THE READING ROOM: ‘When Sunday Comes’ Traces Gospel Music’s Recent History
What happens when gospel music artists cross over into R&B or hip-hop or rock? Have they abandoned glorifying Jesus for the glories of fame and fortune? Can they sing about light, redemption, and sanctification with the same fervor in large arenas as they did in churches? And how do they sing about the love of Jesus without having Jesus sound uncomfortably close to a lover?
The beauty of Claudrena N. Harold’s brilliant When Sunday Comes: Gospel Music in the Soul and Hip-Hop Era (Illinois) is in how it illustrates the power of gospel music to maintain its character, grow from its roots, evolve to reach new listeners, and spiral steadily upward in its call-and-response to new audiences who acclaim the uplifting spiritual strength and enduring beauty of the music. Harold demonstrates through a series of biographies of gospel artists, ranging from James Cleveland to Yolanda Adams, the ways that gospel music has adapted, grown, and thrived over the past 50 years. Harold’s book takes up gospel as it moves into the post-Civil Rights era, a period not treated in detail in many histories of gospel music. She asks of these books, “Why couldn’t their razor-sharp analyses of gospel music’s ‘golden era’ (1945-65) extend into the 1970s and 1980s? Why did the black sacred music adored by so many of my generation seem inconsequential to the historians whose scholarship mattered so much to me?” Harold is quick to point out that while classic books such as Anthony Heilbut’s The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times and Robert Darden’s People Get Ready!: A New History of Black Gospel Music went beyond the golden era of gospel, they didn’t go far beyond it.
Harold shows how culture, politics, business, and religion shaped the evolution of gospel music into the post-Civil Rights era, and she cannily focuses on the artists themselves and their music as a method of illustrating the breadth and depth of the development of contemporary gospel music. “By focusing primarily on the last three decades of the twentieth century,” she writes, “When Sunday Comes shines a light on gospel’s golden era of commercialism. Instead of dismissing this period as one of musical decline and questionable crossover pursuits, this book treats these years as a time of great artistic innovation and advancement. It details how Kirk Franklin, the Winans, Take 6, and the Clark Sisters, among others, not only advanced the sacred music tradition but also insured that gospel remained embedded in African American culture. That embeddedness has surfaced in a variety of cultural contexts and arenas and continues to do so: BET’s annual awards shows; the music of secular stars like Beyoncé, D’Angelo, Missy Elliott, Snoop Dogg, Chance the Rapper, and Kanye; the cinematic offerings of such avant-garde filmmakers as Arthur Jafa, Kevin Jerome Everson, and Cauleen Smith; and even the televised funerals of some of the entertainment industry’s biggest icons.” The 2009 memorial service for Michael Jackson, for example, featured the gospel great Andraé Crouch and his choir “humming the melody” of Crouch’s popular song “Soon and Very Soon” while Jackson’s brothers “rolled [their brother’s] casket to the center stage of the Staples Center in Los Angeles.”
Each of Harold’s dazzling chapters deserves to be read and savored, not just for the details it provides on the life of its subject, but also for its analysis of the music and the ways it touches audiences and other artists. Her chapter on Crouch, for example, illustrates how this brilliant young musician opened up avenues of communication between white communities and Black communities with his music. As she points out, “through his innovative songwriting, arrangements, and production, Crouch opened up new possibilities for the construction of what [theologian Howard] Thurman refers to as a ‘common environment for the purpose of providing normal experiences of fellowship’ among Christians from diverse socioeconomic and racial backgrounds.” Crouch’s greatest and most enduring achievement remains his ability to combine gospel and rock in such a way that churches began to incorporate new sounds into their congregational singing and into their hymnals. Crouch also brought the rhythms of jazz and soul into gospel music, so deeply transforming gospel music that that listeners outside of churches embraced it and were moved by its acclamations and shouts of joy. Many of his songs, Harold writes, such as “Through It All” and “Jesus is the Answer,” provided the “sonic and lyrical foundations of contemporary Christian music (CCM),” and Crouch influenced a wide range of artists from Amy Grant to Marvin Winans. Above all else, Harold concludes, “what Thomas Dorsey was to the gospel world in the 1930s and 1940s, Crouch was to the world of contemporary Christian music in the 1970s and 1980s. At the height of his success, he redefined the sonic, spiritual, and even social possibilities of American religious music.”
Much like Crouch, Yolanda Adams honored tradition while at the same time indwelling songs with her innovative, soaring vocal takes on them. One listen to her stunning version of gospel great Roberta Martin’s “Even Me” reveals her ability to so transform a song that she carries her audience with her into a sonic stratosphere from which they don’t want to return. As Harold observes, the songs on Adams’ 1991 album, Through the Storm, were “dramatic but not overwrought … the Roberta Martin cover ‘Even Me’ was sublime … Adams’ luminous voice was black gospel pop at its finest, most elegant self.” Adams’ 1998 album, Mountain High … Valley Low, was a crossover hit, with the single “Open My Heart” popular on R&B stations and gospel radio. As Harold writes, the song reflects the “compatibility of Adams’s vocals with the lush pop sounds of black soul music.”
When Sunday Comes is long awaited, carrying the story of gospel music into the 21st century and revealing the challenges the music and musicians still face in the struggles to water the roots of the music in the local communities from which it grows and to let it flow to larger communities and new audiences. For those unfamiliar with gospel music of the past 50 years, Harold’s book provides an excellent introduction. For fans, her book offers an in-depth look at some of the personalities and the music that has shaped this history. Moreover, Harold leads us to listen to these artists’ music as we’re reading about them, and in doing so we can hear the ways that the notes or phrases of one song flow into the measures of another, as well as the ways gospel music has evolved during these years.