Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

“Outrage!” “Shocking insensitivity!” “Boycott!” Art, in recent years, has raised any number of protests, but this time it isn’t Jesse Helms and his cronies complaining about taxpayer-funded obscenity. Now it’s the radical left, howling over Angie and Debbie Winans’ anti-gay gospel hit, “It Ain’t Natural” (on their CD Bold , ATF Records, 1997).

Problem is, it is “natural.” And this is not a comment either way on sexual orientation or behavior. It’s natural for black gospel music to rouse the passions, scourge the ego, harangue the sinful, sooth the battered, and comfort the afflicted. The Winans aren’t doing anything unusual in their song. They’re simply doing what gospel musicians have been doing for about eighty years. They’re just “having church.”

Gospel music is “about church.” It’s music of Christian brothers and sisters who come together to praise Jesus and tell what he has done for us-first person plural. The grammar is significant. While related to spirituals, gospel is a distinct genus. Not only are the spirituals a closed repertory, being confined to those songs composed during the captivity of African-Americans, but they are also typically intensely subjective and intimate, full of what in Lieder is called Innigkeit: “Take away the world, give me Jesus,” “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,” “I’m crossin’ over into campground,” “Sweet chariot, comin’ for to carry me home.” These are songs about the sufferings and the hopes of an individual, sufferings often obscured by code language because someone who is only “three-fifths human” (the fraction used to count blacks in the antebellum census) shouldn’t be seen to be suffering. Even when sung publicly by a group, these are songs of single souls whose agony is shackled.

But there’s nothing shackled about gospel. This is music about freedom. Gospel is full of shoutin’, and clappin’, and testifyin’; it is the witness required by liberation. Even when the texts speak of “me” and “I,” this “I” is not the signature of an isolated individual, but the “I” of a person standing next to another person, both sharing the experience of redemption, and each uplifting the other with his testimony. In this sense, gospel music is not recital music. It is not music to be listened to, contemplated, and applauded when it’s done. It is music to be sung, and encouraged, and commented on. That’s why the congregation at a gospel concert (there is no “audience”) will often stand, sing, clap, dance, and testify-loudly-with the singers. This is music of the family, and at this table, nobody is asked to be silent.

As is appropriate for a repertory so devoted to the expression of liberation, in gospel considerable freedom is given for improvisation over standard forms. The typical gospel choir (singing in three parts-two female and one male-with piano, organ, and drum accompaniment) learns the body of a song by rote. But in performance, the director elongates the piece through repetition and modulation while a soloist (if there is one) is expected to extemporize text and music. Sometimes these improvisations become melismatic outpourings of religious ecstasy, sometimes a kind of parlando recitative sermon-but they are always constructions of the moment, punctuated by various methods of congregational approbation.

The improvisatory character of gospel both clarifies and confuses its relationship to jazz. Like jazz, gospel is the musical child of West African rhythmic traditions and Anglo-American harmonic practice. Both use call and response forms and both prize spontaneity. Yet that is where the similarity stops. Although jazz is now a fully developed classical repertory of international scope with its own artists, conservatories, theory, and historical scholarship, it has never completely shaken its roots in river town bordellos and big city nightclubs. Jazz is a secular genus (Duke Ellington’s late sacred compositions not withstanding) and its most enduring form the “blues.”

But in gospel, there is no blues. Not only is that three-phrase form largely absent, its very aesthetic is antithetical to the genus. Like Gregorian chant, gospel is inextricably music of the church. And although gospel now has its commercial side too, it remains stubbornly connected to those roots. It is music of a people who choose, in spite of the “blues,” to testify that “the Lord will make a way.”

Those roots are well seen in Sony’s rerelease on CD of Newark’s Abyssinian Baptist Church Gospel Choir, recorded in 1960 ( Shakin’ the Rafters , #47225 AAD). Directed by Alex Bradford, the choir sings a dozen of this legendary gospel director’s songs. Given big enough speakers, this CD won’t shake the rafters, it will blow them off. This is gospel at its most full throated and buoyant. The CD’s final track, “The Lord Will Make A Way,” leaves little doubt that these singers have not only found a way, but are strutting joyfully down it. The CD’s program booklet on the history of gospel by Leonard Goines is alone worth the price.

The relationship between gospel music and black preaching has been commented on frequently. Not only does the musical form of call and response echo the give and take between preacher and congregation, but gospel’s improvisations grow directly out of black hermeneutical oratory. The first track on the 1996 CD of the Rev. Clay Evans and the AARC Mass Choir ( Coming Home , Savoy Records, SCD 14830) begins near the end of Pastor Evans’ sermon on the Prodigal Son. The preaching flows seamlessly into Milton Biggham’s gospel song “Coming Home” in what becomes an almost irresistibly compelling altar call. This same unity between exegesis, exhortation, and liturgy is captured in Having Church (Savoy Records, SCD 7099). Among several remarkable tracks on this CD of the Rev. James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir is “What Shall I Do,” featuring the powerful simplicity of Rev. Cleveland’s preaching.

A newer face of gospel music, influenced to a degree by rhythm and blues and the onset of commercial arranging, is seen in the Rev. Milton Brunson’s Thompson Community Singers released by Sony on the Word label (1997, EK 679393). Recorded live at Chicago’s Christ Tabernacle Baptist Church, the singers present new gospel songs by Percy Bady and Darius Brooks supported by a sophisticated array of acoustic instruments and electronic keyboards. But its message is unaffected and direct, and Brooks’ “He Satisfies” is a model of rhythmic nuance and imagination.

There is a rich tradition of solo artists in gospel, and the queen of that tradition is still Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972). As part of a series of “Sixteen Most Requested Songs” (there are also CDs featuring Guy Lombardo, Bing Crosby, Mel Torme, etc., etc.), Sony released in 1996 a collection of Jackson recordings made between 1954 and 1967 (Columbia Legacy, CK 64991). Jackson was at her best when she worked with the pianist/arranger Mildred Falls, and this CD includes nine recordings from that remarkable collaboration.

But the release is important in another way. Jackson was one of the first gospel artists to feel the pressure of commercially minded record executives to subdue the specifically Christian content of her music in favor of its more generic “soul” elements. In a 1963 Hollywood recording of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” (not done with Falls), Jackson substitutes “Nobody knows my sorrow” for the traditional second line, “Nobody knows but Jesus.” The singing is remarkable, the refrain swings, and the recording is polished. But the gospel is diminished. Fortunately, an earlier version of the same spiritual-preserving the original text-is available on the 601 Music label ( Mahalia Jackson in the Upper Room , MCD 3117).

Gospel soloists since Jackson have been well aware of the rewards-and prices-of tailoring their music to fit a “worldly” audience. Some artists, such as Ray Charles (who began his career as a pianist in a gospel group) and Aretha Franklin (daughter of the gospel preacher Rev. C. L. Franklin), enjoy successful secular careers. But many artists stubbornly resist such a move. In 1997, both Cissy Houston (mother of Whitney) and Andraé Crouch released new collections that were resolutely Christian (Houston: He Leadeth Me , House of Blues 13122; Crouch: Pray , Quest Records, 9 45924-2). And it has been the specifically Christian content of Bold that has produced such a furor for the Winans. Other artists who maintain and develop that tradition are Albertina Walker, Shirley Caesar, John P. Kee, and Kirk Frankland.

But my favorite new gospel release isn’t by an established artist or even on a major label. It’s a CD of a group of reformed drug addicts recorded in a Harlem church ( The ARC Choir: “Walk with Me ,” Mapleshade label, MS 04132). When the thirty members of the Addicts Rehabilitation Center Gospel Choir sing, their music carries a diamond-like conviction: fire tested and brilliantly true. This collection of traditional gospel songs arranged by the choir’s director Curtis Lundy isn’t for the timid. Pleasant religious mood music it is not. It’s a no-holds-barred performance by men and women for whom faith is a matter of life and death. And while the Winans have sparked protests from the politically correct, surely this CD must send the devils themselves howling. Well, let ‘em howl. Preach it, praise Jesus.

Michael Linton teaches music theory at Middle Tennessee State University.