A SURE SIGN of a new millennium for the music buff is the deluge of boxed sets and compilations that dominated the late 1999 market. The most ambitious undertaking was a 26-CD set by Sony Music, Soundtrack for a Century, encompassing 574 pieces of music.
The claim is grand, but Sony is the one label that could dare to make it. Under its conglomerate umbrella is the Columbia Records label, which was around at the dawn of the record industry at the turn of the century.
Admittedly, the scope is such that the entire set is beyond the price range of most individuals. In a wise marketing move, they have simultaneously released a dozen other packages, most of which contain two CDs.
[pullquote] The Christian music listener will find Folk, Gospel & Blues: Will the Circle be Unbroken, of particular interest. It establishes, among other things, one of the premises of this column: the indelible link between gospel music and the contemporary, secular music that has evolved.
Indeed, this two-CD set highlights three of the four bloodlines of rock (the other being country music), and how they intermingle.
The results are often sublime. As insipid as some acts are seen to be (Burl Ives and the Brothers Four leap to mind), there are lots of examples of visceral, heartfelt music that really say something. This is, indeed, a hallmark of all three genres, and what they gave to the best of secular pop and rock today.
On the gospel side, discoveries abound for all but the most learned music historian. There is the haunting singing and playing of Blind Willie Johnson, tempered by his faith, in Lord, I Just Can’t Keep From Crying, hand in hand with the simple melody and gentle stylings of his contemporary, Washington Phillips, in What Are They Doing in Heaven Today.
There is the odd fact that the celebrated gospel singer Thomas A. Dorsey, while a pioneer and stylist, is shown to be mediocre at best while his less politically correct contemporary Paul Robeson displays an immense talent. The baritone Robeson had the misfortune of being blacklisted for his strident social commentary after the Second World War, but this set shows why some called George Beverly Shea the “poor man’s Paul Robeson” during the ’50s.
One also gets lots of examples of the gospel quartet in the genre’s post Second World War heyday, such as the CBS Trumpeteers and the Golden Gate Quartet.
Most dramatically, we get Mahalia Jackson. While Shirley Caesar proves on this set that she is today’s first lady of gospel music, Jackson shows on a 1954 take of I Will Move on up a Little Higher, that she was one of this century’s most expressive and brilliant singers, regardless of genre.
The two-CD set begins with a 1920 recording by the then-veteran male quartet the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Ezekiel Saw De Wheel demonstrates the classic traits of a male quartet (falsetto tenor, big bass, tight arrangements) in a simple exposition of the biblical narrative. That the lyric snippets of the traditional gospel number also cropped up in two Grateful Dead songs a couple of generations later, namely The Wheel and Estimated Prophet, again shows the link between seminal gospel music and the rock idiom.
Wilfred Langmaid is Anglican chaplain of the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, and music critic for the Fredericton Gleaner.