The Gospel Impulse
You're unlikely to find CDs by the Temptations, Bob Marley, or Dianne Reeves in the gospel section of your record store alongside those by Mahalia Jackson, the Swan Silvertones, and God's Property, but you should. Because all of them-along with countless other artists from Curtis Mayfleld and Gladys Knight to Aretha Franklin and Earth, Wind & Fire-share a profound sense of the "gospel impulse": the belief that life's burdens can be transformed into hope, salvation, the promise of redemption.
At its best, the gospel impulse helps people experience themselves in relation to rather than on their own. Gospel makes the feeling of human separateness, which is what the blues are all about, bearable. It's why DJs and the dancers they shape into momentary communities are telling the truth when they describe dance as a religious experience.
The gospel impulse half-remembers the values brought to the new world by the men and women uprooted from West African cultures: the connection between the spiritual and material worlds; the interdependence of self and community; the honoring of the elders and the ancestors; the recognition of the ever-changing flow of experience that renders all absolute ideologies meaningless. Scholars have traced the spiritual vision of African American culture from Africa through the Caribbean and American South to the dance floors of house clubs in Chicago. But there's no question that the gospel impulse found its strongest American voice in the gospel churches, mostly poor and almost entirely black. In church, blacks were unlikely to encounter the prying eyes of potentially hostile whites. Here they could drop the mask. Of course the real people in the gospel churches had to deal with the same problems of hypocrisy, greed, and envy as their brothers and sisters out on the block. But even in its inevitable encounters with human frailty, the gospel impulse keeps alive a vision of spiritual community that echoes throughout the music of Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, Bruce Springsteen and A Tribe Called Quest.
The gospel impulse consists of a threestep process: (1) acknowledging the burden; (2) bearing witness; (3) finding redemption. The burden grounds the song in the history of suffering that links individual and community experiences. Black folks, like all human beings who let themselves know and feel it, have their crosses to bear. Less likely than whites to subscribe to the facile optimism of America's civic ideology, most blacks maintain an awareness of limitation, of the harsh reality that the man goin' round takin' names doesn't much care whether you've done your best to live in the light of the Lord. We don't choose our burdens; we do choose our responses.
Musicians grounded in the gospel impulse respond by bearing witness to the troubles they've seen, telling the deepest truths they know. The gospel singer testifies to the burden and the power of the spirit in moans or screams or harmonies so sweet they can make you cry. The testimony touches what we share and what we deal with when we're on our own in that dark night of the soul. The word "witness" works partly because the burden involves history, power. There's an evil in the world and, yeah, part of it's inside us, but lots of it comes from the Devil. Call him sex or money, hypocrisy or capitalism, the landlord or Governor Wallace, but the Devil's real. You deal with him or he, maybe she, will most definitely deal with you. If you stop right there, you've got the blues.
But gospel doesn't leave it there. Marley, Aretha, Mahalia, and AI Green all testify to the reality of redemption. If the blues give you the strength to face another day but leave you to face it on your own, gospel promises, or at least holds out the possibility, that tomorrow may be different, better. With the help of the spirit and your people-in the church or on the dance flooryou can get over, walk in Jerusalem, dance to the music. But it takes an energy bigger than yourself, the wellspring of healing that South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim called "water from an ancient well." For the classic gospel singers, the source is God; for soul singers, it's love. Bob Marley calls it Jah. George Clinton envisions Atlantis, the mothership. Arrested Development imagines a tree in Tennessee. Whatever its specific incarnation, gospel redemption breaks down the difference between personal salvation and communal liberation. No one makes it alone. If we're going to bear up under the weight of the cross, find the strength to renounce the Devil, if we're going to survive to bear witness and move on up, we're going to have to connect. The music shows us how.
I have never seen anything to equal the fire and excitement that sometimes, without warning, fill a church, causing the church, as Leadbelly and so many others have testified, to "rock." Nothing that has happened to me since equals the power and the glory that I sometimes felt when, in the middle of a sermon, I knew that I was somehow, by some miracle, really carrying, as they said, "the Word"when the church and I were one.
Gospel songs are the songs of hope. When you sing them you are delivered of your burden. You have a feeling that there is a cure for what's wrong. It always gives me joy to sing gospel songs. I get to singing and I feel better right away. When you gel through with the blues, you've got nothing to rest on. I tell people that the person who sings only the blues is like someone in a deep pit yelling for help, and I'm simply not in that position.
Gospel and the blues are really, if you break it down, almost the same thing. It's just a question of whether you're talkin' about a woman or God. I come out of the Baptist church and naturally whatever happened to me in the church is gonna spill over. So I think the blues and gospel music is quite synonymous to each other.
Music is healing. It's all there to uplift someone. If somebody's burdened down and having a hard time, if they're depressed, gospel music will help them. We were singing about freedom. We were singing about when will we be paid for the work we've done. We were talking about doing right by us. We were down with Martin Luther King. Pops said this is a righteous man. If he can preach this, we can sing it.