Various Artists: The Rough Guide to Gospel

[13 December 2002]

By Maurice Bottomley

Moans out the way first. No dates for any of the tracks, and one CD is a bit of a joke to cover something as important as gospel music. However, apart from these minor irritants, this is musically one of the best sets you’ll hear this year—or any other for that matter. If you have even the slightest interest in the African-American vocal tradition, then you will benefit from owning this collection. Put simply, the “Guide” presents 60 minutes of some of the most moving and powerful voices in the recorded canon. It also, and probably incidentally, makes out a good case for the Caravans being the most gifted female vocal group ever.

If that name means little to you do not feel ashamed. Plenty of eminent soul and R&B historians have gotten away with whole tomes without mentioning this gospel coalition. Founded in Chicago by Albertina Walker (who took her inspiration from Mahalia Jackson), in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, they were just about the best known act on the Gospel circuit. The members included (at various times) Shirley Caesar, Dorothy Norwood, Inez Andrews, and Bessie Griffin. All of these had successful solo careers, all are represented on this disc and all are deserving of Aretha or Gladys Knight status as singers.

The best known of these is probably Shirley Caesar. A true ambassador for all that is socially and spiritually positive in sacred music (her funky “Message for the People” has been recently championed by the likes of Body and Soul DJ Joe Claussell) is the anthemic “I Feel Good”. This is an uptempo, blues-drenched number that ranks among her most direct and effective vocal performances. That means it has few equals anywhere. I defy even the most atheistic listener not to feel uplifted by the clarity and conviction in Caesar’s husky but forceful delivery.

Bessie Griffin’s “Move Upstairs”, Norwood and Walker’s “Life is Like a Mountain Railroad” and Andrews and Walker’s “I’m Willing” are all post-Jackson in conception and all more than worthy of their prime source of inspiration. These singers had a jazzier smoothness to their voices which, when aligned with some country-influenced melodies (i.e., “Life Is Like a Railroad”), have a nuance and subtlety that even Mahalia never quite matched. And when they turned the vocal heat up (as on “I’m Willing”) they send shivers down the spine. To have all these talents in one group really is like listing your five favourite female singers and imagining what they would have done together.

Forerunner Mahalia gets two tunes, the much quoted (especially in that fine documentary The Promised Land)“I’m on My Way to Canaan” and the less anthologised “Run All the Way”. Both are excellent (though I was never a fan of those perfunctory arrangements) with the former a cornerstone of post-war music and the record to choose if you want to talk about gospel music and social and political aspirations. Most of the music on the CD comes from the Civil Rights days (c1954-1968) and of course the gospel message and rhetoric was central to that Movement. So along with Jackson, we get the Staples Singers (“New Home” and “Jesus is ALL”) and the folkier Montgomery Gospel Trio (“Keep Your Hand on the Plough”). Of these, “New Home” is the pick with the vocal interplay between Pops and Mavis Staples one of the most memorable moments in a mighty career.

Retrospective Civil Rights-ism comes in the form of the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir (“Go Tell It on the Mountain”—good but there are more exciting versions—if you’ve ever caught a glimpse of the old black-and-white footage of heroine-activist Fannie Lou Hamer’s stirring rendition you’ll know what I mean) and Sweet Honey in the Rock who, despite being the darlings of the liberal academy, are truly stunning on “Feel Something Drawing Me”. A tour de force of dignity and passion.

However the most overwhelming performance (even in this elated company) is by the even less celebrated Maggie Ingram. This one might prove a bit much for the uninitiated as Ingram is so intense and so “Southern” on “A Tribute to Granny” that she’ll have some sensibilities running from the room. Post-modern and ironic she is not. For the more soulfully attuned, this is as Real as it gets. If gospel and soul are about the articulation of emotional depth and energy through the medium of the voice, Maggie Ingram is just about the definitive example.

So wonderful are the women, it is almost possible to forget that this disc also features towering performances from key male groups such as the Soul Stirrers, the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, and, of course, Pop Staples. Suffice to say that they all justify their high position in the (still under-appreciated) history of this crucial genre.

In fairness this disc does not really enhance or even really, despite concise and informative sleeve notes, “guide” you through that history. There are no pre-War tracks and no contemporary Rhythm and Praise material. It does superbly illustrate how exciting, rich and varied the “Golden Age” of gospel could be. Even if you know more than this project assumes, you will find yourself playing it again and again (and marveling afresh each time). As an introduction to a glorious phase of African-American artistry it could hardly be bettered. And if it helps, as it surely must, to make the public more aware of the genius of the Caravans, then I for one will be very happy.

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