Retro Review: Gospel at the Crossroads

Last summer, I went on on a short vacation through Mississippi and Tennessee, which included music-themed stops at Sun Records, the Stax Museum, and the Country Music Hall of Fame. I’ve been on a southern music kick ever since, and have recently been scratching the surface of gospel music. In particular, I’m intrigued by the interplay between blues and gospel – music forms considered by some to be at odds. If I understand the southern music tradition correctly, gospel tunes were what you sang on Sunday to praise salvation and the good Lord, while you howled blues the rest of the week in praise of the debauchery and sin that required your salvation in the first place.

Now, if you (like me) don’t buy into such black-and-white divisions in the spiritual, material, or musical worlds, then I highly recommend checking out the music of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and The Staple Singers, and particularly the two records highlighted in this post. It can be difficult to find hard copies of these great albums, but downloads are available via various sources, including Amazon and eMusic.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe first grabbed attention for her singing and guitar playing during the 1920s and 30s, and was one of the few black musicians to cut “V-Discs” for U.S. troops during World War II (for a full bio, see Premier Guitar). Postwar, she had a string of hits merging the vocal virtuosity of gospel with the raw instrumental energy of the blues. She was also a killer guitar player, overdriving her amps long before it became fashionable. Sister Rosetta actually gained a fair amount of national recognition in the 1940s and 1950s, though some suggest her genre-bending style ultimately made her a hard sell to both Gospel and secular audiences. Both Johnny Cash and Elvis cited her as an early influence, and it’s not hard to see how Tharpe’s blending of the sacred and the worldly might have given inspiration to the two legends.

I recently picked up Tharpe’s Gospel ‘N’ Soul Revival, a collection of live cuts recorded in Europe in 1960. The album is a good introduction to Sister Rosetta’s electric music, with both solo and band performances. The recording quality may be a little lo-fi to the ears of the digital generation, but it’s still very listenable. Tharpe plays guitar on most of the tracks, demonstrating her versatility on the instrument. She was equally adept at accompanying her voice with clean strumming and fingerpicking, or punctuating verses with gritty staccato guitar leads, Chicago blues style. My favorite guitar track on the album is “Up Above My Head I Heard Music in the Air,” in which she’s accompanied by bass and drums in a gospel power trio. Other highlights includes a jazzy, big band take on “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” and a very delta blues-inspired “Jonah in the Whale.”

I had the chance to see Mavis Staples this past New Years Eve in Boston, touring in support of her recent (and highly recommended) album You Are Not Alone (tastefully produced by Jeff Tweedy). At 72, Mavis still puts on a killer show – one that includes plenty of classic Staple Singers tunes. The Staple Singers hit it big with classics like “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There,” becoming musical icons of the civil rights era. Those Stax-era hits – including backing by Booker T. and the M.G.’s – are essential listening.

That said, the Staple Singers’ had a long history preceding Stax, with a firm grounding in traditional gospel and blues. A good place to start in mining the pre-Stax period is the reissue of Uncloudy Day & Will the Circle be Unbroken, two albums originally recorded on the Vee-Jay label in the late 50s and early 60s. The only instrumentation on most of the tracks is the guitar of Roebuck “Pops” Staples, and for me it was something of a revelation to here him recorded in this format. Lore has it that Pops developed his chops in the company of blues legends like Charlie Patton and Son House. His tasty, tremolo-drenched guitar accompaniment on Uncloudy Day certainly evokes the delta. In combination with the vocal harmonies of Mavis, Cleotha, Pervis, and Yvonne, Pops Staples lays the rhythmic foundation for a haunting set of gospel standards. The call-and-response of “I’m Coming Home” has been stuck in the back of my head for months now. The really bluesy cuts include “I’m Leaning” and a live recording of “Too Close” that overwhelms whatever primitive recording rig was on hand, but still packs a soulful wallop.

Enough of my rambling. I’ll let Pops Staples close things out. Enjoy.

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