On this 40th-anniversary year of Anthony Heilbut’s book, reflecting on the connection and disconnect between gospel and popular music is as relevant as ever.
When Beyoncé sang “Precious Lord” at the Grammy’s this year, numerous commenters declared that she had taken the awards show to Church. On my Twitter feed at least, those commenters were met with thorough skepticism. “I have been to church,” my Twitter feed said, “and Beyoncé at the Grammy’s is not it.”
The skepticism reminded me of Anthony Heilbut’s great book, The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times. First published in 1971; the paperback edition, with addendums, is 40 this year. Heilbut, a Jewish atheist, is a passionate advocate of the classic gospel sound, and a keen critic of the way it gets watered down for and by pop. He’d no doubt see Beyoncé as falling prey to the “gospel-gargle” — “the overly busy, annoyingly mannered style” that was common in gospel even in the 70s. “The excessive virtuosity defeats its own purposes,” Heilbut says, “whether of expressing spirit or asserting self.”
In contrast, Heilbut champions the older singers: Mahalia Jackson, of course, but also performers less familiar to the mainstream, like Sallie Martin, Dorothy Love Coates, R.H. Harris, Julius Cheeks, and Heilbut’s dear friend, Marion Williams. The Gospel Sound is about their artistry and how that artistry has been forgotten even as its created vast swaths of the pop landscape.
Many critics of Beyoncé’s Grammy performance argued that the mega-star had essentially stolen or usurped the performance of Ledisi, a less well-known soul singer who performed “Precious Lord” for the film Selma. That story — of gospel’s innovations being taken into the spotlight, while the original performers languish — is repeated theme throughout The Gospel Sound. “The white man robbed me all my life,” Heilbut quotes Dorothy Love Coates as saying, “and now the black man’s doing it. They all treat us like dogs and puppies, like we didn’t have no sense.”
R.H. Harris is almost forgotten today, but Heilbut argues that his falsetto trills, which Harris picked up by imitating birdsongs in his native Texas, “traveled from gospel to soul to the Beatles,” — showering money and mass popularity on everyone but Harris himself. Ira Tucker of the longtime quartet the Dixie Hummingbirds “anticipated all the frenetic workings of souls music;” Heilbut argues, and Tucker himself adds, “Shoot, what James Brown does, I’ve been doing.” Marion Williams gave Little Richard his “oooooo!”; Rosetta Tharpe taught Chuck Berry how to play guitar. Mahalia Jackson and the church taught Elvis to dance —originally, Heilbut recounts, “Some churches exiled [Mahalia] for her rocking beat, others for her “snake-hips.”
Jackson did of course enjoy great success. But she was only able to do so, Heilbut says, by abandoning her snake-hips for a less raucous performing style, and by sprinkling her real gospel songs with numbers from what Heilbut calls the “inspirational dung heap” like “Rusty Old Halo.” To take gospel to pop is to lose gospel; Beyoncé can’t take the Grammys to church without losing the church. For Heilbut, gospel is “simply the only music sung by people in terrible conditions about those conditions, in an attempt to get out of them.” In comparison, “rock and soul are for the children. Gospel, like blues and jazz, is the music of grown-ups.” Gospel is the real thing; the spirit inspiring American music — though that spirit is often abandoned, and its proponents and singers forgotten.
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