From its inception, the “black” Gospel tradition has only symbolically distinguished itself from the more secular forms of black music that have dominated American popular music in the latter half of the 20th century. While “black” Gospel narratives articulated other-worldly concerns not explicitly shared or represented within secular forms of black music, musically the traditions could barely be differentiated. The pre-Gospel traditions of Negro Spirituals evolved from the same well-spring of work songs that also replenished the muddy waters of the early blues traditions. The late great “father” of Gospel, Thomas Dorsey, was himself once known as “Georgia Tom” a pianist for the great Blues artist Ma Rainy. Dorsey’s Gospel music, which was as much about black economic empowerment as it was the distribution of black Christian doctrine (see Robert Weems’ Desegregating the Dollar) used many of the same chords and melodies prominent in the Blues tradition at the time. Dorsey’s most well known composition, “Precious Lord” (no sleight to James Weldon Johnson, but it is the real “Negro” National Anthem), could have been song by any number of Blues singers and probably was given the lifestyles many of them were forced to lead.
Part of the initial “anger” directed at Ray Charles during the early stages of his career, was that his music (“I Got a Woman,” “Hallelujah, I just Love Her So,” and “The Night-time is the Right Time”) exposed the superficiality of the sacred and secular distinctions. Charles intuitive understood that the “Saturday night sinner” was trying to be “saved” on Sunday morning. What we now refer to as Soul music, initially represented in Charles early musical innovations, is largely a conflation of the Rhythm and Blues and Gospel traditions; a genre that in its early years that was dominated by former church singers like Sam Cooke (the prototypical Soul Man), Lou Rawls, Johnnie Taylor (who just died last week…check his classic Taylored in Silk), and most profoundly Aretha Franklin. Accordingly, Shirley Caesar, the reigning queen of “black” Gospel, would have made a hell of a Soul diva, had she chosen to cross musical boundaries. (During Whitney Houston’s live HBO concert a few years ago, Houston asked Caesar, who was in the audience, to sing a few bars of “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)”—Caesar obliged by singing a few “shoops” for Jesus.) Gospel artist Edwin Hawkins revolutionized the business and aesthetic of “black” Gospel music in 1969 with the release of “Oh Happy Day” performed with the California State choir. The subsequent success of artists like Tramaine Hawkins, who sang lead on “Oh Happy Day” and the Winans brothers and brother sister act BeBe and CeCe Winans, was predicated on the mainstreaming of black Gospel Music that “Oh Happy Day” inspired. Hell, even Paul Simon walked those waters, enlisting the services of the famed Dixie Hummingbirds on the recording “Loves Me Like a Rock” (1973) more than a decade before he employed Ladysmith Black Mambazo on his Graceland (1986) recording, which effectively made him the benevolent “over-seer” (take it as you may) of “World Music” though we could give a shout-out to David Byrne, in this regard.
The Gospel tradition was given an unprecedented commercial boost 6 years ago with the release of Kirk Franklin’s Kirk Franklin and the Family which effectively wielded Gospel sensibilities with the music of the “Hip-Hop” generation. Kirk Franklin and the Family and his alter-ego group God’s Property, which hit with the infectious “Stomp,” which borrowed generously from Funkadelic’s “One Nation Under a Groove,” were the most visible of several artists pushing the Gospel envelope including Fred Hammond (A Radical for Christ) and Hezekiah Walker. Thankful, the debut release of sister act Mary, Mary is in this tradition.
Thankful doesn’t break venture past any of the conventions that Franklin, in all three of his incarnations (The Family, God’s Property and the solo “Nu Nation” recording), has perfected during the last few years. Largely written by Mary, Mary sisters Trecina and Erica Atkins and produced Warryn “Baby Dubb” Campbell, the recording may offend those not comfortable with “bouncing for the Lord.” But, like many of this generation’s “contemporary” Gospel artists, their desires to “wobble, wobble” (shout out to them 504 Boyz…Naw’lins in the house.) are not at the expense of getting their Gospel message to the masses. Unlike popular recordings by BeBe and CeCe Winans, where just WHO they are singing about is unclear, throughout Thankful it is clear that Mary, Mary is most interested in getting their “praise on.” Standouts on the recording include the infectious “Shackles on My Feet,” the sultry (yes, Gospel can be sultry) “Can’t Give Up Now,” and the their flowing version of the classic “Wade in the Water” which critic Richard Iton, whose Solidarity Blues: Race, Culture and the American Left (North Carolina) drops this month, said had him “dancing in the aisles” of his local music store. One wonders when Judith Jamison, artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, will incorporate the Mary, Mary version into the late Ailey’s signature Revelations.