Fire In Their Bones
It turns out that, as a species, we have evolved to see and hear God. Biologists and anthropologists have concluded that the presence of a deity, whether on the hunter/gatherers’ dance floor or in the Good Book, provides a protective layer of fellow-feeling. We may be adapted to hear the word, brothers and sisters, but that doesn’t mean we’re wired to sing out of the same hymnal.
Case in point: Fire in My Bones: Raw, Rare & Otherworldly African-American Gospel, 1944-2007, the remarkable recent release on Tompkins Square. The three discs in the set present 80 individual, personal expressions of the spirit ranging from the eccentric to the ecstatic.
(Tompkins Square must be moved by the spirit: they’re also releasing Face a Frowning World, a memorial tribute to Virginia gospel songwriter and singer E.C Ball, produced by Nathan Salsburg, on December 8.)
Evangelical churches by definition exist to spread the gospel, or literally the good news. Those heavenly headlines can be delivered, as with the sermons I heard as a boy, by sweetly cajoling, inspiring, pleading — or by delivering imprecations full of accusations, threats and warnings. It’s all there in Fire in My Bones, expressed in every musical mode from full-choir to country to electric blues to stomping rock and roll (including and perhaps especially in an anti-rock sermon delivered by Elder Beck in 1956). Producer Mike McGonigal, a former rock journalist, plumbed his own collection and those of collectors such as WFMU’s Kevin Nutt (host of Sinner’s Crossroads), and in every case pulled out a musically and emotionally unvarnished plea for your soul. Mike McGonigal will be DJ’ing rare gospel at the Ace Hotel on November 19.
Three selections from the collection’s first disc illustrate the range of styles. “How Long,” (1948) is a “sanctified blues” from itinerant evangelical singer Sister O.M. Terrell, a raw take on the direction set by Sister Rosetta Tharpe. “Don’t Let Him Ride” (1971) showcases the Mississippi Nightingales in a swinging, soulful light. Henry Green’s “Storm Thru Mississippi” (1951) delivers the local news with a blues shuffle, relating the tale of a devastating flood in Tupelo in best Old Testament style.
The range of musical styles in Fire in My Bones reflects a crucial period in gospel music (and music in general). The “jubilee” style of formal, close-harmony quartets dominated recordings and performance from the formation of quartets at Fisk University and other black colleges in the last decades of the 19th century. In the 1920s and ’30s, more insistent beats from rural blues and jazz began to find its way into African American church revival meetings, particularly in the Holiness/Pentacostalist congregations, igniting a tension in gospel between the sacred and profane that exists to this day.
From Chicago’s Pilgrim Baptist Church, Professor Thomas Dorsey codified the musical hybrid that popularized what we now think of as “gospel.” He held singers’ conventions, festivals and even resorted to selling his compositions on street corners with a demonstration quartet. Not that it was a welcome development in the view of many who were trying to leave behind rural field hollers and spirituals, and were suspicious of the infectious rhythms. “I’ve been thrown out the best churches,” Dorsey remarked many years later.
Dorsey’s music made Mahalia Jackson a recording star by the 1930s, and illuminated a path that led to the Dixie Hummingbirds and “hard gospel,” on to the Swan Silvertones (featuring some of the Hummingbirds), and the crossover sound of the Soul Stirrers. Sister Rosetta Tharpe worked the other side of the street, sanctifying the blues and fronting jazz bands in late ’30s ballrooms and records, shocking the church audience but selling out concerts through the 1950s. Gospel in the form of smooth quartets, mass choirs, and records by Jackson, Elvis, Nat King Cole and other country, R&B and pop stars remained big sellers on record and seen on tv variety programs through the period covered by the set.
But Fire in My Bones is not that. It is an intriguing, surprising introduction to unfamiliar, authentic voices that grabs you by the lapel and gives you the good news.
For sample tracks and video, go to Smoke Music.