Saturday Night, Sunday Morning: Gospel Music in a Secular World

Photo from Mavis

Critically, commercially and historically, gospel is the great overlooked American music, maybe because few genres of music force you to confront your beliefs so immediately.

At the time, in 1991, she was known as Shun Pace-Rhodes, and "I Know I Been Changed" was the fourth song on He Lives. As contemporary gospel albums go, it's a decent one, but there's a reason this live performance has become a signature of Lashun Pace, the name she goes by now. Her first utterance is "I", and she exhales it into a forest fire, one long note, sliding up once, twice, twisting in the wind just before she lets you know what's been burned away so something new can exist: "I know I been changed." She repeats the line again, blasting it out, and then pulls back on the final repetition. Every time, she seems to be reconsidering it—not doubting it, but mulling over, even wrestling with what such a statement means—before arriving at the conclusion, the assurance that "[t]he angels in heaven done signed my name".

On the repeat of the chorus, the fulsome choir behind Pace fills in that refrain, allowing her to ad lib around their center, running up and down the register, following them, leading them, singing right along with them. The tempo is deliberate, even strident, but manages to sound free thanks to Pace's unrestrained, playful voice. That freedom only finds a new level on the second verse when she sings, "I stepped"—"stepped" sung like a roar, like she knew it was a dare at the time—"in the water/And the water was cold". She bounces the second "water" like a trombone—


—and pinches her voice in real pain as she sings "cold". No one said redemption was comfortable.

And then she adds this great spoken testimony, having hushed the choir:

"Somebody said, 'How can a brown cow eat green grass and give you white milk?' Well if you think that's something, God's chemical laboratory of redemption took my-my-my black soul and dipped it in red blood, and I came out white as snow."

Typed out, the statement begins with a ridiculous question, an example of mysticism being called upon when simple science might do, but "God's chemical laboratory of redemption" acknowledges that science and transforms it into salvation. Frankly, listening to the song, none of the theology matters. Pace's voice overwhelms logic, and this song is a testimony: the transformation has already happened, and whether you believe it or not is up to you.

It's one of the most powerful performances I've ever heard, despite the fact that I'm far from a true believer. On some days, though, when like anyone else I find myself beholden to a different kind of religion—public opinion, popular culture—I'm embarrassed by my love for this song, by the certainty in Pace's voice. Better, I sometimes think, to strive the distance of the cross-armed kids at the shows, of the critics still toiling in the mud of modernism's cool detachment.

Then I listen again to this song that possesses no doubt, and my own doubt is suspended in the way only art can achieve. What I hear instead can barely be contained by the word "creativity". It's possibility, the possibility of transformation, of change. It's art.

Critically, commercially, historically, gospel is the great overlooked American music, maybe because few genres of music force you to confront your beliefs so immediately. Rarely is gospel ambiguous; there's no place to hide in its sanctified lyrics. Even as Pace offers her own testimony, you know she's talking to you, about you. Even at its least evangelical, it pulls you into the community of the church.

How many pop songs promise community, too—a million? It's a different kind of community, a secular and often generationally-defined body politic that will conform to suit your individuality—that's the promise anyway—but it's a community just the same. Sometimes that promise is overt, sometimes it's cultivated, and sometimes it springs up around the singer or the band without their intent. Nirvana did nothing to invite people in, so they invited themselves, built a cathedral for the congregation, and with a little help from a handful of corporations, made it larger and wider than the band could have imagined.

Historically, what we recognize as contemporary gospel—as opposed to traditional spirituals, shape-note singing, etc.—emerged from the combination of urban blues and jazz. On Saturday night, it was R&B, on Sunday morning it was gospel. They spoke to each other. How could they not? The story of Ray Charles has probably done more to define this exchange in popular culture than any other artist's searching, and while it was always more complicated to him than taking gospel rhythms and morphing them into "What'd I Say?", since that time the divide has only grown. The folk revival of the late '50s and early-to-mid-'60s held on to both sides, epitomized no better than in The Staple Singers, but that, too, faded into the division of popular music into its genres, into what we have today. From this viewpoint, gospel was a building block, and like in a game of Jenga, one that could be removed and set aside without the whole structure crumbling.

That's only one viewpoint, of course. Try telling it to Mavis Staples, who, when she was singing with the Staple Singers on the Riverside label in the early '60s, recorded an ethereal, even spooky version of "I Know I've Been Changed".

In 2010, she recorded You Are Not Alone, produced by Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy for Anti Records, home to Tom Waits and not exactly known for gospel recordings. The title track is as good as anything she's done in her solo career, but its gospel message is subdued. "I've stood in your place", she sings, and she could be singing as your best friend, or as God. In another singer's voice, the song could easily dissolve into a syrupy mess, though I think many of them might be scared off by the line that pops out of the song every time I hear it: "Open up, this is a raid".

So gospel hasn't gone away, of course, but at its most vehemently evangelical, it thrives on the margins. Culturally we might align this with decreased belief in God, especially in the always maligned, always targeted youth. A Pew Research Center Values Study, released on June 4, 2012, contained the following question: "'I never doubt the existence of God.' Agree or disagree?" The study goes on to report that "68% of Millennials say they never doubt the existence of God, a decline of 15 points since 2007. Over this period, the proportion of older age cohorts expressing firm belief in God has remained stable."

There's less of a social stigma attached to admitting doubt, especially for younger generations, which might explain the millennials' answer: they're simply being more honest. Even still—never doubt? Any number above ten percent seems too high to me.

In the recesses of semi-public discourse and in some of the arts, uncertainty seems at an all-time high. Literature in all its forms and the visual arts have been marked in the postmodern era by not only an admittance of doubt but its embrace, to the point where a belief in any centralized meaning seems impossible.

But in the more popular, performative arts, especially pop music, assertion is more woven into the form itself. You're on a stage, in front of a mic; the moment needs to be seized. The easiest assertion is of yourself, which is why can it so often seem false. This is what Nirvana undid, and why the community that circled them anyway was surprising to them and exhilarating to the rest of us: the band's music, especially live, throttled you in vice grip of noise, but inside it was numbed melody, trance-like; Kurt Cobain's howling contrasted with his mumbling, his sometimes embarrassed onstage persona, and the deep lack of faith and whirlpool of doubt in his lyrics. The spectacle of pop music had no place for nothing so complicated, but for a time, it existed anyway.

Two kinds of assertion, then: one smoothed out into a plastic surface, the other pitted, malleable, always changing, always turning back on itself, doubting its own action maybe because it's unsure of its faith in its subject, or maybe because faith seems like a joke.

So when I wonder if the certainty of gospel's statements—the testimony and witness provided by its singers, especially—is not only hard for non-believers to agree with, but aesthetically at odds with music made right now in an overwhelmingly consumerized era, the thought takes me nowhere particularly original: it's the religion, stupid.

And yet, in some gospel music, it's possible to hear this second kind of assertion. For me, it's the quality that makes one performance more honest, more humane than another. It doesn't depend on the performer, either. I hear it in Lashun Pace's "I Know I Been Changed"—in the roughness of her voice, in its wounded even childish moments, and in the narrative she's telling, one of risk and pain; redeemed or not, it's as much a statement of courage as it's one of triumph—and don't hear it in a perfectly fine version of the song recorded by John Hammond Jr. and Tom Waits on the former's 2001 album Wicked Grin, a cover album of Waits' songs. Compared to Pace's version, theirs is a sprint. Despite Waits' growling voice, it's all celebration, a Sunday morning without a hard, shameful Saturday night. That's their take, it's good—before I heard Pace's version, I thought it was brilliant—and that's as far as it goes.

It matters, perhaps, that their version adds little to the traditional lyrics or the typical style of performing the song. The tremolo guitar even sounds like it was brought directly from 1963 and the Staple Singers' performance. In some ways, Hammond Jr.'s and Waits' version is the more traditionally gospel, except for one key difference, one that pops up on more recent recordings including Aaron Neville's. Instead of "The angels in heaven done signed my name", the way Pace sings it, and the way it's written in the traditional, the line becomes "The angels in heaven gonna sign my name." To me, this is a nod toward uncertainty. The job hasn't been done, but it will be… right?

(Waits also recorded a solo version which was released on Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards. In this version, "gonna" reverts to "done". The tempo also finds a middle ground between the duet version and Pace's stalking, meditative version, and maybe significantly, maybe not, Waits is backed by a murmuring choir comprised of his own multi-tracked voice.)

For secular artists, gospel can be just another scrim. When Tom Waits sings "Jesus Gonna Be Here", no one asks him whether or not he really means it; in fact, the consensus seems to be that he's playing yet another role, and since you can get lost trying to figure out which role is real—biographically real, I mean, and some clearly aren't—then the song comes back to you. But there are no rules to this, or to put another way, each song, each performance can change the rules. And so you hear him on "Chocolate Jesus" on Mule Variations, and you wonder if he's lampooning the consumerist version of Christianity, what Harold Bloom calls American Christianity—"got to be a chocolate Jesus, make me feel good inside"—from the outside, or if he's speaking from the inside, a believer disappointed with the feel-good, corporatized televangelism of Joel Osteen and the like.

Dylan's "gospel period" was the exact opposite; no one could believe he really meant it, and they were infuriated when he insisted that he was. It was an audacious move that drew more criticism than it deserved, I think—or at least, the wrong kind of criticism, wrapped as it was in the fascination with his public persona, his politics and the "spokesperson" role that in 1979 no had yet let go of or turned into a nostalgia. Usually the music from that period was sloppy, abrasive, and hectoring, but on the best moments of Slow Train Coming the songs were sublime, and in the best recordings I've heard from the tours of that time, he was on fire in a way that said, "Take it or leave it", instead of, "You'd better accept this or you're going to hell."

But of all these great performers—I realize I'm talking only big names here—the most fascinating secular artist who's "gone gospel" is Prince, hands down. Beginning at least with Controversy if not before, no other musician walked the line between the profane and the sacred like Prince, or had the tub of guts to suggest that they couldn't be separated. In song after song, God and the Devil are at Prince's high heels, each with a voice in his ear, from the apocalyptic abandon of "1999" to the delicate "God", which as the B-side to "Purple Rain" emphasized the redemptive gospel in the hit ballad's central, Pentecostal metaphor.

It got to the point where, in the mid-'80s, as he worked on the Crystal Ball project that would become Sign O' the Times, Prince personified these competing urges in two characters, Camille and Spooky Electric. Then Camille claimed the Lovesexy album, an affirmation released in 1988 instead of withdrawn-at-the-last-minute The Black Album, which was all Spooky Electric (and twice the record). You're better off listening to the two albums back to back, or splicing them together.

The key with Prince is that in the secular world of pop music, he has consistently acknowledged his Gemini nature, even after he joined the Jehovah's Witnesses in 2001. His music reflected the change, understandably; fequently, onstage, he revised his most sexual lyrics to reflect more spiritual themes—this began happening before his conversion, actually—including, for instance, the rewriting of "Twenty-three positions in a one-night stand" from "Gett Off" into "Twenty-three scriptures in a one-night stand." To some this was sacrilege, to others pure silliness, but it's been fascinating to see him maneuver his own material, to judge the desires of his audience against his own beliefs, because this tension seems the most honest thing any of us can admit.

For me, anyway, the best gospel music holds this tension in its throat every time a song is sung. It doesn't matter if it's the Canton Spirituals grooving through "Mississippi Po' Boy" or Gillian Welch and David Rawlings pacing through their epic "I Dream a Highway". Either way, the music pretends nothing, assumes no easy comfort, and speaks in full understanding that our feet are on the ground. Even when suffering is overcome in the story the song tells, the suffering still matters. Even when we believe we've been transformed, the transformation possible in art—the promise it carries, regardless of the message—is embraced. Why else sing, if not for the possibilities? Why else listen?

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