It's disconcerting to find out that no matter how liberal you consider yourself that occasionally you can find yourself guilty of stereotyping. It is said that awareness is the first step towards overcoming a character flaw and acceptance makes the task of doing so that much easier. So I guess I need to acknowledge a debt of gratitude to the two-CD set, Spirit Rising, Volumes I & II.
Prior to listening to these recordings, I had succumbed to the notion that all Black gospel music was spiritually uplifting, musically exciting, and filled with genuine passion. So firmly did I believe this that all you needed do was mention the names of groups like The Five Blind Boys of Alabama or The Staple Singers to cause shivers to run up and down my spine.
Somehow or other I formed the impression that all Black gospel singers were like Mahalia Jackson, Al Green, Mavis Staples, or Paul Robeson. That, man or woman, their faith was so intense that they sang for the sheer joy and anguish of their belief. Listening to these people and others led me to reach the conclusion that Black gospel music could always appeal to anyone, no matter what their faith, in the same way that any truly inspired work of art can touch your spirit whether or not you share the artist's belief.
Well, I'm ashamed to say that's what I believed. I was too narrow-minded to think it was possible for Black gospel music to be just as insipid and uninspired as anything Pat or Debbie Boone could come up with. But thanks to the two discs of Spirit Rising, my eyes have been opened. Just because it's Black people singing gospel music doesn't guarantee that it's going to be wonderful.
Now I'm not saying that the performers on the Spirit Rising discs aren't talented or skilled, because they are. I'm not saying that the music isn't funky and polished, with a good beat and designed to make you move your feet, because it is. In fact pretty much every number included on the two discs is beautifully produced and expertly presented with fine musicianship and great singing.
That, to me, is the problem with this music — it's almost antiseptic in its cleanliness. In spite of all their demonstrative behaviour, their declamations of love for Jesus, and their proclamations of faith, there seems to be little or no real emotion behind any of it, none of the raw passion that I've come to expect from Black gospel music. Even the audience responses sound contrived, more like the studio audience for a daytime talk show than a roomful of the faithful.
When I listen to gospel music I'm not listening to the "message", but the manner in which it is delivered. As in any type of message song, the delivery needs to very compelling in order to first grab the listener's attention and then be able to hold it for the length of the song. The musicians, the lead, vocalist and, in the case of a lot of gospel music, the choir all need to be doing their job properly in order for the delivery to accomplish both of those tasks.
The material on Spirit Rising, Volumes I & II just wasn't given the delivery necessary to sustain my interest throughout any of the numbers save for one track. "How I Got Over" is sung by Mahalia Jackson and her performance was nothing short of brilliant. Her voice is a great example of control and of shaping a song through volume, passion, and tempo.
Instead of starting at almost top volume and leaving no room to build to a climax if the song requires it, Mahalia knows that there is more to expressing passion than just volume and speed. A performer needs to know how to modulate what she or he does to best bring out a song's message.
Although she is only accompanied by a piano, her performance is far more compelling than that of anyone else on the disc. There is nothing elaborate or fancy about her performance, but the passion and emotion that can be heard in her voice demands our complete attention for the whole time she is singing. In some ways I think the producers of the album would have been better off leaving Mahalia off the disc as she only serves to emphasize what the other performers lack.
Spirit Rising, Volumes I & II was a major disappointment for me musically as it did not live up to my expectations. It did help me out personally though, as I was able to rid myself of belief in the stereotype that Black gospel music is always passionate and full of the spirit of creation. Too many of the songs on these discs have the sound of top forty schmaltz for that generalization to ever be true again. Pity.