1/19/2006

CD Review: Gospel Music

There are many mysteries in this universe that are probably best not explained. The answers would probably be just too weird for our poor little brains to cope with. One of the biggest and strangest mysteries out there is the fascination that skinny white Jewish guys like me have with Black gospel music. What is it about that stuff that makes it strong enough to go against over 5,000 years of biological and racial memory and that just hearing the opening notes from a choir makes me want to run out and find the nearest Southern Baptist Church and throw myself into the water. Luckily for my mother's heart I live in Canada; it's January, and nobody in their right mind is going to immerse them selves in a creek in this weather. Anyway the nearest Southern Baptist is who knows how many thousands of miles away from here. I remember the first time seeing and hearing one of the old time gospel groups. The Zion Harmonisers had come up from New Orleans and were playing at the Mariposa Folk Festival one Sunday morning, when it was still out on the Toronto Islands. They just blew me away. Any art that's inspired by belief seems to have something a little extra that draws you in. From the raw power of picto-glyphs daubed on a rock face; the orchestral might of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, and the more inspired religious art of the renaissance. It's like the work transmits something of the divine. That's the feeling I get from really good gospel music. The people singing and playing are so devout that their feelings just shine right through. It's like they have no choice in the matter; they're so inspired that it pushes them to get up and sing. There used to be a stupid saying "You don't have to be Jewish to like…but it doesn't hurt" Well the same holds true for gospel; you don't have to be Christian to like it, and too be honest I can't see how anybody anywhere couldn't be moved by the pure energy and spirit demonstrated by these singers and performers. There's nothing quite like letting that elation wash over you. Sitting back in a chair (well if you can sit and listen) listening to music of that calibre is truly a religious experience, no matter what faith you profess or follow. Lee Friedlander and Joel Dorn have put together an eighteen track compilation on Hyena Records simply called Gospel Music. They have been very deliberate in their presentation of the material, and kept packaging, notes, and anything else they think that would distract from the music, to a minimum. You won't be tempted to pick up the CD case to check the booklet at any time while you're listening, because there is nothing to see. They want you to listen and get lost in the experience of the music. I have to say my initial reaction was "Where are the liner notes?" I wanted to know who these people singing were, where they were when they sang these songs if it was live, and what year it was recorded in. All the usual stuff we clutter our brains with when we're listening to music. The only liner note, is the note telling you there are no liner notes and why. From then on it's up to you to decide whether you can get out of your head long enough to let this music into your heart. If you can't than you should consider getting a chest X-ray to see if you're suffering from that problem the Grinch had with a heart two sizes too small. Even the names of some of the groups are enough for me sometimes: The Swan Silvertones, The Angelic Gospel Singers & The Dixie Hummingbirds, The Soul Stirrers, and The Consolers. In those last two you'll find all the description you're going to need about the nature of the music. There's consolation for those looking for affirmation of their belief, and for all of us, it’s the chance to have our souls stirred. Some of the greats are here: The Staple Singers and Mahalia Jackson have long been synonymous with great gospel music, and their performances are all you'd expect form them. But the real delights in discs like this one are groups you've never heard before. The Harmonizing Four's version of "Motherless Child" shows this group can live up to their name. I've always been a sucker for a great bass voice (I could listen to Paul Robeson all day) and with this song's bass lead it quickly became one of my favourite cuts. Back to back versions of the spiritual "This May Be The Last Time" (Mick and Keith sure knew where to grab some good lines and tunes) by The Staple Singers and The Original Five Blind Boys Of Alabama shows how a song changes from era to era and group to group. While the Staples play slow and soulful, The Blind Boys are all up-tempo revival style that pulls you out of your pew and gets you dancing. This isn't music to get intellectual about. It's not about anything rational or logical in either its appeal or its strength. Black gospel music is listened to with the heart and the soul. These people didn't perform for the labels or personal glory; they performed (and still perform) for the glory of what they believed in. You don't have to believe to be swept away by the maelstrom of emotion they generate. That's the beauty of genuine rapture; it comes through loud and clear no matter what the language, culture, religion or creed. Gospel Music is eighteen tracks of substantial arguments proving that point.

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