Chuckin’: Ebony and Ivory

I’m pretty sure the good folks over at SFR did this just to piss me off. I can picture them, gathered around a stone fireplace in their La-Z-Boy recliners with Cuban cigars in their mouths and bottomless glasses of 20-year-old Scotch by their sides, saying, “That Chuck Myers is one annoying bitch. How can we use our piles of government money and our incredibly deep musical library (Thanks Be to Moses Asch!) to irritate him? Let’s release a couple of gospel CDs that highlight the different histories of black and white gospel music!”

(I like to imagine that the people who work at SFR yell, “Thanks Be to Moses Asch!” at random points throughout the day, and then they all lower their heads in a moment of silence. Hell, I do that nearly every time I unwrap a new SFR CD. All sarcasm aside, Smithsonian Folkways just might be the greatest damned record label anywhere ever in the history of man, even if they do conspire against me.)

Well, I have taken their challenge in good spirits, and I have walked through the racial and/or aural guantlet that they have lain before me.

First of all, let me be completely honest. I went into this fully expecting the black CD to be way better than the white CD. I’ve been to black churches and I’ve been to white churches, and white folks don’t have the whole “musical praise” thing down so well. White people sing like they’re scared that the ghost of J.S. Bach is going to come down and smite them, while black people sing as if they’re trying to conjure the spirit of Aretha Franklin. They don’t even care that Aretha is still actively using her spirit; they are trying to sing it right out of her body and down into the depths of their Sunday praise.

So maybe my expectations were too high, because for the most part, the African American CD didn’t move me to find the Holy Spirit. I was expecting music that would make old recordings by the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi sound bland and uninspired. But nothing, no matter how amazing it is, can turn those blind boys into bland boys. If God has ever come down and done regular guest spots with a singing group, He did it with the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi.

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Now, I did say “for the most part.” There is one song on Classic African American Gospel that just might lead me down the path of righteousness, and that is It’s Time to Make a Change by Madison’s Lively Stones.

The road of righteousness is not a road on which I normally walk, but the music of Madison’s Lively Stones resonates with me in a way that no other spiritual music ever has. These guys are a “trombone shout band” from The United House of Prayer for All People, and they truly sound as if they are trying to praise God with every single note they play. It reminds me of the greatest New Orleans bands, the ones who never made a record but were out playing church services and funerals and street corners and seedy bars every single night. There is energy in this music. There is passion and love and spirit, and there is the same kind of fire that the best rock music possesses.

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Madison Glorious Sounds, a trombone shout band that is similar to Madison’s Lively Stones (I’m hoping to write a post at some point in the future about trombone shout bands. If I give away too much now, Scotty B. won’t hook me up with the fat Hidden Track paycheck that supplements my “hookers and booze” budget. If you like the videos, though, you should check out Saints’ Paradise from SFR. It’s near the top of my long list of favorite SFR releases.)

There is nothing on either Classic African American Gospel or Classic Southern Gospel that speaks to me like Madison’s Lively Stones do, but there are a couple of tracks by whitey that come pretty close. (Admit it. Right now, you’re wondering whether I’m white or black, aren’t you? If I’m lucky, I’m kind of pissing you off a little bit. The fact that I haven’t said “nigger” isn’t helping you, because I might be a white dude who’s too PC to drop the “n bomb,” or I might be a black man who thinks people who say “nigger” are fools. Seriously, though, this is why racial divides in music annoy me. Who gives a shit if TV On The Radio are black or Joss Stone is white? I’m sick of people who celebrate artists because of their race rather than their music.)

Wondrous Love by The Old Harp Singers of Eastern Tennessee is unlike anything I have heard before. The closest comparison I can make is to the preaching/singing that occurred at a Primitive Baptist Church I once visited in North Carolina; the voices were freaky and creepy and incredibly exciting. I couldn’t wait for the service to end, but as soon as it did, I wanted to hear another one.

The Old Harp Singers of Eastern Tennessee are just as freaky and creepy and exciting as that service I saw in North Carolina. They perform a style of music called Sacred Harp singing, which is apparently a subset of Shape Note music. The liner notes to Classic Southern Gospel say “Shape-note singing … helped the inexperienced sing without a working knowledge of key signatures or an ability to read staff notation. Shape-note signing is above all a social form of religious music. … People gathered in small and large groups just for the purpose of singing this music. These gatherings lasted for varying lengths of time, from an afternoon to several days.”

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All I know is that is some crazy music. I dig it, though. It’s simplified, so everyone can participate; it’s spiritual, so there’s a deeper purpose; and it’s crazy!

The other gem from the white folks is The Lost Soul by The Watson Family. This one is freaky and creepy in a completely different way. The title is pretty self-explanatory; a lost soul is “paying now the penalty the unredeemed must ever pay.” There are three people singing, but Rosa Lee Watson gives the song its power. Her voice is terrible by normal standards, but its raw humanity infuses the song with the perfect combination of regret, remorse, and fear. This is the kind of song that makes me think that maybe… just maybe I should reconsider that walk along the path of righteousness.

So three songs out of 46 made me feel the Power. That’s pretty good. I could listen to the entire Amy Grant and Kirk Franklin catalogs, and not find three songs that moved my spirit. Of course, nearly every song on these two SFR CDs is good, and quite a few are knocking at the door of greatness. I think anyone who has more than a passing interest in music could benefit from hearing this stuff.

But was it really necessary to break it down along racial lines? I mean, I never got the impression that blacks and whites were praying to a different God. Sure, maybe some of those closeted conservative white dudes are praying to a blonde-haired, blue-eyed deity, but these are the same guys who are hooking up with blonde-haired, blue-eyed masseurs and bathroom buddies. Most of us, though… I think the God we believe in doesn’t need us to split into two separate camps when we sing.

There’s a SFR CD called That’s Why We’re Marching that has a story about Jimmy Longhi, Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston being on a Navy ship that was under attack in WWII. The soldiers were all below deck, and most of them were freaking out. The white soldiers were in one hold, and the black soldiers were all gathered together in a bathroom, because they couldn’t legally be with the white guys. Longhi, Guthrie and Houston sang to the white sailors to calm their nerves, then after an hour or so, they left to go sing with the black guys. Well, the colonel in charge of the ship freaked out, because the white guys wanted the singers back. So after some arguing with the colonel, Woody, Cisco, Jimmy, and all the black guys went into the hold with all the white guys, and they all started singing together. The troops were happy, and “the thing gets to be like a New Year’s Party, where the guys start jitterbugging with each other; white guys jitterbugging with each other, black and white guys jitterbugging with each other, and the final thing was that the colonel jitterbugged with a black guy.”

The cats over at Smithsonian Folkways obviously know that God doesn’t need us to split into two separate camps when we sing, or they wouldn’t have put that story on That’s Why We’re Marching. So why’d they divide us for these CDs, instead of letting us all sing together?

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