A Gospel Impulse Top 40
  1. Bob Marley, "Redemption Song," 1980
  2. Mahalia Jackson, "Walk in Jerusalem," 1963
  3. Aretha Franklin, "Spirit in the Dark," 1970
  4. The Impressions, "People Get Ready," 1965
  5. Sam Cooke, "A Change Is Gonna Come," 1965
  6. Staples Singers, "I'll Take You There," 1972
  7. Dorothy Love Coates and the Original Gospel Harmonettes, "No Hiding Place," 1954
  8. Teddy Pendergrass, "You Can't Hide from Yourself," 1977
  9. Martha and the Vandellas, "Nowhere to Run," 1965
  10. Swan Silvertones, "Mary, Don't You Weep," 1959
  11. Jimmy Cliff, "Many Rivers to Cross," 1975
  12. John Coltrane, "A Love Supreme," 1964
  13. Charles Mingus, "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting," 1960
  14. Marion Williams, "The Moan," 1980
  15. Earth, Wind & Fire, "Devotion," 1974
  16. Jackie Wilson, "Higher and Higher," 1967
  17. AI Green, "Love and Happiness," 1977
  18. Marvin Gaye, "Let's Get It On," 1973
  19. Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack, "Where Is the Love?," 1972
  20. Ray Charles, "What'd I Say," 1959
  21. Sam and Dave, "I Thank you," 1968
  22. Neville Brothers, "My Blood," 1989
  23. Edwin Hawkins Singers, "Oh Happy Day," 1969
  24. Jerry Butler, "Only the Strong Survive," 1969
  25. Stevie Wonder, "Higher Ground," 1973
  26. Bruce Springsteen, "The Promised Land," 1978
  27. The O'Neal Twins and the Interfaith Choir, "Highway to Heaven," 1983
  28. Dianne Reeves, "Old Souls," 1994
  29. James Brown, "Soul Power," 1971
  30. Parliament, "Star Child (Mothership Connection)," 1976
  31. Sly and the Family Stone, "I Want to Take You Higher," 1969
  32. Digable Planets, "Where I'm From," 1993
  33. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, "I Second That Emotion," 1967
  34. Ben E. King, "Stand by Me," 1961
  35. Sister Sledge, "We Are Family," 1979
  36. Jimmy Smith, "The Sermon," 1958
  37. Abdullah Ibrahim, "Water from an Ancient Well," 1986
  38. Sweet Honey In the Rock, "Breaths," 1980
  39. Peter Tosh, "African," 1977
  40. Kirk Franklin, "Why We Sing," 1993

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.
-James Baldwin

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.
-Mahalia Jackson

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.
-Ray Charles

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.
-Mavis Staples