Label: Smithsonian Folkways
Released: January 29, 2008
I attended a memorial service for a coworker’s husband a few years ago. The chapel was small, and the service was filled with speeches and laughter and the occasional gut-wrenching sob from the front of the room. It was touching, but as someone who didn’t know the dead man, it was relatively mundane.
But then God came down and paid His respects.
God came in the form of an unassuming man who stood behind a keyboard at the front of the room and sang. His voice was like a mixture of Al Green and Marvin Gaye, but it was bigger than either of those two giants. I’m not a religious man, but as the light was streaming through the stained glass windows and the music was pouring out of this man’s soul, I truly felt that God was in the room.
Unfortunately, God doesn’t make many appearances on Classic African American Gospel from Smithsonian Folkways. There are certainly some powerful performances, but few performances that channel a higher power.
Many of the songs on Classic African American Gospel are hopeful odes sung by people who have suffered more than anyone should suffer. As Two Gospel Keys sing, “You may be crippled, you cannot walk, you may be blind and you cannot see, when the Lord gets ready, you’ve got to move.” This is an album about moving in the name of God. This is music that was born from pain and strives for joy. This is powerful music, and it’s great in its own, human way.
But that’s the problem with so much religious music. It is filled with humanity instead of divinity — and not even the best parts of humanity. Most religious music is conservatively dressed and well-behaved and concerned with appearances, when it should be powerful and passionate and a little bit crazy. It should be covered with mud and blood and hope and despair and love, and it should possess all the things that drive us to feed the hungry or help the poor or start a revolution. Most religious music is so concerned with honoring God that it never invites Him to sing along.
Only one performance on Classic African American Gospel sounds as if the musicians invited God to join in the song. The instrumental rendition of “It’s Time to Make a Change” by Madison’s Lively Stones is passionate and inspired, and the musicians’ enthusiasm for both God and music is evident. The liner notes say that this is a “shout” band, and “shouting (is) an ecstatic state that involves speaking in tongues, improvised dancing, and singing/performing on a musical instrument. … (They) perform not only at Sunday church services, they also praise the Lord at funerals, church convocations, parades, and baptisms.” These sound like people who invite God to participate in every aspect of their lives, including their music. Especially their music.
Classic African American Gospel from Smithsonian Folkways is a good collection of spiritual music. It’s just disappointing that God wasn’t around for more of these recordings.