Blasting off a concert with “Lord, I Know I’ve Been Changed” (insert booming applause noises here) set me to wondering about the hand-in-hand relationship between the gospel and blues musical styles and how they can so often be intertwined (and how awesome it can be when they are). A little research opened up some interesting doors to walk through and I thought I’d share a few.
According to the legendary McKinley Morganfield*, “The blues was born behind a mule”. The Deep South in the days of the Emancipation Proclamation was begging for a way to have its story told and much of it wasn’t cheerful. Without going down the rabbit hole discussion around slavery and racism, let’s just say that the patriotic tunes of the Civil War and the popular style of “The Little Brown Jug” weren’t gonna cover it. As is true of so many musical genres, since the right thing didn’t exist, the musicians and singers created one.
The nuts and bolts of blues took a hard right turn when compared to the do-re-mi of the day with pounding beats, syncopation, notes that were in between the regular places that notes resided (my stars and garters, did that man just BEND that string and play it?) and instruments mimicking the wailing sounds born of sadness and heartache. When folks moved north, they brought it with them and folded it into the urban settings they found. St. Louis and Chicago in particular blossomed their own sounds and blues started to sneak (okay…bludgeon) its way into the musical landscape.
Somewhere along the way, the blues musicians started adding more to the stories they told. It wasn’t just about hard times and strife, it was also about their faith and how it got them through. It wasn’t just about pain and sorrow; it was also about deliverance and celebration. Blues music had always had an underlying power to it, but now it started to describe hope and strength and that gave it more “oomph”. The first step toward what became gospel blues was the transition from the “spiritual”, a prayerful and often somber solo piece, to a more energetic form of music often expressed by the entire congregation, led by the equally energetic pastor. In the 1930’s Thomas Dorsey (the blues musician, not Tommy the big band leader) pulled the blues inside the sanctuary, adding religious themes to the blues style, and the combination had a unique resonance.
(You may never have heard of Mr. Dorsey, but I guarantee you’ve sung one of the over 3,000 songs he composed. The one that wrote his name in history and hymnals was written following the death of his wife and son during childbirth, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”.)
As new blues styles emerged, their application to gospel music quickly followed. Thanks to an old friend, I had the opportunity to explore this a little as he demonstrated how the genius of Robert Johnson found its way into the hands of the Reverend Gary Davis and how he added the intricacies of a new guitar style to his Baptist repertoire. How do we know this? Because as all of this was happening the recording industry was just figuring out how to capture it and play it back to us.
The transition of gospel blues into choral music was perhaps the easiest move of all. The pastor was leading and the congregation was singing out the message along with him in the familiar call-and-response style. It didn’t take long to form a volunteer choir to help lead the responses and the music exploded from there. Fortunately, the phonograph and the printing press made sure that it wouldn’t disappear on us and gospel blues is part of the arsenal of nearly every choir (shoots, we did a whole show of it…in Hawaii!). Once you get through the introduction of “Lord, I Know I’ve Been Changed” and the bump-ba-bump-ba-bump cranks up, you’re in the gospel blues world and it’s mighty infectious.
There’s a whole lot more to this story but this is a blog, not a novel (which is a good thing for all of us). The Jubilee, the “blackface” minstrel, the Pentecostal movement, it’s an amazing and rich history and I’ve only scratched the surface of it here. If it got your attention, go digging and you’ll be amazed at this truly indigenous form of American music.
And why did I type all of this? It started with just a curious thought, but turned into a desire to understand what we’ve been singing. If you can grasp the essence and history of a piece of music, regardless of the style, you’ve made it three-quarters of the way to showing your audience what you found. Consider just the titles…”I’m Gonna Sing When the Spirit Says Sing”, “Lord, I Know I’ve Been Changed”, “I’m Gonna Live So God Can Use Me”, “He Never Failed Me Yet”. If you dig deeper into the pages you can imagine the voices that sang with hands raised and faces skyward and embrace the chance to do your best to pass that music on.
And if you do, just a little bit, the audience will know it and thank you for it. Promise.
*You may have heard his legendary stage name: Muddy Waters.