Tag Archives: gospel music

A Gospel Christmas Song Playlist – Listen and enjoy!

It’s that time of year, Dear Reader, and to help you get in the holiday spirit I offer you this playlist of old school gospel Christmas songs. Yes, they are definitely, unapologetically Christmas songs, and not holidays songs. But they are more than that, too. They are lovely songs beautifully interpreted. Enjoy them on whatever level you like.

Many of the songs in this playlist were cited in Robert Darden’s Top 10 Gospel Christmas Songs and Bob Marovich’s The Twelve Classic Gospel Songs of Christmas (not all of their choices were online), with a few others thrown in for good measure.
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What’s A Life’s Work about? It’s a documentary about people engaged in projects they won’t see completed in their lifetimes. You can find out more on this page.

We recently ran a crowdfunding campaign and raised enough to pay an animator and license half of the archival footage the film requires. We need just a bit more to pay for licensing the other half of the archival footage, sound mixing, color correction, E&O insurance and a bunch of smaller things. When that’s done, the film is done! It’s really very VERY close!

So here’s how you can help get this film out to the world. It’s very simple: click the button…

Donate Now!

… and enter the amount you want to contribute (as little as $5, as much as $50,000) and the other specifics. That’s it. No login or registration required. Your contribution does not line my pocket; because the film is fiscally sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts, all money given this way is overseen by them and is guaranteed to go toward the completion of this film. Being fiscally sponsored also means that your contribution is tax-deductible. So why not do it? The amount doesn’t matter as much as the fact that you’re helping to bring a work of art into the world. And that, I think, is really exciting!

Questions? Email me at d a v i d ( aT } b l o o d o r a n g e f i l m s {d o t] c o m[/color-box]

The Singer or the Song?

It’s an age old debate: the singer or the song. Is a song special or does a performer make it special? Taking this a step further, is a gospel song sanctified because it contains its own magic or is it the musician that makes it sanctified.

No one would dispute Mavis Staples singing “I’ll Take You There” is sacred music. Gospel, straight up.

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l64Bte5ygvM[/youtube]

What about Spirtualized’s version of “Oh Happy Day”?

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dF9MLh13EwE[/youtube]

Thoughts? Comments?

Top 12 Classic Gospel Christmas Songs Selected by DJ and Writer Bob Marovich

Bob Marovich, writer, creator of The Black Gospel blog, host of “Gospel Memories” Radio Show on WLUW Chicago, and friend of A Life’s Work has graciously allowed me to poach a list of gospel Christmas songs he compiled for TBGB. Thanks, Bob. If there’s something on ALW you want to poach, just say the word.

The Twelve Classic Gospel Songs of Christmas

Angelic Gospel SingersLooking for an alternative from the standard Yule music fare? Try these twelve classic gospel songs on for size. Use your favorite search engine to find reissue CDs, or maybe even the original vinyl, on which these songs can be found.

Happy Holidays, everyone!

1. “Glory, Glory to the New Born King” – Angelic Gospel Singers (Gotham, 1950)

Philadelphia’s Angelic Gospel Singers, featuring Margaret Allison, hit it big in 1949 on their very first 78 rpm single, “Touch Me, Lord Jesus.” Riding high on their newfound popularity, they recorded the Christmas song “Glory, Glory to the New Born King” for Gotham the following year. Horace Clarence Boyer notes that the song became as popular in the African-American community as “White Christmas” did in the white community. Even today, a gospel Christmas compilation without someone singing “Glory, Glory to the New Born King” is simply incomplete.

2. “O Holy Night” – Marion Williams (Savoy, 1959)

The legendary gospel soprano Marion Williams moved the Ward Singers up a little higher before stepping out on her own in 1958 to fashion the Stars of Faith from fellow members of the Wards aggregation. One year later, Marion and the Stars of Faith waxed a Christmas album for Savoy Records. On the album, Marion performs “O Holy Night” as a solo. While the entire song is a masterpiece, its finest moment comes at the composition’s emotional apex, when Marion launches one of her signature high-whoos, like a sonic rocket, heavenward.

3. “Christmas Morn” – Charles Watkins (Savoy, 1951)

Before Charles Watkins became a Bishop, he was a gospel crooner, one of the smoothest male vocalists to ever grace the genre. His 1963 “Heartaches” was a gospel hit that would be covered by many artists, but 12 years prior, he recorded “Christmas Morn” for Savoy. “Christmas Morn” remains an obscure title, but that is unfortunate: the melody is every bit as unforgettable as Nat Cole’s take on Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song.” Forget global warming: the polar ice cap began to melt when Watkins falsettoed “Merry Christmas to you” in the song’s final bars.

4. “Pretty Little Baby” – James Cleveland and the Cleveland Singers (Savoy, 1968)

A Christmas spiritual, sung slowly and with much gravity and passion by “King” James Cleveland, whose coarse, pious voice always seemed one beat away from a full-out sob. The Cleveland Singers increase and decrease in intensity in all the right places, making this one of Cleveland’s most perfect recordings. Given Cleveland’s prolific recording career spanning four decades, that says a lot.

5. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” – Pilgrim Travelers (Specialty, 1952)

The Pilgrim Travelers were one of the finest a cappella gospel quartets of the Golden Era. They lent their voices to this popular Christmas song, which was as relevant during the Korean War as it was a decade earlier when sung about World War II soldiers missing loved ones during the holidays. The Travelers’ version, however, doesn’t seem nearly as optimistic about soldiers returning as did Bing Crosby’s 1943 classic, but instead seems to stoop under the weight and weariness of continued conflict. The steel guitar flourishes at the end, added presumably to brighten the arrangement, only thicken the fog of loneliness and despair.

6. “When Was Jesus Born” – Patterson Singers (United Artists, 1968)

The Patterson Singers were no strangers to Christmas songs, having performed a few for a special Christmas album produced in 1963 by Vee Jay Records. This recording, however, finds them across the ocean, in concert in Frankfort, West Germany, shouting this timeless spiritual at elite runner pace. The Pattersons’ rhythmic stutter during the litany of months at the composition’s center drives the audience into an understandable frenzy.

7. “White Christmas” – Vocalaires of Newport News, VA (Pinewood, early 1970s)

The Vocalaires male quartet, like the Ravens and Drifters before them, turn Bing Crosby’s zillion seller into a rousing, fun doo-wop. While the Ravens’ and Drifters’ recordings remain fairly faithful to the original, the Vocalaires sing the lyrics to a standard 50s doo-wop song structure, resplendent with playful booming bass lines and high harmonies. A tough-to-find recording, but well worth the search.

8a. “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” – Wings over Jordan Choir (RCA Victor, 1948) &
8b. “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” – Rev. Cleophus Robinson (Peacock, 1967)

Men and women of all races and creeds who grew up in the 1940s recall fondly the Wings over Jordan Sunday radio program, where they heard some of the most moving spiritual singing on the planet. Who better, then, to render Robert MacGimsey’s neo-spiritual than Rev. Glenn Settles’ Wings over Jordan? The Cleveland-based chorus sings the composition like a teary lullaby, with lovingly hushed harmonies.

Rev. Cleophus Robinson’s take on the composition two decades later, however, eschews the supplicant quietude and aims straight for the theme’s parallel to the plight of African Americans in the 1960s. Robinson’s gravitas on the line, “The world treat you mean, Lord/Treat me that way, too,” will raise the hair on the back of your neck.

9. “Jesus Christ, the Baby” – Six Trumpets feat. Maggie Ingram (Nashboro, 1961)

This Christmas gospel favorite introduced the sweet, girl-group soprano of Maggie Ingram. The Six Trumpets male quartet supporting Ingram chant “baby” (as in Jesus) in the background, though it sounds for all the world as if they are chanting “Maggie.” Ingram went on to form a successful family group called the Ingramettes, but she never again replicated the charmingly graceful performance of her debut.

10. “Follow the Star” – Edwin Hawkins, feat. Richard Smallwood (Birthright, 1985)

Richard Smallwood wrote “Follow the Star” and accompanied the Hawkins Family on their performance of it for their much sought-after 1985 Christmas album. “Follow the Star” features a chorus of beautiful, tight harmonies, crisp and invigorating as a starry winter night. A master of the expansive, emotional finish, Smallwood writes a real heart-wrenching coda for “Follow the Star.” It alone is guaranteed to elicit sighs of wonder and soul satisfaction.

11. “Joy to the World” – Stars of Black Nativity (Vee Jay, 1962)

Alex Bradford and the Bradford Singers, Marion Williams and the Stars of Faith, and Princess Stewart served as the original cast for Langston Hughes’ captivating interpretation of the Nativity. Like the Christmas Star, Black Nativity would be witnessed and marveled at the world over. “Joy to the World” was performed for the stage production and original soundtrack by Professor Bradford and his Singers. It was a stroke of genius: the group’s over-the-top effervescence was perfect for this musical explosion of exaltation.

12. “Silent Night” – Mahalia Jackson (Apollo, 1950)

Franz Gruber and Josef Mohr wrote this Christmas chestnut in 1818, but when Mahalia Jackson wrapped her gospel tonsils around it 132 years later, you’d swear the two Austrians wrote the song expressly for her. Millions upon millions have crooned this carol, but few with the straightforward, heartwarming religious intensity of ‘Halie.

You can find some of these songs and many more great gospel Christmas songs on my Youtube playlist.

Make sure to compare and contrast Robert Darden’s Top Ten Gospel Christmas songs.

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What’s A Life’s Work about? It’s a documentary about people engaged in projects they won’t see completed in their lifetimes. You can find out more on this page.

We recently ran a crowdfunding campaign and raised enough to pay an animator and license half of the archival footage the film requires. We need just a bit more to pay for licensing the other half of the archival footage, sound mixing, color correction, E&O insurance and a bunch of smaller things. When that’s done, the film is done! It’s really very VERY close!

So here’s how you can help get this film out to the world. It’s very simple: click the button…

Donate Now!

… and enter the amount you want to contribute (as little as $5, as much as $50,000) and the other specifics. That’s it. No login or registration required. Your contribution does not line my pocket; because the film is fiscally sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts, all money given this way is overseen by them and is guaranteed to go toward the completion of this film. Being fiscally sponsored also means that your contribution is tax-deductible. So why not do it? The amount doesn’t matter as much as the fact that you’re helping to bring a work of art into the world. And that, I think, is really exciting!

Questions? Email me at d a v i d ( aT } b l o o d o r a n g e f i l m s {d o t] c o m[/color-box]

Interview with Kevin Nutt Archivist and Gospel Music DJ on WFMU

kevin_nutt
Kevin Nutt with Famous Blue Jay placard.

I’ve been listening to WFMU, an eclectic radio station broadcast out of Jersey City, NJ, for many, many years. Two shows have been especially influential. The first, when I was in my early twenties, were broadcasts of Alan Watts lectures. The second is a one-hour gospel show that I’ve been listening to for more than 10 years. Kevin Nutt’s show, Sinner’s Crossroads, is partly responsible for one-quarter of A Life’s Work. Had Kevin’s show not exposed me to that music I wouldn’t have considered including Robert Darden and his work with the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project. (If you visit the Thank You 2009 page, the first year I gave thanks here, you’ll notice I thanked Kevin (and WFMU); that was long before I thought of interviewing anyone for the blog.)

 

Kevin writes: “My paying gig is as the folklife archivist for the Archive of Alabama Folk Culture in Montgomery. I also produce a weekly vintage gospel radio show on WFMU and when I have time I run the CaseQuarter label. I grew up in Montgomery and lived in NYC from 1990-1997 working in bookstores and attending Hunter College. I have one wife and two sons.” 

And now, the interview.

 

How and when did your interest in gospel music come about? 
Fanny Crosby
Fanny Crosby

I grew up in a Baptist church and my father was a Baptist minister. My mom loved music. She was the first person in her family who attended college and she majored in music. I was always fascinated by the songs we sang in church and pored over the hymns as we sang them especially noting the names of the composers and the publication dates. The Southern Baptist hymnal contains very few older, more formal hymns like Isaac Wyatts’ tunes. Most of them were written between the Civil War and World War 1 by American Protestants. Lots of Fanny Crosby’s, Showalter’s and the like: Standing on the Promises, Old Rugged Cross, Love Lifted Me. There was a certain distinctly American bounce to these tunes and hymns and except for the later Pentecostal hymn books most of these tunes were not even in Methodist hymnals. Since most of your black quartets were from Baptist churches there was a lot of hymn borrowing and later when I was a teenager and heard groups like the Soul Stirrers and the Swan Silvertones sing these very same hymns it just knocked me off my feet.

What are your duties as the Alabama Folklife Archivist and what are some of your biggest challenges as an archivist?

MontgomeryFlyingClouds2Right now, we are processing the 25 years of fieldwork collected by the folklorists who worked with the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture, the Alabama State Council on the Arts and the Alabama Folklife Association. Alabama has had an unusually strong public folklore presence and these folklorists collected an impressive body of recordings, photographs and the like documenting all manner of Alabama folklife. We are working off a big grant right now that’s allowed us to hire another archivist to help with the accession, processing and cataloging of the material. So I oversee that. My other duties include handling pretty much any kind of recorded sound material donations and requests that come our way and I also engineer and board op any of the various lectures and programs we have here at the Alabama Department of Archives and History.

The sound lab. If you saw the posts about the digitization center at Baylor University, this should look familiar to you.
The sound lab. If you saw the posts that featured the digitization center at Baylor University, this should look familiar to you.

The biggest challenge is coordinating, administrating and preparing much of these materials and collections to meet the needs of patrons in the digital world. People, rightly so, want access to collections digitally from remote sites. It’s a paradigm shift and archivists are wrestling with all kinds of practical problems digitizing collections and moving them to the digital domain.

There are many people with an interest in a certain genre of music. Some have so much enthusiasm for the genre, they become collectors, which I’m guessing you are. But archiving seems to be a whole other level of devotion. Was there a eureka moment that led you to pursuing that career? 

Not really. I worked in bookstores in Alabama and New York, too, and it just seemed like a logical move to some kind of archiving work from there.

Is an archivist’s work ever done?

 I hope not; that would mean humanity’s work would be done.

Do you think your DJ-ing and archiving are related somehow?

 Sure. When I do my show I am working from a historical collection. I’ve accessioned it, catalogued it, preserved it and I am making it available to the public through broadcasts.

Why should an atheist in New York City care if gospel music is preserved or not? 

For the same reasons that any other kind of spiritual or sacred music of any society or culture should be preserved. It is part of the expression of humanity. For many music aficionados in the US, listening to gospel music requires a type of leap of faith other music does not. There’s a (understandable) resistance to the music because certain types of gospel music are associated with reactionary political parties and views. At the same time black gospel religious music is more accepted among non-believers because it is associated with the black church and its participation in the Civil Rights movement. Gospel music has had such a huge impact, lyrically, melodically, musically, on American vernacular music as a whole. Clichés abound like “rock and roll began in the church.” I think there’s a lot of truth in that.

 And this one is from mutual friend Christine Lofgren: Where do you find those great ads you play on Sinner’s Crossroads?

Bishop Gray sign
Photo by Jim Snider.

Sinner’s Crossroads has always been in part an homage to AM gospel radio stations in the South. There are so few left now, but as late as the 1990s one could hear these tiny, locally programmed stations everywhere. Many offered pay-as-you-go programming for anyone who felt the inspiration or call to get on the radio and preach, testify, rant or sing. It made for some spectacular radio moments. To this day, local spiritualists, hoodoo folk and psychic healers and readers’ best avenue to customers is on gospel radio stations. Even though there is often a great deal of tension between traditional denominations and the readers themselves, the gospel stations are how these folk get to their customers. So on these small, local radio stations you would hear between the gospel records and taped or live church service broadcasts these amazing self-produced commercials for local spiritualists and the like. In the 1980s, I started recording off the air a lot of AM gospel programming in Montgomery, Alabama. That’s where Sister ‘Leisha and Mother Marie and Reverend Izear Espie come from, those AM radio gospel stations. I don’t include them in my show as some kind of inappropriate or incongruent comic moment. Within the logic of these AM gospel radio programs they make perfect sense and indeed belong there.

Giant thanks to Kevin Nutt. Special thanks to Christine Lofgren for brokering the interview.

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What’s A Life’s Work about? It’s a documentary about people engaged in projects they won’t see completed in their lifetimes. You can find out more on this page.

We recently ran a crowdfunding campaign and raised enough to pay an animator and license half of the archival footage the film requires. We need just a bit more to pay for licensing the other half of the archival footage, sound mixing, color correction, E&O insurance and a bunch of smaller things. When that’s done, the film is done! It’s really very VERY close!

So here’s how you can help get this film out to the world. It’s very simple: click the button…

Donate Now!

… and enter the amount you want to contribute (as little as $5, as much as $50,000) and the other specifics. That’s it. No login or registration required. Your contribution does not line my pocket; because the film is fiscally sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts, all money given this way is overseen by them and is guaranteed to go toward the completion of this film. Being fiscally sponsored also means that your contribution is tax-deductible. So why not do it? The amount doesn’t matter as much as the fact that you’re helping to bring a work of art into the world. And that, I think, is really exciting!

Questions? Email me at d a v i d ( aT } b l o o d o r a n g e f i l m s {d o t] c o m[/color-box]

 

 

Gospel Music or the Blues, Which Came First?

The other night I saw the amazing sacred steel gospel band, the Campbell Brothers. I had seen them before and this time, like the last time, I was standing and clapping and waving my arms over my head for most of the concert. The joy and positive energy their music transmits to a roomful of people is remarkable.

At one point, guitarist Phil Campbell engaged in a little between song banter. To paraphrase:campbell_brothers

We are often asked which came first, gospel music or the blues. The Campbell Brothers believe they arose at the same time, because blues players were playing gospel music and gospel musicians were playing blues. The same people who played the blues in a juke joint on Saturday night  played gospel music in a church on Sunday morning.

I am not a musicologist or music historian, but this makes sense to me. Early bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson made gospel recordings under a different name. And there is little doubt that the earliest blues and gospel musicians were hearing each other play, and likely “borrowing” from each other. [Related post: Blind Willie Johnson Meet Blind Lemon Jefferson.]

Juke Joint Chapel posterBut what appeals to me most about this is the notion that the same person produced secular and sacred music and both types of music moved the body and the spirit, both Saturday night and Sunday morning.

At one point during Phil Campbell’s music lesson he clasped his hands, like some do in prayer, and shook them, signifying the inextricable interweave of these musical genres. I liked that.

Here’s a Campbell Brothers song for your listening pleasure. It’s wonderful, but I don’t think any recorded medium can really capture what happens when you see them live. But then that’s the challenge, isn’t it?

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GtDqv2h_DSA[/youtube]

[color-box color=”gray”]

What’s A Life’s Work about? It’s a documentary about people engaged in projects they won’t see completed in their lifetimes. You can find out more on this page.

We recently ran a crowdfunding campaign and raised enough to pay an animator and license half of the archival footage the film requires. We need just a bit more to pay for licensing the other half of the archival footage, sound mixing, color correction, E&O insurance and a bunch of smaller things. When that’s done, the film is done! It’s really very VERY close!

So here’s how you can help get this film out to the world. It’s very simple: click the button…

Donate Now!

… and enter the amount you want to contribute (as little as $5, as much as $50,000) and the other specifics. That’s it. No login or registration required. Your contribution does not line my pocket; because the film is fiscally sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts, all money given this way is overseen by them and is guaranteed to go toward the completion of this film. Being fiscally sponsored also means that your contribution is tax-deductible. So why not do it? The amount doesn’t matter as much as the fact that you’re helping to bring a work of art into the world. And that, I think, is really exciting!

Questions? Email me at d a v i d ( aT } b l o o d o r a n g e f i l m s {d o t] c o m[/color-box]
 

Top 10 Gospel Christmas Songs

I asked Robert Darden, author of  Nothing but Love in God’s Water: Volume I, Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement and People Get Ready!: A New History of Black Gospel Music and founder of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project, to list some of his favorite gospel Christmas songs. Enjoy!

The songs are in quotes and can be found on the CD (or LP) in italics.

Odetta: Christmas Spirituals
“Rise Up Shepherd and Follow”

Died  December 2008. Legendary folk/blues/spiritual singer. Active in the Civil Rights movement. Influenced many artists, including Bob Dylan. Music historian/performer, legend.

from Black Nativity

Featuring Marion Williams and Princess Stewart
“Mary, What You Gonna Call That Pretty Little Baby?”

With arrangements by Professor Alex Bradford, gospel re-telling of Christmas story. Electrifying performances on Broadway in 1962. Took to London for several tours and revivals. Considered one of the inspirations for Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar. Two powerful voices – Marion Williams’ lower, warmer voice and Princess Stewart’s higher, raspier voice.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lvaj-02z2HU[/youtube]

The Harmonizing Four

“Sweet Little Jesus Boy”
Little known group from Richmond, Virginia but very popular during the Golden Age of Gospel Music. Very traditional – rarely with instruments, a cappella, flat-footed jubilee style. Wonderful arrangements of old spirituals and hymns. Sang at funeral of Franklin Delano Roosevelt… best known for their speaker-rumbling bass singers, although sadly not on their few Christmas releases.

A Gospel Christmas Celebration
“Silent Night” by the Mighty Clouds of Joy
One of my all-time favorite groups … one of the last of the best gospel quartets to be formed … singer Joe Ligon is one of gospel’s last great shouters … and is the model for Wilson Pickett, who used to guest with them occasionally … called the “Temptations of Gospel” … still hard on the road today!

The Texas Christmas Collection
“Christmas Hymn” by Karen Kraft
Know virtually nothing about Karen Kraft … this was recorded for a small Austin label in the 1980s, heard she lives in Bryan-College Station … interpretation of a song originally written by Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith – but the original doesn’t sound much like this!

The Legendary Groups of Gospel
“Go Tell It on the Mountain” by the Mighty Clouds of Joy

From Black Nativity
Featuring Marion Williams and Princess Stewart
“Joy to the World”
My favorite gospel soloist is the late Marion Williams … rarely in better voice than on this recording in 1962 … Most adventuresome gospel vocalist, endlessly inventive, taking chances and probably drove her accompanists crazy …

A Gospel Family Christmas

“Hallelujah Chorus” by Pastor Donald Alford and the Progressive Radio Choir
Most recent track in collection. The Progressive Radio Choir has been based and recording in Chicago since the 1970s. For a time, recorded with Pastor (now Apostle) Donald L. Alford, including their hit “He’s Alive.” Alford is now head of the Progressive Life-Giving Word Cathedral near Chicago, but the choir continues and this may be the best legacy of their short collaboration.

You can find some of these songs and many more great gospel Christmas songs on my Youtube playlist.

Want more  Christmas gospel music suggestions? Check out  The Twelve Classic Gospel Songs of Christmas by Bob Marovich.

[color-box color=”gray”]

What’s A Life’s Work about? It’s a documentary about people engaged in projects they won’t see completed in their lifetimes. You can find out more on this page.

We recently ran a crowdfunding campaign and raised enough to pay an animator and license half of the archival footage the film requires. We need just a bit more to pay for licensing the other half of the archival footage, sound mixing, color correction, E&O insurance and a bunch of smaller things. When that’s done, the film is done! It’s really very VERY close!

So here’s how you can help get this film out to the world. It’s very simple: click the button…

Donate Now!

… and enter the amount you want to contribute (as little as $5, as much as $50,000) and the other specifics. That’s it. No login or registration required. Your contribution does not line my pocket; because the film is fiscally sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts, all money given this way is overseen by them and is guaranteed to go toward the completion of this film. Being fiscally sponsored also means that your contribution is tax-deductible. So why not do it? The amount doesn’t matter as much as the fact that you’re helping to bring a work of art into the world. And that, I think, is really exciting!

Questions? Email me at d a v i d ( aT } b l o o d o r a n g e f i l m s {d o t] c o m[/color-box]

Editing a Setback Sequence – Process

Previously, on A Life’s Work blog

In a previous post I wrote  about the process of editing a clip from the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project section of A Life’s Work. Since I’ve been working on the subsequent section of the BGMRP story I thought, why not share that process as well?

You don’t need to view the previous clip, but it might put this one in context a bit more. So here’s the clip. Or read on.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VxtEO1JGWoQ[/youtube]

So in that previous clip that you may or may not have viewed, Robert Darden lists the numerous challenges the BGMRP faces while the visuals take us part way through the process of archiving some rare vinyl. Audio engineer Tony Tadey role is prominent. What’s not in the clip above, but is in a newly re-edited clip, is Robert expressing his concern about the project’s reliance on the audio engineer position, and how that position is not financially secured.

“… if he’s gone and we don’t have money to hire another audio engineer, then everything comes to a halt,” Darden says.

I wanted to resume showing the archiving process. The newly re-edited clip ends with the needle dropping on the record and the sound of the pre-music scratchiness of stylus on vinyl. I liked the idea of ending that section with some suspense. What are we going to hear? (Note that the clip above starts playing music, a different song than you’ll hear at the start of the clip below.)

Right here’s the new clip.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h2dmHvFA-3I[/youtube]

Where to Begin the Editing Process?

As with every section, the editing process begins with the subject telling the story in his or her words. In this section, the narrative was all about the hurdle the BGMRP encountered. There really wasn’t that much editing to do to the spoken word. When Bob described what happened, he did it in his usual articulate manner. Sometimes I’ll ask essentially the same question twice, but rephrase it to see if I can get something new the second time around. Here, it wasn’t necessary.

When I put together the talking head selex, I had three longish sections that were very rich. In fact, I considered using just these three extended interview bits, going to black briefly between them. But I thought better of it. One reason: I wanted to use some music, and this was a perfect opportunity to do that. What you’re hearing is the first minute of a gospel standard, Old Ship of Zion by an ultra-obscure gospel quartet called the Mighty Wonders of Acquasco Maryland. Very little is known about them. If you know something, please let me know.

What Images Shall I Use?

I was picking up where the last section left off, so we’re in the digitization room. But what shot should I start with?

I could have simply resumed with the last shot from the previous clip, that beautiful extreme close up of the stylus riding the grooves of a 45. I dismissed that idea quickly. I wanted to start somewhere new. For the first few versions, I started with what is now the second shot — the tilt down that is a little abstract. But since this section is about Tony, I decided to start on Tony. I liked the medium shot of him at the console. The lighting is bright. The shot looks kind of  … pedestrian, but I liked how this shot would set up the ones that would follow.

Deciding to Go for It

I really liked the idea of this music showing the listener’s world as colorful, fluid, dynamic, maybe even ecstatic.

And layered. (0:33 to 0:53)

Tony Tadey Digitizes Vinyl

When I first looked through footage of Tony at the monitors, the distortion in his glasses grabbed my attention. Then I noticed how prominent his ear was in some of these over the shoulder shots, and I knew I had to use one of those. Audio engineers hear more acutely than most of us.

When I was putting these shots together, I was timidly crossfading them. Then I thought, why not try superimposing. I had seen a few effective instances of this recently, so I decided why not. What did I have to lose?

Right now, I’m very happy with the superimposition. I can hear some film editors I know grumbling, but for now, I’m going with it. I like how expressionistic it is. I lucked out with how the audio waveform seemingly went right into his ear. This bit is a stretch for A Life’s Work. It isn’t really in keeping with the rest of the style of the film, but I think that’s okay. I’m comfortable leaving my comfort zone here.

The waveforms you’re seeing do not correspond to the song you’re hearing, and I know of at least one audio engineer who will bristle, but for now, for this rough cut, these shots work for me. That’s how it is with documentaries. You fudge sometimes. Actually, it could be argued that whenever a cut is made, even the most verite of cinema verite filmmakers is fudging.

 One Very Short Minute Later

A minute in, Robert appears. That minute goes by very quickly to me. The music makes the time fly.

I have a fondness for starting stories, paragraphs, and sentences with the word “and.” It immediately signals that something came before this moment, that this moment is not the beginning. I thought starting with “And” here was a good way to go. I’d like to start the film with one of the subjects saying, “And…”

He’s on screen unedited for 20 seconds, which is actually a relatively long time. But I felt it was warranted because he’s emotional here and I wanted to show his passion.

Cut to the extreme close up, which cinematographer Andy Bowley shot with his Canon DSLR and some exotic lens or other.

Stylus rides vinyl, shot by a Canon DSLR

Back to Reality

As Robert is talking about the setback, so the images leave the ecstatic and return to that pedestrian real world. Tony at the console. Tony listening, no superimposition, no distortion in his glasses.

Back to Robert. Earlier in the film (the first clip above), we saw Robert and Tony going through recently donated records, and I think Andy captured their friendship — it’s a relationship full of respect and admiration for each other. Robert and Tony have nothing but great things to say about each other on camera and off. I wanted to show early that Tony was more than a guy turning knobs and pushing buttons, that he was a beloved part of a team. That way when you heard and saw Robert speaking about Tony’s departure, you knew what that departure meant.

Back to the studio and Tony lifting the needle off the record. I have many shots of the needle being dropped and the needle being lifted. Those were important moments to me. These shots happen all over the 45, beginning, middle, and end. I couldn’t resist using a needle lift in the middle of the song. Just as I like starting with “and,” I also like ending abruptly in the middle of sentences and songs. It was really the only way to go here. The BGMRP’s story was being interrupted.

Full Stop

Then the record stops spinning.

Often with editing, it’s what’s you don’t include that makes the difference. In previous cuts of this clip, this bit included shots of Tony shutting off the monitors, turning off the room lights, and exiting the studio. It was clunky and not working at all. It took me having to go through the pain of editing those in before I realized the record coming to a stop worked much better.

Back to Robert. By the way, Andy shot these interviews with his Letus rig, which gives it that nice, filmic, depth of field. When we discussed using it, I was a little concerned about matching it with the other interview segments, but Andy was very reassuring. Once I started cutting it in, I knew without a doubt it was the right decision. It also gives us a visual cue that something is different from it was back when we saw Robert in the previous sections of the film.

Dark Light Dark

Baylor University's vinyl digitization room

This is where the clip shifts a little, and this shot sets that up. For the next minute, most of the visuals will be about darkness-light-darkness.

The headphones. As I recall, Andy was kind of drawn to these headphones resting on that table like that. If you look very closely you’ll see a little movement in the silver part of the headphone — a reflection, probably mine. I like the idea of rooms containing some kind of ghostly presence, and I thought this was one way to show that. Maybe it’s too subtle, but I like to think this kind of thing is communicated even though we may not consciously register that small a detail.

I’m not totally satisfied with the pans and tilts of the LPs. Those will be worked on. But I think they get the idea across for now.

“I Need More Faith”

Back to Robert on screen for 20 seconds. This bit… my goodness. Often, when you’re conducting an interview, you don’t know what’s precious and what’s not. I don’t know about other people, but I usually only realize it when I’m transcribing or editing. Your attention is divided when you’re interviewing, but the captured footage tells you all. But I remember when Robert said, “Okay, I need more faith,” during the interview, I had to stop myself from crying. Every time I see it tears well up in my eyes. Maybe I relate it to the struggle of making this film, that sometimes “I need more faith” to finish this project, but to me, this is one of the three best lines in the film. Maybe the best outright.

I ended this clip with the tilt down the Mahalia album cover. I chose this album cover when we were shooting because it referred back to Robert talking about the first gospel album he heard. At the time, I didn’t have the darkness-light-darkness motif in mind, but as I was assembling this, it made sense to me. In its own small way, those shots are what the film is about. They say when we embark on long-term projects, we travel through periods of darkness and light, fallow times and productive times, periods when everything is going right, all the stars properly aligned, and periods when everything seems to be not that.

I hope you enjoyed this post, and if you made it this far, thanks for going the distance with me.

If you felt like going a little further, leave a comment or ask a question. I love hearing from you.

 

Blind Willie Johnson Meet Blind Lemon Jefferson

Robert Darden’s excellent book, People Get Ready: A New History of Black Gospel Music, is one of those books that educates and entertains. If you’re interested at all in gospel music or American roots music, this is a must read. The early chapters on the African roots of popular American music should be required reading not only in music history classes, but American history classes.

Imagine This!

The book contains many great anecdotes, but one has been on my mind a lot lately. It’s an account of gospel singer-guitarist Blind Willie Johnson and blues singer-guitarist Blind Lemon Jefferson busking across the street from each other in Marlin, Texas.

The only known photograph of Blind Lemon Jefferson
The only known photograph of
Blind Lemon Jefferson

The only known photograph of Blind Willie Johnson
The only known photograph of
Blind Willie Johnson.

 


What I loved about the story when I read it was the idea of the sacred and the secular bouncing off each other, and the two musicians competing for ears, souls, and pennies. It’s also extremely an cinematic image.

EXT: SMALL DUSTY CENTRAL TEXAS TOWN – SOMETIME IN THE 1920S – DAY

Two blind guitarists play their instruments and sing their songs on street corners across from each other. BLIND LEMON stops and listens to BLIND WILLIE. He tilts his head. In addition to the music, the SOUND of  pennies hitting the bottom of a tin cup is prominent.

BLIND LEMON smiles. Is his spirit moved by BLIND WILLIE’S song? Or does he realize there’s money to be made playing the music of god? Or is he just digging the music, maybe thinking — Nice riff. I’m going to take that one.

When you write the screenplay, let me know why Blind Lemon Jefferson smiles.

When I interviewed Darden in Chicago way back when, I asked him if he’d recount the story on camera. He obliged, and in typical Darden fashion he did more than tell a story, he related the story’s bigger meaning and he expressed it beautifully.

Why No Moving Pictures?

Darden’s face and hands are very animated while he’s telling this story, and when he talks about musicians not stealing but “appropriating” the expression on his face  is priceless. Still, I thought it might be fun to look at the photos of the musicians while he told the tale.

[audio:http://alifesworkmovie.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/johnson_and_jefferson.mp3]

You can find more Blind Willie Johnson on this blog here and here and here.

John the Revelator – Blind Willie Johnson

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sDZg3qzhH-0[/youtube]

Black Horse Blues – Blind Lemon Jefferson

[youtube]http://youtu.be/WXsxqBhmlFg[/youtube]

 

 

 

Robert Darden on Completing Big Work

Robert Darden in Chicago, looking at a cathedral.
A Life’s Work’s Robert Darden wrote a post on his blog this week about what it feels like to complete a book he’s been working on for six or seven years. The book, Nothing But Love in God’s Water: The Influence of Black Sacred Music on the Civil Rights Movement, Volume 1 will be published by Penn State University Press.

This topic is, needless to say, something I’m interested. But in typical Darden style, it is not just about finishing a big project. It is also about time, regret, and the continued relevance of the book’s topic. Darden writes:

But here’s why I believe that a better understanding of the Civil Rights Movement is important today: It’s an on-going process. WAY too many people in this country of all races and creeds, of all genders and ages, still do not enjoy the full fruits of democracy. Too many poor people, too many people with differing ideas about sexuality, too many people with various physical, mental and emotional challenges do not share equally in the guarantees built into our Constitution. And when one person is denied their civil rights, we all suffer…

I’m very much looking forward to the publication of  Nothing But Love in God’s Water.

If you’re interested at all in the origins and history of gospel music, you must read Darden’s People Get Ready!: A New History of Black Gospel Music.

 

Why Gospel Music?

When I was looking for subjects for A Life’s Work, I always considered a collector in search of a holy grail object. In the early days I thought I’d like to include someone like a film historian searching for, say, London After Midnight, the lost silent film directed by Tod Browning and starring Lon Chaney.

But when I became aware of Robert Darden and the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project, I knew I had found the right historian/archivist/superfan. For many reasons, not the least of which was the music.

So what does gospel music “mean” to me, a lapsed-Catholic/agnostic? What does it do for me?

I could go on and on, but instead I’m going to turn to the liner notes of Fire In My Bones (Tompkins Square), written by Mike McGonigal, who put together that anthology as well as the sequel, This May Be My Last Time Singing. The last sentence sums it all up.

That’s why.