Classic black American gospel remains one of the building blocks of contemporary popular music. The style that developed in black American churches combined emotive, improvisatory lead vocals with energetic call-and-response singing from the choir, and was driven by hard-charging rhythms. It was a major influence on everyone from Ray Charles to Al Green, and you can still hear it in Beyoncé’s powerhouse testimonies, in serpentwithfeet‘s soaring vibratos, and in the rhythmic flow of rap, which harkens back to the declarative delivery of black American pastors.
But despite gospel’s importance as a stylistic influence, giants like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Marion Williams remain lesser known than the stars of other contemporary roots music—Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and Hank Williams are much more familiar touchstones than Dorothy Love Coates or Claude Jeter.
There’s a simple reason for that, according to gospel scholar Anthony Heilbut, author of The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times. Many people are leery of gospel, he says, because of religion. “It’s a big barrier. I know that, for example, when I was young, all the folkies, the Newport people, were fond of certain gospel recordings,” he says. “But they treated them as this quaint, almost campy material. But as a group, they were more interested in gospel than any pop music fans I’ve encountered.”
Being cut off from the mainstream meant that gospel singers struggled to get by, touring incessantly from church to church for fees their secular brethren would have laughed at. But that isolation encouraged stylistic innovation and adventurousness. “Gospel voices aren’t quite pop voices,” Heilbut says. “Aretha was the one gospel singer who really made it, and there are many gospel women who do more outrageous singing. Aretha didn’t growl much, she didn’t scream much—there’s no comparison to the way Inez Andrews would shriek. And many gospel men wanted to be sopranos; they didn’t want to be falsettos, but to actually sing in a soprano range.”
Gospel’s struggle to gain wider mainstream acceptance has continued into the current scene. For every 10 crate-digging blues compilations, you’re lucky to get one gospel collection, and the retro-soul movement hasn’t been matched by a retro-gospel one. Still, if you search, you can find a lot of gospel gems scattered about Bandcamp. Here are some of the best places to start.
The World Is Going Wrong
Bandcamp has a number of excellent compilations of early American religious music—Dust-to-Digital’s amazing 160-track Goodbye, Babylon is perhaps the most exhaustive example, but don’t overlook London label Death Is Not the End’s bleak and concise The World Is Going Wrong. Released shortly after Trump’s election, the 12 tracks from the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s have a good deal of resonance in our current, slow-rolling dystopia. Several of the entries, like the Mississippi Sheiks’ eerie fiddle blues “The World Is Going Wrong,” are secular, but the bulk of the comp features religious performers. Texas bluesman Blind Willie Johnson rips into “Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right” with his trademark throat-tearing vocals, and Two Gospel Keys provide an unsettlingly cheerful version of “I Can’t Feel At Home in This World Anymore,” with tag-team intertwining yodels and rhythmic strums. But the showstopper is the guttural a cappella roar of Memphis Pentecostal preacher Sister Mary Nelson: “Better get ready for judgment / You better get ready for judgment morning / Better get ready for judgment / My God is coming down!”
What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?
Texas singer Washington Phillips was one of the most distinctive performers of the 1920s. He played a fretless, zither-like instrument of his own construction which produced a shimmering, ringing, celestial sound. He had a light singing voice, and employed yearning phrasing that foreshadowed the great gospel quartet singers to come. The title track here, “What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?,” is perhaps his best-known song, an exquisite vision of peace and freedom just out of reach.
I Sing Because I’m Happy
Music scholar Jules Schwerin interviewed gospel legend Mahalia Jackson in the 1950s about her music and her childhood in New Orleans. “I always have loved the church because of its powerful music,” Jackson said at the time. “And I liked the way the old preachers would preach; he had a singing tone that was sad, and it done something to me.” The Smithsonian album includes five concert performances, so you can hear Jackson reproduce that singing tone herself. The jittery take on “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jerico” is especially fine.
The Dixie Hummingbirds & The Little Wonders
Recordings from the Collection of the Brandywine Friends of Old Time Music
The Brandywine Mountain Music Convention in Delaware is mostly devoted to old-timey folk and country performers, but singer and organizer Ola Belle Reed also recruited some gospel quartet acts in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The Little Wonders were Maryland jubilee-style performers, focused on harmonic interplay in a style not far removed from bluegrass gospel. The Dixie Hummingbirds, by contrast, were one of the most famous and influential hard gospel quartets. These tracks from the ‘80s are 30 years on from the group’s ‘40s and ‘50s heyday, but incendiary lead Ira Tucker shows that he’s still perfectly capable of tearing the house down. The Hummingbirds roar out a righteous call and response on “This World is Just a Dressing Room,” and Tucker rolls, hollers, and swoops his way through one of his most famous songs, “Standing by the Bedside of a Neighbor.”
Angel Olsen bassist Emily Elhaj compiled this collection of classic gospel when she was a record buyer for Reckless Records in Chicago in 2010, and released it on her Love Lion label in 2017. The selection is eclectic, ranging from Sister O.M. Terrell’s country blues “I’m Going to That City” to the raucous ‘60s Indiana gospel sweat of Robert Turner & The Silver Hearts’ “I Choose Jesus.” The Loving 5, an obscure group clearly influenced by the Staple Singers, deliver some commanding funky harmony on “Singing for Jesus,” and Pastor T.L. Barrett of Chicago provides an example of the choir style that replaced smaller group performances in the ’60s with “Joyful Noise.” Best of all, there’s a track by Marion Williams, one of the greatest American singers who ever lived. Listen and hear where Little Richard got his “oooooooo!”
Shirley Ann Lee
Songs of Light
Toledo singer Shirley Ann Lee recorded for the Revival label in the 1960s; most of the material was unreleased until the Numero Group collected the demos and abortive takes for this 2012 release. Many of the recordings are rough; Lee’s growl occasionally threatens to overwhelm the mic on the bluesy vamp “Stop, Look & Listen.” The exception to the lo-fi vibe is the carefully produced “There’s a Light,” with a psychedelic backing providing an unusual frame for Lee’s deep soul.
Rev. Johnny L. Jones
The Hurricane That Hit Atlanta
Atlanta preacher Johnny L. Jones was nicknamed “the Hurricane” for his gale-force preaching, singing, and guitar and organ playing. Though he didn’t do much formal recording, he kept a warehouse of tapes of himself performing from as early as 1957. Dust-to-Digital combed through them to create this double-album of cyclonic sermons and shouts. The seven minutes of “I Got Drunk for the Lord/Train Is Moving On” is a typically fiery workout, with Jones straining and roaring as the chorus shout encouragements before they get onboard the train and roll. Don’t miss Jones’s advertisement for Huff Construction Company, in which he speaks of clearing vacant lots with the same apocalyptic rhythmic sincerity that he brings to preaching the gospel.
Your Good Fortune
The Staple Singers were one of the few gospel acts that managed to achieve mainstream success while remaining recognizably gospel. The family combined quartet singing dynamics with a mix of blues and funk, while covering traditional material and less overtly Christian inspirational numbers. In her solo work, lead singer Mavis Staples has continued the crossover approach, performing varied material in contemporary roots settings. Her voice remains resolutely gospel, though—especially on Your Good Fortune, a 2015 collaboration with R&B performer Son Little, which is as retro as she’s gotten in recent years. Her cover of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” is especially in the spirit, with chilling dips into her lower register to frame the final journey underground.
Essie Mae Brooks
Rain In Your Life
Georgia singer Essie Mae Brooks recorded this album of traditional gospel in 2000, when she was 70 years old. Her voice remains strong, and the album, with simple piano and/or guitar backing, is an excellent venue for taking in the classic gospel vocal style. On the eight-minute “Mother, Heard a Voice,” for example, Brooks takes a simple bluesy vocal line and embellishes it by stretching out her phrases or clipping them off, throwing a yodeling swoop upwards here or a hum and grunt there. It’s a journey of many snags and some joy, with Brooks’s eye, and ear, always on that distant goal.
The Como Mamas
Anthony Heilbut sternly asserted the distinction between gospel groups and quartet singers: Gospel groups (which are usually female-led, but not always) features a lead with backing performers who engage in call-and-response based around an accompanying organ or piano. Quartet singing (which are usually male-led, but not always) is generally a cappella, or has very minimal accompaniment, to better highlight the vocal harmonies. The Como Mamas of Mississippi are firmly in the quartet tradition. In each of the songs on Daptone’s 2017 Move Upstairs, two of the three women provide a repetitive harmonic base while the third takes a hard-charging, relentless lead. You can really hear that sweet, rough-edged old quartet style at the beginning of “99 and a Half Won’t Do” when they rev up with an a cappella intro, before the driving drum and guitar come in to carry them over.
Ranky Tanky play music steeped in the Gullah culture of South Carolina. Their album includes a number of songs associated with gospel repertoire and style, including “O Death,” which Quiana Parler sings with a commanding chill, set against Charlton Singleton’s lonesome trumpet. “Been in the Storm” is even more resolutely in the tradition. Parler lines out the words of the spiritual, shifting between moans and vibrato-heavy bellows that would do Mahalia Jackson proud.