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In Defense of New Orleans Gospel Music

Despite its rich tradition, the future of gospel music in various parts of the world has been an issue of contention and heartbreak in recent years.

By and By: New Orleans Gospel at the Crossroads

Director: Matthew T. Bowden, Joe Compton
US Release Date: 2013

It's hard to pinpoint exactly when and where gospel music began. Common wisdom would suggest that it's been around for centuries, originating far before a recording button even existed, thus making a precise date, time and place for its genesis an impossibility to distinguish. And because it is most associated with religion, an idiom with a timeline that itself has generated hundreds of years of debate, attempting to pinpoint the single moment that gospel music came to fruition is a bit like trying to figure out the very first moment natural light crept through clouds -- it's probably always been around, though it wasn't until someone stopped taking it for granted that a "beginning" was recognized. 

What we do know, however, is that once the '30s came around, the stuff took an exceptionally large role in the American mainstream. As the Gospel Music Heritage Month Foundation outlines on its website, the genre came to prominence as it mirrored the problems that common folk were confronted with while The Great Depression set in and a culture that accepted both racial, sexual and class prejudices began cracking at its seams. If nothing else, this specific type of music offered those in dire need of hope an acute sense of belief that was not offered elsewhere in popular culture. In essence, gospel music served as a tiny candle for those residing in a home devoid of all electricity. 

Somewhat amazingly, that unique sense of embedded optimism has survived generations of cynicism and sea changes, and still serves as inspiration to millions who continue to follow such a time-tested form of expression. Such has not been more prevalent in current memory than what is found within the recently released indie documentary By and By, a compelling if not addicting look at the Electrifying Crown Seekers, a Southern gospel group born in and around New Orleans. They are as charismatic as they are talented, as unintentionally poignant as they are consciously hopeful. 

The film is no more a lesson in the power of music than it is a comment on the impact of change, both good and bad. Most known for their yearly gospel tent sets at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, the Electrifying Crown Seekers make their case in the movie as one of the most overlooked and under-appreciated performers that the Southern gospel scene offers. From various impromptu a cappella performances of standard hymns, to the tender post-Katrina scenery that offers a backdrop more dramatic than one may expect all these years after the storm crippled the area, to the questions that remain unanswered about both the group and its genre's future, By and By earned its spot as an Official Selection at this year's Maryland Film Festival in Baltimore, in short, because of its bleeding-heart.

"Quartet music will never die," the group's leader and founder James Williams Sr. says at one point, "There's a feeling in it."

Oh, but if it were only that easy. What makes the film so provocative is how much it serves as a metaphor for a changing world. In 2004, nearly 50 acts were regularly a part of the New Orleans gospel circuit. After Hurricane Katrina? Fewer than 15. The Electrifying Crown Seekers, as it stands, are the only full pre-Katrina quartet still performing post-Katrina. 

Thus, the narrative, as one may expect, is inherently (and somewhat subliminally) sad. The beauty, of course, is in the clash of that undercurrent with the brightness of the gospel music that paints the film's canvass with astoundingly vibrant colors. When a group member offers up an off-the-cuff four-minute monologue on the difference between survival and revival, for example, it's hard not feel a tiny bit of desperation and empathy flow from your heart. The observation, while affecting and smart, becomes overshadowed by the sheer belief that so clearly sits behind each word, which in turn becomes the sound of a man trying his hardest to justify the former through use of a latter precept that may be the only answer to questions even he knows he has yet to formulate.  

But that's what the common man's reality is -- a set of hopes constantly compromised by justifications we will ourselves to believe. We aim for perfection, settle on acceptance and die without hope during both the macro and micro moments of an everyday life. Hope is the key component to such an equation, and the minute that our personal definition becomes limited, it ceases all relevance and impact. Take away a man's hope, in other words, and you take away far more than a four-letter word. 

By and By illustrates that very decree by highlighting the current gospel music climate's battle with belief, and while it may be narrow in presentation, it's wide in scope. In essence, the Electrifying Crown Seekers are now that tiny candle in a home devoid of all electricity, yet despite a shrinking wick, they continue to carry the torch of some of the most inspirational music ever performed. Gospel music is designed to evoke hope, regardless of religion, conviction, experience or faith. It's a warm call to arms that wholly embodies the "I'm spiritual, but not religious" mantra, leaving it open for people from all walks of life to reach acceptance with both the art itself and the sentiment behind it. 

Why this matters in contemporary gospel goes far deeper than a surface level. At this point in the music's history, the mere fact that it still exists at all is a lesson in perseverance. Its refusal to die or be compromised becomes the most blatant and immediate example of how influential or inspiring a genre of music can be. And while the Electrifying Crown Seekers might just be a tiny part of gospel's fabric, their story has become entirely indicative of the very classification with which they celebrate. Determination and endurance are traits that mere mortals often wrestle with achieving. Gospel music -- and more specifically, Southern-based gospel music -- however, is a phenomenon that appears to be as far away from mortality as a single set of sounds can be, and for that, even the most fringe music fan should be thankful. Because without it, an entire musical culture would feel incomplete. Without it, an entire musical culture would be roaming around in the dark. 

"The most beautiful and transcendent moment of the festival may have come Thursday night when a gospel singing group from New Orleans transported audiences with its a cappella rendition of the most tuneful version of 'The Lord's Prayer' ever," The (Baltimore) Sun's Chris Kaltenbach wrote after catching a screening of the documentary last week. "(By and By) looks at several gospel-singing families joyously proclaiming their faith and, without complaint, working past the challenges of post-Katrina New Orleans. The film's soundtrack is impressive enough, but afterward members of the Electrifying Crown Seekers, led by James Williams Sr., stood beneath the screen and took vocal flight with 'The Lord's Prayer.' Never have those words sounded so heavenly." ("Divine, weird and wonderful at the Maryland Film Festival", 13 May 2013)

Indeed, we may not be entirely sure about how, when or where gospel music first began, and as the documentary at hand suggests, we certainly have no idea how its future may unfold. Through it all, however, there's no denying how rich of an impact this music has had on generations. The Electrifying Crown Seekers are just one in a long line of groups that have given their lives for a music as potent as the most effective drug, as essential as any sound our ears have ever heard. 

By and By does its part by bringing to the forefront an almost-forgotten cause that has been despairingly neglected by the mainstream in recent years. With any luck, this tiny movie from a couple guys in Baltimore who stumbled across a band in a tent at a festival will remind us all that gospel music is as imperative to the Venn diagram of popular music as Lady Gaga or Taylor Swift.

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