THE READING ROOM: How Gospel Moves through Roots Music
In the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss deliver a sprightly bluegrass version of “I’ll Fly Away,” the transcendent vocals of the pair riding on a wave of cascading banjo. Many filmgoers were likely already familiar with the gospel hymn, either from singing it in church, hearing duos or quartets singing it at gospel sings in municipal auditoriums, or maybe hearing a group, or a single artist backed by a group, deliver it to the gathered throng at a bluegrass festival. When Albert Brumley wrote the song in 1929, he never could have guessed that it would be as widely recorded or as popular as it has been; after all, in its earliest incarnation it wasn’t a gospel song.
Brumley loved writing songs, and hoped to make a living one day doing just that, but before he arrived at that point, he was picking cotton on his father’s farm in Oklahoma. One day he was out in the fields, picking cotton in the hot sun, and he looked up in the sky and thought how much he’d like to fly away from his work. At the same time, he started singing the words to “The Prisoner’s Song (If I Had the Wings of an Angel),” in which a prisoner longs to fly over the prison walls that closed around him. Thinking of his work as a prison, Brumley longs to fly away. Brumley didn’t write “I’ll Fly Away” until a few years later, but it became one of the most recorded gospel songs of all time, and his song — as well as Welch’s and Krauss’ versions of it — illustrates the deep ways that gospel music is rooted in the American music landscape.
Gospel music is in many ways the foundation of all roots music; it certainly embeds itself in all styles of roots music. The structure of the music itself — the wailing organ, the rolling barrelhouse, the scratchy guitars (or the stretched-out riffs of a slide guitar), the call-and-response vocals, the ethereal background vocals or the swaying and rising vocals of a backing choir — wends its tendrils into songs whose lyrics have little to do with God but whose music moves listeners to another world, even momentarily. One or more of these elements of musical structure can be found in bluegrass, jazz, country, or rock and roll. The Rolling Stones’ “Shine a Light,” for example, opens with a church piano, and a church organ sweeps in to carry the song’s refrain into a benediction of joy (“May the good Lord / Shine a light on you / Make every song you sing / Your favorite tune”). Listen to James Carr’s “Dark End of the Street” and you’ll hear a strum of a guitar to open the song — characteristic of much country gospel — and by the end of the first verse the background vocals respond to Carr’s call and lift the song higher and higher with each verse. Listen to the background singer’s utterly otherworldly vocal on the opening two lines of the song’s final verse and hear how it takes you out of yourself for a few bars. Although Carr’s lyrics might promise a worldly exaltation, it’s the music of the song that echoes gospel structure and elevates listeners. Conversely, listen to Sam Cooke’s version of the old spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” which he recorded after he had left The Soul Stirrers, the gospel group with which he got his start. He turns the lyrics that promise freedom and hope into a pop song that echoes his own songs “We’re Having a Party” and “Chain Gang.” Then there’s The Blind Boys of Alabama’s version of “Amazing Grace” that uses the blues song that has the same music structure — “House of the Rising Sun” — as the song’s sonic structure.
Blues provides the foundation for gospel music, and, as blues drummer Jimmy Lee Tillman said to me last week, “Man, you know if you teach someone how to play a 12-bar blues, you can teach them how to play a gospel song. Gospel is really just 12-bar blues.” Gospel music and spirituals are born out of the field shouts and hollers of slaves in the American South; those shouts feature the characteristic call-and-response structure that gospel songs pick up. Many early blues guitarists — Blind Willie Johnson, Reverend Gary Davis, Mississippi Fred McDowell — move fluidly between blues and spirituals, with some of these bluesmen embracing religion in a larger way as ministers and preachers. The recent, and long-awaited, release of Amazing Grace, the 1972 movie that documents the recording of Aretha Franklin’s best-selling live album of the same name, also illustrates the way the gospel provides the roots, and in many ways the branches, of soul music.
I explore the ways that gospel music reaches deeply into all music in my new book Fifteen Spirituals That Will Change Your Life (Paraclete Press). It’s not a history of gospel music, but, as the title indicates, the book explores 15 gospel songs that transform us through their music and lyrics. Each chapter features a short section on the history of the song, an analysis of the song, and a reflection on the ways the song might change you. My great hope is that readers will listen to the many versions of each gospel song and discover the ways that what may be familiar lyrics take on new life — and give new life — in various moving musical versions. “I’ll Fly Away,” for example, has been recorded by Kanye West, The Chuck Wagon Gang, The Oak Ridge Boys, Alan Jackson, Randy Travis, Johnny Cash, Carolyn Hester and Bob Dylan, Crystal Gayle, Andy Griffith, The Dillards, Reverend Gary Davis, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and Selah Jubilee Singers (on one of earliest, perhaps the first, recordings of the song), among many others.
Below is an excerpt from my new book that illustrates the many ways that blues and gospel shape and grow from each other. This is part of the chapter on Blind Willie Johnson’s “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning.” (At the bottom of the excerpt you’ll find a Spotify playlist of songs mentioned in the book.)
Background of the Song
A few years ago, Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams — the husband-and-wife duo who played and sang for several years with Levon Helm, the former drummer of The Band — opened their set with their version of the old gospel song “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning.” The moment started quietly enough with Larry Campbell’s chicken-picked guitar in his slow blues slide through an instrumental intro before Teresa Williams’s soaring vocals carried 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’s 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 the word 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.
Campbell and Williams performed their version of the song based on the one that Reverend Gary Davis introduced to numerous musicians in New York — from the Soul Stirrers to the Staples Singers and Jorma Kaukonen and Campbell — in the folk revival of the 1960s, when many musicians recognized spirituals and blues as an integral part of the American folk tradition. Davis, who was born in Laurens, South Carolina, started playing blues guitar and banjo as a way of escaping the troubles of this world. He developed a unique thumb-picked guitar style that he would later teach those who studied with him, including Campbell, Kaukonen, and folk blues musician David Bromberg, among others. In the late 1930s, Davis converted to Christianity and became ordained as a Baptist preacher. He turned then to playing gospel music, but his songs, or versions of earlier spirituals, retained their blues inflections. Davis recorded his version of “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning” in the mid-1950s, and his version is credited to him on an album called American Street Songs.
While Davis is most often credited for the song, the real composer of “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning” is a Texas blues and gospel musician named Blind Willie Johnson, whose deep, gravelly voice and acoustic-slide guitar playing influenced several blues guitarists, including Davis. Blind Willie Johnson was a blues-gospel musical artist, and an evangelist, born in Texas in 1897. He wrote and recorded thirty songs in the early decades of the twentieth century in a little studio in the famous Deep Ellum neighborhood of Dallas — the rough-and-tumble section of town immortalized in the Lone Star Cowboys’ song “Deep Ellum Blues.” Many of Johnson’s songs have become well known through versions recorded by artists ranging from Bob Dylan to Led Zeppelin to Eric Clapton.
The titles of many of Johnson’s songs depict the struggle that many Christians experience between the temptations of living solely to gratify bodily pleasures and the rewards of leading a spiritual life: “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” “Lord, I Just Can’t Keep from Crying,” “I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole.” Johnson’s apocalyptic fervor shines through in the titles of many of his songs: “If I Had My Way I’d Tear the Building Down,” “Jesus Is Coming Soon,” “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed,” “John the Revelator,” and “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning.” In his powerful, raspy voice, Johnson thunders the message of redemption from the waywardness of sinfulness, and he exhorts watchfulness and readiness for the return of Jesus to redeem this world. While lyrics in the verses vary slightly in various versions of the song, Johnson’s refrain — “keep your lamps trimmed and burning” — remains the song’s centerpiece, with the verses circling around it, emphasizing the thematic force of the refrain.
‘Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning’
Although Campbell and Williams recorded “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning” on their debut album in 2016, several other artists, from rock to folk to bluegrass musicians, have included their own version of this spiritual on their albums over the past forty years. Perhaps the most famous modern version belongs to Jorma Kaukonen, the guitarist who was one of the founders of the Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna and who included the song on a Hot Tuna album in 1971. Kaukonen once told me he learned the song from the Reverend Gary Davis, the Piedmont blues musician who is given credit for writing a shorter version of the original that balances the musical structure of the blues with the musical structure of gospel. Campbell admits that the first time he heard Reverend Gary Davis’s “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning,” he was terrified trying to follow Davis’s playing. Then he heard Kaukonen’s interpretation of the song. “After I listened to Jorma,” he recalls, “I went back to Reverend Gary Davis, and I understood that song.”
Like many other gospel songs, “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning” focuses on specific themes that will resonate with Christians almost immediately, even as its haunting music and metrical and lyrical repetition entrances listeners outside of any religious community. Its musical foundation is the blues, and this particular song illustrates better than many other gospel songs the close family connection of the blues and spirituals. As Campbell and Williams’s version demonstrates, the song evokes a world-weariness that cries out to be overcome, even as their version mimics the encouragement and hope that waiting for a new order brings: “this old world is almost done!” That one line beautifully captures the hope inherent in the weariness: the old and tired world, as well as an individual’s weariness of living in a world that continues to oppress him or her for the color of his or her skin, is almost done; a new day is dawning; wait for it and rejoice! There is hope and power in the waiting. On that night when Campbell and Williams performed the song, the audience consisted of a wide range of individuals — some religious and some nonreligious — but when the duo finished their song, everyone had been redeemed.
“Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning” draws its subject matter from the Gospel of Matthew 25:1–13, a parable known in the Christian traditions as the Tale of the Ten Virgins, the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, or the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids. The multiple names are probably testimony to the multiplicity of meaning in this short passage from the teachings of Jesus. In the parable, ten women take their oil lamps and go out to await the arrival of a bridegroom. Five of the virgins carry enough oil to keep their lamps burning, but the other five do not carry enough oil to keep their lamps burning. The story depicts the women waiting a lengthy time for the groom to arrive — long enough for each group of women to fall asleep. When the groom arrives, someone wakes the women and exhorts them to go out to meet him. The bridesmaids rise to trim their lamps; the women who have brought enough oil are able to light their lamps and go out to meet the groom, but the women who have not brought enough oil implore the others to share their oil with them. The bridesmaids who have enough oil refuse to share their oil, sending the others to vendors so that they can buy more and replenish their supplies. While these five women go to buy oil, the groom arrives, and the women who were ready for him accompany him into the wedding. The other five women return with oil in their lamps but find the doors to the wedding closed to them. When these women implore the groom to allow them to join the party, he refuses to acknowledge them. The moral of the parable is to be prepared — “keep your lamps trimmed and burning” — for no one knows when the groom (the spiritual implication is that this is Jesus, to whom they are to be spiritually espoused) will come to usher in the kingdom of heaven. Those who first heard the parable expected “this old world to be almost done,” in the words of the song, soon and in their lifetime, and the parable counsels that wisdom — being ready — erases worries and anxieties about entering the kingdom of heaven. Johnson, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Reverend Gary Davis each focuses on the ways individuals can act to gain comfort in being prepared for the world to be done.
The persistent themes of “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning” are weariness with the world in which we now live and hope for the coming of a new world where we’ll no longer be tired and weary. Every version of the song counsels us not to be “worried,” for our journey here will soon be over, and we’ll soon reach heaven. Every version of the song focuses on the nearness of that time when the new world will come, and each version encourages us not to stop praying or preaching or preparing ourselves for the coming of this new world.
In the chorus of Blind Willie Johnson’s version — which repeats the refrain from which the song gets its title — the last line is “O, see what the Lord has done.” The final line of the verses, which function as responses to the refrain, focuses on our labors in this world: “for the work is almost done.” In Reverend Gary Davis’s version, the last line of the verses is “for this old world is almost done,” a variation that focuses not on our work but on the hopefulness that grows out of the coming end of this tired old world in which we live. Other versions of the song close the chorus and the verses with a slight variation on Davis’s version: “for the time is drawing nigh.” Each version conveys the sense that this realm will be ending soon and that the “Christian’s journey” — as one version puts it — will soon be over, so Christians should not be worried, for that time is almost here.
Each verse of Davis’s version of “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning” calls out specific groups of people as it shouts encouragement to be prepared. In the first verse, the song exhorts brothers not to worry; the second verse exhorts sisters to keep praying (“don’t stop praying”); the third verse urges fathers not to worry; in the fourth and climactic verse, the song urges preachers not to stop preaching (“don’t stop your preaching”). Scattered through other versions of the song are references to “darker midnight” lying before us, and the “morning soon breaking.” Such images reflect the apocalyptic tone of the book of Revelation, as well as the apocalyptic parables of the Gospel of Matthew. The song also functions on another level — as many gospel songs do — with the references to work and weariness, which indicate that the song likely has its origins in a work song sung by slaves. Like other spirituals, this one provides a rhythmic call and response that mimics the rhythm of work in the fields, even as its lyrics carry the workers outside of themselves in the expectation and hope of a new world where such work will be no more.