to discover that you “don’t get it.” Just look at my trouble with Jazz. If I couldn’t borrow discs from the library, I’d leave it alone. Besides listening to too much of the same kind of music for too long spoils your ability to listen to other kinds of music.
Part of the division of music into genres is a wasteland between genres that reinforces conformity and standardization for the sake of marketing budgets. Music between genres is notoriously difficult to market. It’s not quite like anything else. Standardization of music into marketable genres leads to the periodic discovery of niche styles and forms of music. The last big one was the discovery of hip-hop and before that grunge. I suspect that the desire for new music is a half-conscious desire to stumble upon the next big thing before everyone else finds out about it, when it is still fresh and not made palatable to the widest possible audience because of pressure from marketing budgets. No one has written a song praising the big labels, but there have been plenty spewing venom and disgust. It’s a major theme in Frank Zappa’s music. Recording executives are always presented as soulless parasites. See also Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Working For MCA.” There are certainly others, but I don’t know them. Unfortunately the majority of music listeners cling to the illusion of success that has been promulgated by the big labels, and most musicians under contract cannot afford to piss off their labels with cheap stunts.