A few years ago, Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams opened their set with their version of the old gospel song “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning.” The moment started quietly enough, with Campbell’s chicken-picked guitar in his slow blues slide through an instrumental intro before Williams’ soaring vocals carry the song higher and higher, transporting the audience to a new plane of existence. The song has a simple call and response musical structure, with a minimum of four verses and a chorus. With their version, Campbell and Williams deliver a powerful anointing. Williams’ soulful shouting carries the tune. She preaches and testifies in her singing, propelled by Campbell’s driving electric blues guitar. The climax of the song comes in the final line – “for this old world is almost done” – as Williams holds “almost” for two bars before sliding down into the final word, “done.” In the performance of “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning,” the duo elevated the audience, leaving them breathless, and transforming an ordinary moment into a moment that transcended time and place.
Music touches people’s hearts in deep and enduring ways that words often fail to do. When people hear a certain song, or songs, they recall powerfully the feelings they connect with certain events they associate with first hearing that song. Music helps people live through desperate situations, provides soothing comfort in times of loss, evokes sweet memories of certain relationships, connects individuals to one another in a kind of musical community (we’re “one in the spirit” when we sing certain songs congregationally, but we’re also part of one another when we hear a certain song that recalls a particular time and place in our lives), evokes powerful stirrings of hope, faith, and love, and carries us to places beyond ourselves where we connect with others and with God.
Spirituals and gospel hymns are especially powerful evocations of faith, hope, and love. The very music itself, while often familiar to its hearers, transcends the anxieties and plodding uncertainties of daily life. These songs acknowledge the hopelessness and the despair of everyday life while at the same time lifting us out of ourselves to another plane. Spirituals are born out of the field shouts and hollers of slaves in the American South and are characterized by a repetitious call and refrain that offers the singers — for spirituals are songs that we should be singing and not just hearing — a way to identify with the pain of others, as well as a way to fly away above it. Spirituals and gospel music develop first in the black church and then evolve in white Southern churches in forms referred to as country gospel and bluegrass gospel, each of which has its own particular style. No matter the style, the music has despair, salvation, love, hope, and transcendence at its core.
As I write this week’s column, I am also finishing up a book on gospel music called 15 Spirituals That Will Change Your Life (Paraclete). The book is not a history of the development of spirituals and gospel music; instead, it focuses on 15 gospel songs that are powerfully transformative. In many cases the music itself evokes emotions in our souls that transfigure us. In other cases, the lyrics wend their way into our ears and minds, often causing us to question our religious faith or to affirm it. In still other cases, of course, the combination of the words and the music give the songs their enduring quality. For example, how many times have we heard bands or artists close a show with “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”? Although the original — not the Carter Family version with which we are so familiar — presents an idealized vision of a “better world” in the sky, the one we sing along with so often is a tale of death, mourning, grief, and loneliness. It’s only in the final verse that any kind of hope appears in the song, and that hope comes through music, through singing familiar songs: “We sang the songs of childhood / Hymns of faith that made us strong / Ones that mother Maybelle taught us / Hear the angels sing along.” It’s a tribute to the power of this song, and music in general, that you’re more likely to hear this song at a concert, in a bar, than in a church; it’s a song that’s very seldom sung in religious settings these days, but it’s hard to get away from a festival where a band sings it and festivalgoers sway as they’re holding hands, more focused on the reaffirmation of the community the song celebrates than the death that is at its center.
As a musician, I’ve spent many years playing many of the songs that I discuss 15 Spirituals That Will Change Your Life. Some of them I’ve played in prisons in Florida, some of them I’ve played when I was in a Jesus band, some of them I’ve played in churches, and some of them I’ve played in clubs. I am not writing this book as a proselytizer of any particular faith tradition; my purpose is to introduce readers to the transformative power of this music and to introduce them to the deep history of gospel music in our culture. Many discussions of roots music tend to leave gospel out of the discussion, forgetting that the spirituals and the blues are so intertwined and their influence so far-reaching that much rock music or jazz wouldn’t have its moving character without the musical structure of gospel music. We need name only Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke as two examples of that deep influence, but gospel singer Mahalia Jackson was often banned from singing in churches because she twisted her hips and had a band with drums and a bass guitar. B.B. King started his career playing with the Famous St. John’s Gospel Singers. In 15 Spirituals That Will Change Your Life I analyze the 15 songs and offer some reflection on the ways that they can transform our lives — whether we are religious or not.
Here is a short list of books that I have found very helpful in my own work that provide a good starting point for learning more about the history and enduring legacy of gospel music.
Bill Carpenter, Uncloudy Days: The Gospel Music Encyclopedia (Backbeat Books).
Aaron Cohen, Amazing Grace (Continuum).
James Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation (Seabury Press).
Don Cusic, Saved by Song: A History of Gospel and Christian Music (Mississippi).
Robert Darden, Nothing but Love in God’s Water: Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement: volumes 1 and 2 (Penn State).
Robert Darden, People Get Ready! A New History of Gospel Music (Continuum).
Anthony Heilbut, The Fan Who Knew Too Much (Knopf).
Anthony Heilbut, The Gospel Sound. 4thed. (Limelight Editions).
Douglas Harrison, Then Sings My Soul: The Culture of Southern Gospel Music (Illinois).
Jerma A. Jackson, Singing in My Soul: Black Gospel Music in a Secular Age (North Carolina).
Mahalia Jackson, with Evan McLeod Whyte, Movin’ On Up (Villard).
Robert M. Marovich, A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music (Illinois).
Alan Young, Woke Me Up This Morning: Black Gospel Singers and the Gospel Life (Mississippi). Jerry Zolten, Great God A’Mighty! The Dixie Hummingbirds: Celebrating the Rise of Soul Gospel Music (Oxford).
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