Discovering Jesus in the sounds of the Deep South

  • January 8, 2010
I first heard black gospel singing in the fields of my father’s cotton farm, deep in the American South. No sound was more Southern: slow, serious and melancholy, like the lives of those hard-up blacks who worked in the cotton patch.

In one sense, this sad, unforgettable music was foreign to a white child spending the day with his father in the fields. Yet in another, it was close, familiar: for Southern rural religion in those days, whether black or white, was very much a matter of supplicating the beloved Jesus for deliverance from the sorrows and tribulations of life. It probably wasn’t exactly orthodox, this near-exclusive adoration of Jesus and corresponding neglect of the remote Father and ungraspable Spirit. But such religion sprang from a true place in the heart, especially the hearts of rural black Southerners, and found expression in their sincere and devout melodies.

When I heard the music, in the mid-1940s, the old world of the rural South was falling into twilight. Blacks and whites alike were decamping from the countryside, its poverty and hardship, and taking their chances in the cities of the South and beyond: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles. Blacks were settling into large urban churches and discovering elements of urban culture — from electric guitars and the blues to recording studios and the fiery evangelistic delivery of their ministers — that would transfigure the rhythms of their sacred music forever.

This new black religious reality of the 1940s and beyond is wonderfully captured in the new three-disc compilation from Tompkins Square records entitled Fire In My Bones: Raw + Rare + Otherworldly African-American Gospel (1944-2007). Compiled by U.S. writer, critic and gospel fan Mike McGonigal, this album features 80 songs harvested from many sources: old 45s and 78s issued by labels long-forgotten by all but aficionados, field recordings done by folklorists and near-contemporary cuts that carry on post-war traditions of what McGonigal calls “sanctified blues.”

Always tacitly imagined and sometimes explicitly named in the lyrics, the enemy of all the musicians here is rock ’n’ roll. That, with its new-fangled celebration of unbridled sensuality, the older gospel singers could not abide. But, remarkably, every other popular American musical style — blues, soul, honky-tonk jazz, Nashville country, you name it — could be, and was, baptized and put to work in the service of the Lord.

(My guess is that the appeal of these non-rock forms lay in their rootedness in hurtin’ songs, which embodied a realism about the human condition often absent in classic rock music.)

The results of this black synthesis, as we hear them in Fire In My Bones, are often rough-cut, but brilliant and very various in tone and thrust. There are incantatory solo laments for lost loved ones, roistering quartet exultations in the love of Jesus, immensely moving “dialogues” between cantor and congregation, songs of longing for the peace that only Christ can give. This is an album for the connoisseur of popular music out of the mainstream, but it also belongs in the record libraries of Christians interested in the ways God works in and through the culture of our time.

While different in mood and setting from the music I heard as a child in the cotton fields, this post-war urban music similarly has its centre of gravity in the worship of Jesus. More orthodox Christianity surely has arresting virtues: magnificent liturgy, music that is among the wonders of Western culture, an imposing, complex architecture of moral and theological beliefs.

But Fire In My Bones is a welcome message from Christians who know that, in whatever form Christianity is found, Jesus Himself is always the great and final attraction.

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