White Gospel

September 25th, 2010 § 0 comments

I just watched “White Gospel” on the iplayer and it is worth watching. Its the story of the music that inspired lots of artists which came out of churches in the south. Starting with “Sacred Harp” music (which certainly isn’t exculsively white), which is an incredible form of religious music. Basically, the song leader stands in the middle of the church, surrounded on 4 sides by the congregation who arrange themselves according to their singing parts (treble, alto, tenor, bass). There is a lot of “Fa Sol La Mi” singing, and obviously a lot of biblical content too. The singer’s belt out the words, and a lot of them chop their hands down in the air to keep rhythm.
The programme mentions how the music came from English church singing of the 17th century, but I had read before about some theories linking the music to Scottish psalm singing including this article by Willie Ruff (particularly the kind still sung in some churches on the Isle of Lewis today – an interesting article on that here).There is a very good CD of sacred harp music (some old, some new) called “I Belong to This Band” that I would highly recommend. The music is thrilling, the consuming sound of the congregations is something I would love to experience (though I always feel guilty for enjoying religious music). There is a musician in Edinburgh called Wounded Knee who channel’s some of these influences into his multi-layered looped singing style.


Ayrtime.org Wounded Knee Soundcheck from Chris Dooks on Vimeo.

So, this religious music led to smaller groups of 4 singers touring America to help spread new hymns and songs (funded by the music publishers) eventually these groups became popular in their own right. One of the most successful were the Blackwood Brothers, who after a tragic plane crash, lost two singers, and employed a new bassist called JD Sumner, who was reputed to have the deepest singing voice in the world. JD went on to to start the “JD Singers” who became Elvis’ gospel backing group.

JD Sumner

Another gospel group called The Jordanaires can be heard singing backing on Elvis’ version of “Crying in the Chapel” but I prefer The Platters version, which has some beautiful string sections.Talking of Elvis, I had never been a big fan until I saw “Thats the Way it is” at the cinema which showcases his performative skills brilliantly (even if it is a bit late on in Elvis years.Incidentally, Elvis (who was a church going gospel singer in his youth and highly respected those artists) is said to have based his leg shaking dancing on that of “Big Chief” who was another bass singer in a gospel band called The Statesmen Quartet (you can just about see Big Chief’s hips swinging in this video).Another big group were The Louvin Brothers who have an infamous record sleeve for their album “Satan is Real” (which is a pretty good song).

They built a 16 foot devil and set tyres on fire

One of my favourite albums, The Byrds’ “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” covers one of their songs, “The Christian Life”. I’m pretty sure the direction and sound of that album was driven by Gram Parsons, but I dont think he appears on this video of The Byrds playing with the legendary bluegrass musician Earl Scruggs.Dottie Rambo was a female gospel singer who was threatened with death by the KKK for recording an album with black gospel singers and musicians. She also had a pretty impressive range of wigs.I find it interesting the extent that country/gospel/bluegrass performers went weird with their appearance and clothing in the 50’s – 70’s in the USA. It doesn’t seem to tally with the antagonism towards “longhairs” – they both seem to me to be expressions of individuality to me. Incidentally, “Okie from Muskogee” is an incredible song, to me its Randy Newman-esque in its open-endedness. Though I think Merle Haggard is always pretty straight about it, I think he wasn’t keen on people taking their freedoms for granted.Merle Haggard is one of the many country artists that I used to hear as a boy, from my Granda’s record collection and his own singing. He and my Gran used to help run a Country & Western club in Markinch in the 70’s/80’s. I’m not sure why country (and gospel etc) was/is so popular in Scotland, I’m sure there most be some research into it – but I like to think it is a musical development coming full circle, from the Hebridean islands to the deep south and back.

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