The lord s songs in a strange land
People Get Ready! A New History of Black Gospel Music by Robert Darden Continuum International Publishing Group October 2004, $24.95, ISBN 0-826-41436-2
The Sounds of Slavery: Discovering African American History Through Songs, Sermons, and Speech by Shane White and Graham White Beacon Press, April 2005 $29.95, ISBN 0-8070-5026-1
As a child growing up on Air Force bases, Robert Darden recalls first hearing black gospel music in the homes of his black friends. He later recognized the same sounds in the rhythms of the soul music and the ultra-contemporary gospel song "Oh Happy Day" by Edwin Hawkins that he learned as a young drummer.
Later, as Gospel editor of Billboard magazine, he basked in the opportunities to interview many of the stars of this unique music. In People Get Ready!, he set out to write a complete history of gospel, expanding on but fully honoring the work of earlier researchers who have put parts of the story together.
"Even as someone who had loved this music all his life, there was still so much I didn't know," he writes in the Preface. "I wanted to find out bow it got from western Africa to the South Side of Chicago.... What I really wanted to do was somehow put it all ill order, find the connections, and tell the stories of some of the most fascinating people on the planet."
Easier said than done, but well worth the journey for him and for us. Where it led to is a meticulously researched but living, breathing story. His account stretches from the observations of some of the earlier European explorers of Africa in the 1600s to the leading composers of contemporary gospel music, including Kirk Franklin and John P. Kee among others. Darden also gives ample treatment to compositions from such pillars of the modern sound as James Cleveland and Andrae Crouch, as well as earlier songwriters and the singers and musicians who brought the music form alive.
"In this book, I will show the evolution of a musical style that only occasionally slows down its evolution long enough to be classified before it evolves yet again," he tells us early on. "What today's gospel music is and what it is becoming is part of the continuing evolution of African American music. Religion with rhythm."
Darden, now an assistant professor at Baylor University, in Waco, Texas, demonstrates great respect for and early curiosity about the music he was hearing.
His approach is refreshing in that he does not presume to know or to have yet found everything there was to know about the music even after his in-depth reporting. Nor does he make grand, absolute, academic pronouncements about black music traditions. For instance, in discussing "Follow de Drinkin' Gourd," one oft-studied spiritual thought to encrypt clear Underground Railroad "instructions, "he says, "There is one song where--perhaps, just perhaps--the omerta has been broken." He cites the difficulties some researchers have faced in even getting anyone to sing it for them or admit to knowing it. Later, he says that perhaps the song "means nothing of the kind."
Darden also tackles an old debate over whether spirituals were truly black inventions or merely adaptations of European music. He puts the weight of facts behind the case for African origins.
Along the way, he explores key elements that define the music of African descent, identified as early as 1795, including:--"alternation of verse and chorus, a preponderance of rhythm, the use of short musical phrases, a call-and-response format, lyrics with second meanings, and the joy of improvisation." His examination, however, is not limited to the structure of the music
He lays out its role in ending slavery, the religious beliefs and practices that fed it and its usefulness on the battlefields of civil rights. Darden credits spirituals with power over the "demonic" force of racial evil (including in at least one anecdote, over Nazism). "To fight the supernatural, you must employ the supernatural," he concludes.
One of the challenges in detailing the early music, of course, is that recording equipment did not yet exist. We are dependent on the good notes and good ear, or lack thereof, of early researchers who encountered Africans on their own continent or those transported to the New World for labor. (Uninitiated Europeans were not always complimentary and sometimes hostile to the unfamiliar sounds and rituals.)
Once the capability of recording sound came into being, the quest to archive the music of black people was an early priority. The efforts of the Lomax family, who wandered rural America in the 1930s, preserved many samples sung by or learned from those who had actually been enslaved. In addition, The Library of Congress has been instrumental in making these and other early recordings available for study. [See "Sing It Again," BIBR, November-December 2004.]
We may still never know how closely these examples match versions heard a century earlier or how many tunes and lyrics are forever lost to us. Although concert artists such as the famed Fisk Jubilee Singers had taken them to the world, the stylized versions were far from unadulterated. Darden quotes Zora Neale Hurston on the matter: "... Not one concert singer in the world is singing the songs as the Negro songmakers sing them."
That, of course, was part of the evolution. Darden's book is especially valuable in detailing how much effort, debate and study have gone into finding gospel's origins and into recording authentic examples that have long fascinated researchers. Indeed, his 25-page, A to Z discography stretches in time and scope from Afro-American Spirituals, Work Songs, and Ballads, early samples from the Library of Congress, to Vickie Winans by Vickie Winans (Light Records), one of today's leading stars. A generous sampling of photographs of gospel artists, including fresh-faced, young versions of Mahalia Jackson and the Staple Singers, enrich the text. Ample examples of lyrics and a few musical scores of latter-day gospel add to our understanding.
Just out this spring, The Sounds of Slavery: Discovering African American History Through Songs, Sermons, and Speech is complementary to but distinct from Darden's work. Its subject is more limited in time, covering the span of slavery in the United States, from the 1700s to its end. The "sounds" covered in this book, however, cover much more than music.
The authors Shane White and Graham White, who are historians at the University of Sydney, Australia, and are not related, mine the rich culture not only of singing and instruments, both religious and secular, but also of the preaching, whistling, field hollers, folk telling, oration and other chords in the "soundscape" of life under slavery.
Those in bondage, they conclude, "had fashioned a dynamic, unruly culture that was principally meant to be heard."
To help us hear it for ourselves, their book includes an 18-track CD with examples of field hollers, work songs and sermons. Through it, we understand the story they tell and witness some of the influences and results of the history Darden explores that live on in gospel music today.
"Why study the spirituals and gospel music," Darden asks. "How can we not?"
Angela P. Dodson is executive editor of Black Issues Book Review and a life-long fan of African American sacred music in all its forms.