When we think of gospel music, we tend to think of one of two distinct types: the shiny massed voices of European-style choirs, their too-perfect harmonies backgrounded by gentle and classical instrumentation, their clean and pure sounds an attempt at replicating the beauty of the celestial city; or the grit and soul of African-American-style choirs, their voices full of life and edge, their instrumentation more ‘rock’ than classical, their atmosphere passionate and sometimes even raw. Even today, both types of gospel dominate our perception of the genre; just look at churchgoers singing mass et al, or the continuing popularity of artists like Mavis Staples and The Blind Boys of Alabama. But the good folks at World Music Network have shone a light on an obscure third type with the release of The Rough Guide to Gospel Blues (a type that seems to be undergoing a bit of a revival, considering the recent release of Alligator Record’s God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Will Johnson.)
And what amazing music they have unearthed for us – rough, dirty, soulful and heartfelt.
Of course, the blues and Christianity have had a long relationship: think of the legend of Robert Johnson, and songs like ‘Crossroads,’ ‘Hellhound on My Trail’ and ‘Me And The Devil Blues.’ And it wasn’t just country-blues artists who sang about God and the Devil – most of the pioneers of electric blues were Christian, even if they weren’t practising. But what makes The Rough Guide to Gospel Blues unique is that most of the music within is the antithesis of the traditional blues approach to the Christian god. The god that Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf et al sang about was more the Old Testament God – they sang about how he would punish them for their sins, or about the judgement that he had waiting for them. These were harrowing songs, the artists begging God to forgive them or cursing him for forgetting them. In contrast, most of the music on The Rough Guide to Gospel Blues is joyous and uplifting. The songs that make it up tend to praise God, to celebrate his love, despite the fact that many of the featured artists – Skip James, Bessie Smith, Blind Boy Fuller, Bukka White, Memphis Minnie and so on – were equally comforting making music that celebrated the more earthy side of life.
Reverend Gary Davis’ ‘I Am the Light’ is an up-tempo, ragtime-ish jig, with Davis’ typically complicated guitar-work acting as a one-man version of a foot stomping Southern congregation. Mississippi John Hurt’s ‘Praying On The Old Camp Ground’ is a more subdued affair; the story of a campground preacher, Hurt’s weary voice and airy guitar make us feel like we’re right there with the preacher himself. ‘I’ll Be Rested (When The Roll Is Called)’ by Blind Roosevelt Graves & Brother is a more typical African-American gospel affair: call and response vocals, a simple and catchy melody, cyclic chords, train-engine percussion. These three songs set a kind-of template for the rest of the album: the 25 other songs (25! And by 25 other artists!) tend to be either ragtime-ish jigs, subdued narratives or something approaching what we tend to think of as African-American gospel. The blues is what holds these songs together, what makes The Rough Guide to Gospel Blues a cohesive whole. It’s the sense of a hard life well lived that’s invested in each song; the solo acoustic guitar and the gruff voice and the thin production; the sheer amount of real feeling on display. It’s a perfect record for blues and gospel fans alike.
(Originally published on Cyclic Defrost, 19/7/2016)