“I want you to lift your voices, to sing like you’ve been born again,” Rev. G.W. Killens says to the Mt. Calvary Congregation near the end of disc two of Fire in My Bones, a wonderful collection of 80 rare black gospel tunes. What follows is a voyeuristic kind of field recording of distant voices singing in unison. It’s terrifying, and not just because the only thing this writer worships is hedonism. The voices themselves sound hedonistic. The pleasure of singing the gospel is almost sexual in the joy it brings.
Fire in My Bones, a genre-bending, expectation-defying collection spanning from 1944 to 2007, is filled with bizarre, contradictory moments like this. From the opening song, a beautiful instrumental rendition of “Peace in the Valley,” with a Hawaii pedal steel playing the melody, carried along by a shuffle beat, nearly perfectly bridging the gap (and it’s a small but important one) between country, blues, and hymns, Fire in My Bones is awash in the flame of emotional intensity.
“Subject: Rock and Roll. Can I get an amen?” Elder Beck asks in “Rock and Roll Sermon.” The congregation gives it to him. “The disintegration of our civilization!” he shouts like Howlin’ Wolf while an electric guitar dirtier than anything Chuck Berry has ever played burns away in the background. The church hollers and screams. The tune rocks harder than most rock songs to ever grace AM radio. Even the best gospel collections—Dust-to-Digital’s Goodbye, Babylon, disc four of The Anthology of American Folk Music—leave a great many gaps in the music’s history. The electric guitar, for instance. How did gospel music deal with girl group pop, with ’70s funk, with white rock and roll? The genre’s skill has always been to synthesize piety with popular melody, yet few collections of gospel music have been this historically thorough. Spanning 1944-2007, though many of these songs fall in the earlier portion of that broad timeframe, this collection covers nearly every imaginable genre of music (but no, not hip-hop), all tied together through that ever-familiar, transcendent theme.
There’s the bubble-gum pop of “I’m a Soldier;” the frighteningly punk rock guitars of “You Without Sin Cast the First Stone;” the delta blues of “If I Could Not Say a Word”, and the dirty funk of “Help Me.” The strength of Fire in My Bones is its representation of gospel music’s diversity. It’s not just church organs and choirs, though those do make appearances. In the heyday of rock and roll, gospel produced some of the most fiery exercises in that genre. In the era of delta blues, the gospel musicians nearly created the template for the syncopated polyrhythm of the deep south. Even in the era of grandiose funk and disco, gospel music managed to assimilate within the structure of antithetical music.
And what of religion? What does the sinner do when approaching this music? Well, the one interested in anthropology will find quite a bit to enjoy here, with tape recorders catching people at some of their most vulnerable moments. The scarred growl of Rev. Louis Overstreet’s “Working on a Building” feels like a private moment, like we shouldn’t be allowed to listen to it. Yet musically, the virtuosity on Fire in My Bones is enough to impress anyone: Christian, atheist, Satanist even. The Singing Son of Zion’s gravelly yelp on “I’ll Never Turn Back” will send chills up your spine, whether you believe in what he’s singing or not. The catharsis of Grant & Ella’s “John Saw” is enough to make any listener sweat.
If there is a weakness here, it’s that nearly four hours of music about organized religion can be a burden to sift through. This music is best digested a few songs at a time. No matter how many different styles and sounds are contained on Fire in My Bones, it’s all held together through a single subject: Jesus. Hearing about him over and over and over can become—arduous. Still, with a truly nasty guitar riff, or a hard-edged beat set behind the stories of the Man, these songs are something to worship.