Some people don’t like Gospel music. I remember a particularly oafish bloke who wrote for Melody Maker deriding the very concept when U2 had the temerity to include a Gospel Choir on their song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Weirdly enough, it’s in that title that the magic of Gospel is encapsulated.
It’s not the certainty; it’s the doubt. It’s not just the Praise, (as Tom Jones admirably pointed out) it’s the blame. I had the mixed blessing of interviewing Betty Lavette in January. I’d mentioned to her that Mr Jones was in town and off mic she was withering in her contempt of older artists trying to ressurect (if you’ll pardon the pun) their career by tipping their hat to their maker. Thirty years ago I might have felt the same thing but the experience of getting older has changed that.
So allow me to articulate what Gospel I love and why. Firstly, I grew up with these songs. For some people that might be a marker against them. For me however they are all associated with good times. Yes, it was a narrower faith than the faith I practice now – but that is most people’s experience. What the music did though was allow people to dream higher, hope for better and expect the impossible. For ordinary working folk to hold on to that is totally understandable. Marx worried but I’m not sure that I can. Where he saw religion holding people in a trance I also watched as it underpinned community and gave courage to a group of people who were taking on centuries of prejudice: The Civil Rights Movement. For a short while on Friday and for an hour on Monday we’ll hear the experience of Mavis Staples. No one exemplifies more the dignity and life-affirming energy of the music from the churches. No one can accuse Mavis of turning her head away from the harsh realities of life – and she still sings Gospel as if her life depended on it.
One other thing……. One summer long ago a family friend came to visit.Thomas was from Belfast and one of his colleagues was an old pal of my father and mother’s and, very typically for them, they offered this young man any amount of hospitality. On this day he called he took my big sister and me for a drive to the country…I remember going all over the place. If truth be told it was my good looking sister he’d probably have had more interest in but I went along for the ride. This was so long ago that there were no cassette players in cars. (the cool ones had 8 tracks!) He brought along a portable cassette player and on the B roads of Angus for the next two hours I heard Elvis singing Gospel. It made a huge impact on me. After that I always loved Elvis and equally I heard the Hymns we sang at the Gospel meeting every Sunday night in a new light. So thank you Thomas, thank you Elvis and here’s to Gospel.
You’ll hear all of that and more on Friday plus we stop and pay tribute to a brilliantly spritual album for Good Friday, Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy. It all starts at five past eight on BBC Radio Scotland.