But what about the rest of us? What about those of us who are neither church insiders nor hormone-maddened teenagers? What about the readers of this magazine, who are largely secular rock and country fans? How should we treat the few words that separate gospel hymns from rock ‘n’ roll hits?
What if we refuse to dismiss gospel even if we don’t identify with its religious ideology? Not that lyrics are unimportant — but what if we assume that romantic and religious feelings are equally important? What if we recognize that a passionate declaration of yearning and regret in one genre is as valid as an analogous confession in the other?
If we do, the amount of great music available to us is immediately multiplied. All at once we have access to some of the greatest American singers of the twentieth century: Clarence Fountain, Archie Brownlee, Julius Cheeks, R.H. Harris, Claude Jeter, Ira Tucker, Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward, Dorothy Love Coates, Bessie Griffin and many more.
Suddenly we have reason to buy the CD Oh Lord — Stand By Me/Marching Up To Zion (Specialty), by the original Five Blind Boys Of Alabama. Combining two LPs recorded in the mid-’50s, this 24-track disc begins with the traditional hymn “Oh Lord — Stand by Me”. The song opens with an electric-guitar arpeggio from tenor singer George Scott, who soon switches to swinging syncopation.
Lead singer Samuel Lewis croons the fetching melody, asking the Lord to stand by him “when the storms of life are ragin’.” In this opening section, it’s easy to hear how Ben E. King (with help from Leiber & Stoller) turned this hymn into the rock ‘n’ roll hit “Stand By Me”. A minute into the song, however, Lewis’ smooth vocal gives way to Fountain’s gruff, growling shouts.
If Lewis represents the older but more sophisticated jubilee style of gospel, Fountain epitomizes the newer but rawer “quartet” style. Sticking to one chord and an insistent funky rhythm, Fountain shouts out, “Father, father, I know you; I know you; you’re my bread; you’re my water.” This is singing so forcefully percussive that it’s nearly African. In it you can hear the seeds of James Brown. And the shift from smooth jubilee to roughened “quartet” parallels the shift from swing to rock ‘n’ roll in the pop marketplace.
A few songs later on the same CD, the Blind Boys tackle another old hymn, “This May Be The Last Time”. Taken at a brisk, handclapping tempo, it too begins as a swinging jubilee number, then shifts gears into a “quartet” shout. Fountain declares that this may be the congregation’s last chance to sing together, because no one knows the date of his or her death. His raspy voice gives the warning real urgency, and that urgency so struck Mick Jagger that he applied it to a troubled love affair for the Rolling Stones’ hit, “The Last Time”.
“‘The Last Time’ is an old, old song,” Fountain explains. “I wrote some verses to it, but the tune is as old as time. The Rolling Stones put a rock ‘n’ roll beat to it, but it’s the same song. ‘Stand By Me’ was another old song no one had claimed, so we picked it up and put our style to it. Ben E. King changed the lyrics and put in a different flavor; that’s the way he got away clean.
“What they do is change eight bars of the song, so you can’t jump in and claim it. I don’t feel so bad about it. They sing about ‘my honey,’ and we sing about God. That’s the only difference. It makes me feel good that other people imitate us, but we didn’t get the credit or the money for it.”
The Blind Boys turn the tables on their new album, Spirit Of The Century (released April 24 on RealWorld). The album’s final track is a new, a cappella version of “The Last Time”, with the original, religious lyrics. But the preceding track is “Just Wanna See His Face”, the Jagger/Richards composition from Exile On Main Street.
On the original, Jagger’s wish to see Jesus’ face is an ironic improvisation on the spooky, rumbling rhythm. The Blind Boys scrub off the irony, add some new lyrics and turn the song into a fervent religious testimony. The groove is just as deep (thanks to an all-star band of guitarists David Lindley and John Hammond, Pentangle bassist Danny Thompson, drummer Michael Jerome and harmonica whiz Charlie Musselwhite), but the message is very different. Instead of an outcast despairing in his search for Jesus, it’s now the song of a true believer confident of his eventual union with his Savior in heaven.
It’s a delightful example of how the gospel/rock boundary can be crossed in both directions. And on their recent albums, the Blind Boys have been taking revenge on behalf of all the gospel singers whose catalogues and styles were plundered for rock ‘n’ roll riches.