Gospel was, and still is, music of the Church. Its recordings are less systematically commercialized (and less anthologized) than music made for popular consumption. Which isn’t to say that there weren’t thousands upon thousands of gospel records made during the post-War reign of the powerhouse quartets – gospel’s so-called golden age. There were. To this very day, though, the recording of gospel still seems to be incidental to the experience of it.
I guess it makes some sense, then, that of the major strands of 20th Century African-American music, it’s gospel that’s the most underappreciated, and perhaps the least understood, at least by the music fans whose experience lies outside the tradition. I’m no different. Someone hands me a box of gospel records and the best I can do is sort of dumbly squint at the grooves and await intervention. My instincts for gospel music boil down to listening to Kevin Nutt’s great weekly survey Sinner’s Crossroads and that vaguely dissatisfying knowledge one gets from reading compilation liner notes.
There is a particular sound in gospel productions that I do gravitate to, however, a sound that was an unintentional part of sounding heavenly. As with this week’s selections, my tastes tend to run to the more, well, I’m not sure how to put it exactly. The more psychedelic side of gospel.
1. Maggie Ingram with the Ingramettes, Melody of Love (Nashboro)
From 1964, the hypnotic “Melody of Love” sounds like nothing else I’ve heard. Otherworldly, if not downright heavenly, Ingram is sublime here. Her voice croons and yearns – mysterious vibrato pulses and the crescendos of the Ingramettes do the same to respond to her. Ingram might have just as easily stayed up there – unmoored in the aether – and simply floated away.
She didn’t, though. The Richmond, Virginia-based Ingram was, as of 2005, still performing. In addition to “Melody of Love” Maggie Ingram released seven other 45 rpm releases between 1962 and 1966 on Nashville’s fantastic Nashboro label. (Nashboro, founded in 1951, was surely the greatest and most prolific Southern gospel label in its day.)
Thanks to Robert Termorshuizen’s excellent Record Connexion (a Dutch website dedicated to post-War American gospel labels) for the discographical information.
2. Edna Gallmon Cooke, Lord When I Get Home (Nashboro)
“Madame” Edna Gallmon Cooke was born in Columbia, South Carolina in 1917. A gospel star in what was later her home city of Washington, D.C., Cooke recorded prolifically from the late ‘40s onward (for the Nashboro label, most notably) until claiming her reward in 1967.
On 1962’s “Lord When I Get Home,” Cooke uses her extraordinary voice to blur that line between gospel song and secular soul music (which gospel begat). You either go really fast or really slow to blur that line; it just depends on who’s doing the blurring, of course. Cooke’s would be the monumentally slow route.
A year later Mahalia Jackson would galvanize a crowd of hundreds of thousands assembled for the March on Washington with a permutation of this song known as “I Been ‘Buked and I Been Scorned.” Edna Gallmon Cooke’s earlier version assumed a more earthly and intimate twist, however; her monologue (a Gallmon trademark, apparently) seems to be a premonitory rebuke to all would-be backstabbing friends and treacherous lovers.
Thanks again to the Record Connexion, and to the mighty SC Gospel Quartets website for the Cooke mini-biography.
3. Staple Singers, I Had a Dream (Vee Jay)
Chicago’s Staple Singers, directed by the Mississippi-born Roebuck “Pops” Staples, were a richly talented family of gospel and R&B; vocalists whose deep Southern aesthetic imbued even their later crossover hits of the 1970s. This was an aesthetic most profound in their earlier recordings, like this selection, 1958’s “I Had a Dream.” Judgment morning – here in the hands of Pops Staples’ rasping tremolo guitar and his unearthly harmonies with daughter Mavis – rarely sounded quite so psychedelic.