Review: Rev. Johnny L. Jones- The Hurricane that Hit Atlanta
From Sacred Harp to sacred steel, many of America’s greatest musical traditions began in the church. Houses of worship were once the center of culture in many American communities and, naturally, were also the center of music. Artists such as Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin began their careers in the fertile training ground of gospel music and later went on to superstardom in the pop music field and when, in December of 1956, four of rock and roll’s founding fathers gathered together at Sun Studios to form the “Million Dollar Quartet” they spent the majority of the legendary jam session playing traditional gospel numbers.
For a long time this country was proof that the devil doesn’t always have all of the good music, but something has happened in the past few decades that has put an end to that tradition. Blame it on horny Catholic priests or greedy televangelists. Blame it on corporate America. Either way, church membership in this country has dropped off and with that has come the decline of American gospel music.
Today’s Christian church seems to cater only to their congregation and seem to have no desire to “go into the world and preach the gospel.” They have their own books, their own television stations, their own films, and their own music, separate from the mainstream, yet still heavily influenced by the ways of the Top 40. Have you turned on your local “contemporary Christian” station lately? I have and I am here to tell you that it is nothing but manufactured corporate pop with a positive message.
But what can we do about it? Sure, the Wings Over Jordan Choir, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Rev. Gary Davis, and even Johhny Cash, are classic examples of how to do religious music the right way, but, like any other form, we fans hunger for something new every now and then. Is there anybody still making gospel music worth listening to and who we can actually support?
Thankfully the answer to that question is yes. Earlier this year I received a CD in the mail by Luther Dickinson. I knew Luther from the North Mississippi Allstars and the Black Crowes, but was nevertheless surprised at how great this album- titled Onward and Upward– really was and even more surprised at how fresh he made these acoustic takes of traditional songs found in virtually every hymnal in America sound. (The album is now nominated for a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk album, for those who care about such things.)
Then just a few weeks ago, I received another album which is as good and is further proof that great gospel is still being made. The album is The Hurricane that Hit Atlanta by Rev. Johnny L. Jones. Rev. Jones has been documenting the services at his Second Mount Olive Baptist Church since 1957 for radio broadcasts and this collection from Dust-to-Digital is the stunning result.
The two-disc, 41-track collection is gospel music at its finest, but, perhaps more importantly, it is also an excellent cultural history of the inner-city church in the U.S. during the latter part of the 20th century. Bits of sermons and radio clips permeate the collection, yet this does not detract from the record’s flow one bit because the sermons are quite musical and the songs are often seemingly improvised-on-the-spot outgrowths of the original spirituals that usually resemble sermons in some way.
One would assume that the services at Jones’ Atlanta church would be akin to those at Al Green’s church in Memphis, with the music being on a similar level. Rev. Jones combines the passion of Soul Stirrers-era Sam Cooke with the energy of James Brown and the voice of the Drifters’ Johnny Moore to create his own unique blend of gospel music. The rhythm section- usually consisting of Jones on organ, a bass player, and a drummer- melds perfectly with the church choir as the congregation adds that certain touch which can’t be found at any recording studio, but that we have all experienced at great live shows.
Of the album’s many highlights, my personal favorite was the medley of “I Got Drunk for the Lord” and “The Train is Moving On,” found on the first disc. Nearly four minutes into the seven-minute track, as the band gradually picks up the pace and the choir echoes the Reverend in the background, Jones passionately sings, “I saw a soldier as he boarded this old train/The soldier was crippled, the soldier was lame/I saw the soldier wave his conductor goodbye/As the train moved on.” It is at this moment (which is a perfect piece of music if there ever was one), when the listener realizes that Rev. Jones and his congregation has found everything Stax and Motown ever wanted: beautiful soul music in it’s purest form.
The other highlight for me comes on disc two when Jones talks to a lady who called in to his radio program and his loving and spirited personality shines through above all. The call turns into preaching as Jones declares, “this joy that I have, the world didn’t give it to me and the world can’t take it away.”
This entire set, whether you are a believer or not, is a testament to the power of American gospel music and the passion of its performers. There are no songs here condemning you to Hell, just inspiring tunes about how to make it to Heaven and survive here on Earth. Songs preaching the merits of love, hope, and peace, three Christian values that have been tossed to the wayside in this era of corporate dominance. In his 1970 epic “American Pie,” singer-songwriter Don McLean asked the question “can music save your mortal soul?” On this album, Rev. Jones and Dust-to-Digital answer with a resounding “yes.”