Category Archives: Gospel

“All he asks of us is we give each other love–oh yeah!”

Marvin Gaye – “God Is Love” from What’s Going On (1971) & “God Is Love (B-Side Version)” from “What’s Going On” single (1971)

What’s Going On is a well-worn classic. Though the hit singles (“Mercy Mercy Me,” “Inner City Blues,” and the title track) are awesome, “God Is Love” shows the album at its most triumphant. (It’s also my fave song on the record.)

The earlier, slower version of “God Is Love,” was recorded slightly earlier, after Gaye’s unsuccessful tryout for the Detroit Lions (no shit!). It served as the B-side to the the “What’s Going On” single.

What’s Going On? You’re Buying The Dang Album!

Posted by Glenn

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Filed under 1970s, Gospel, Soul

Anthology of American Folk Music, pt. 2 of 3: Social Music

Before we get started on the second volume of the Anthology of American Folk Music, some information about the image above. When Harry Smith’s 1952 Anthology was reissued in the 1960s, no doubt to capitalize on the burgeoning folk music revival, the albums were plastered this Depression-era photograph, taken by social realist artist Ben Shahn, famous for his portraits of Sacco & Vanzetti. Harry Smith was furious about the cover. His intent was to preserve lost recordings, and to compile them in such a way that highlighted their regional differences but underlined their emotive similarities, not to lend them a vague political charge that, in retrospect, seems more fashionable than political.

The third and fourth discs of the six-disc Anthology contain what Harry Smith termed Social Music — dance songs on disc 3, church and religious songs on disc 4. The dance music is fascinating, in part because most of it is so off-kilter; it’s hard to imagine people dancing to the melancholy fiddle warbles that dominate disc 3. The religious music on the fourth disc is my favorite on the Anthology — it has a spiritual authority I’ll discuss a bit later.

Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra – “Moonshiner’s Dance Part 1” (1927)

One of the few full-band tunes on the Anthology, this dance song is a crazed medley of popular and ragtime tunes, none of which I recognize, but some of the titles, apparently, are “Over the Waves,” “At the Cross,” “When You Wore a Tulip,” and “Maggie.” And can any of y’all make out the exchange at 1:19? To me it sounds like:

“What’re you gonna do with that towel, Herbert?”
“Kill somebody, Chucky!”

There’s no way that can be right.

Alabama Sacred Harp Singers – “Rocky Road” (1928)

Sacred Harp singing, or shape note singing, has been a choral style of sacred music in New England and the South since Revolutionary times, and seems to be making some inroads into the mainstream as of late. As far as I can tell, shape note singing is based on simple solfeggio scales, with individual notes notated by both shape and position on the clef, so that it is easier to sight read. The term “Sacred Harp” comes from the name of one of the prominent songbooks, The Sacred Harp, from 1844 (though many of the songs date back further). These songs, including “Rocky Road,” are characterized by four-part a capella harmony, usually quite raw, and can be sung by hundreds of people at a time. The effect is staggering. Listen for yourself, and find out more here.

Rev. Sister Mary Nelson – “Judgement” (1927)

This song exemplifies the power of the religious songs on the Social Music set. Nelson cajoles and exhorts and and warns, at one point accusing her congregation of hypocrisy, but the performance contains such pure joy that it’s kind of hard to take. Listen closely to the background singing: doesn’t it sound like a 10-year-old boy is shouting along? Not much is known of Sister Nelson, but she seems to have been born late in the 19th century and to have led a Pentecostal church in Memphis.

Stray thought (WARNING: IDLE THINKING AHEAD): It occurs to me that old-time religious music is so exciting for two reasons. First, it is dead serious. Serious about divine inspiration, about justice, about emotion, about humility, about this life and the next. The religious impulse, the will toward God, whatever you want to call it, is an unavoidable part of human experience, but is hard to capture successfully in art, and many of these old-time religious songs seem to do just that.

But secondly, maybe more importantly, old-time religious music is free of the culture-war baggage that present-day religious music hauls along. We’ve mentioned Sufjan Stevens at this blog before, one of the few musicians today tackling religious themes without lapsing into evangelicalism or fundamentalism. (In our old mate Jordy’s parlance, Sufjan “helps make Christianity hip,” a funny thought.) But he’s the exception rather than the rule. The good music I can think of that does tackle Christianity is either intellectualized to the point that it can’t convey religious ectasy (Pedro the Lion, Danielson) or is one-dimensional about the religious life (The Hold Steady — I love ’em, but sometimes doesn’t it seem like their redemption is a bit trite?). So…..I don’t know. But the religious music on the Anthology hits on at least ten different emotions that accompany religious feeling and religious life, and I wonder whether that kind of range, a propos of religion, is even possible in music these (secular) days.

Check in tomorrow for Part 3 of this series on the Anthology of American Folk Music!

Buy the Anthology

Posted by Glenn


Filed under 1920s, Acoustic, Americana, Folk, Gospel, Traditional

“It might be one o’clock or it might be three/time don’t mean that much to me”

Sam Cooke – “Good Times” and “That’s Where It’s At” from Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964 (2003, both originally 1964)

What a voice. Sam’s delivery on the former track, superficially a party song, hints at submerged tragedy, while the latter re-works Sam’s gospel roots into what is essentially a one-line mantra-song (cf. The Replacements’ “Unsatisfied” for another soulful example). To listen to the full best-of comp is to be in awe of the complexity inside such simple songs.

Buy the Man and his Music here

Posted by Glenn

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Filed under 1960s, Gospel, Pop, Singer-Songwriter, Soul

“Gonna wade right in.”

The Louvin Brothers – “Let Her Go, God Bless Her” from Tragic Songs of Life (1956) and “The River of Jordan” from Satan is Real (1960)

In my journey into country music, I have not heard two voices mingle as perfectly and with such conviction as those of Ira and Charlie Louvin. I dare say that these are the best vocal harmonies in popular music.

“Let Her Go, God Bless Her” showcases Ira’s superb mandolin work while “The River of Jordan” is a rousing testament to the boys’ ability to translate their religious fervor into gorgeous songwriting.

Check out two great tunes from Satan is Real over at The Rising Storm.

Some video of the Louvin Brothers

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Posted by Jordy


Filed under 1950s, 1960s, Bluegrass, Country, Gospel

“I try so awf’ly strong.”

Bob Dylan and the Band – “Sign on the Cross” from A Tree With Roots (bootleg, 2001)

These Basement Tapes recordings (1967) are all partially baked and often leave you wondering what the songs could have been had they been worked on more. Nevertheless, the sheer volume of great musical ideas here is overwhelming. I my imagination, the group was so excited about each new song that they couldn’t polish one before moving on to the next.

On this track, Dylan sounds worn out, tired and manic. Yet he’s still capable of reaching ragged and inspired crescendos.

Garth Hudson, as on nearly all BT takes, is fantastic on the organ.

More Tree With Roots to come.

Posted by Jordy

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Filed under 1960s, Americana, Folk, Gospel, Rock, Tree With Roots