How Sweet It Was—The Sights and Sounds of Gospel’s Golden Age

  1. The Grace of God —The Consolers
  2. Sanctified Lord —The Meditation Singers
  3. Too Close to Heaven —Clarence Fountain and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama
  4. No Tears in Heaven —The Raymond Rasberry Singers
  5. From Out of Nowhere —Delois Barrett Campbell and the Barrett Sisters
  6. In the Garden —Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Delois Barrett Campbell, and Professor Alfred Miller
  7. Commercial 8 —Sister Rosetta Tharpe
  8. Up above My Head I Hear Music in the Air —Sister Rosetta Tharpe
  9. God’s Amazing Grace —J Robert Bradley
  10. Somewhere to Lay My Head —The Sensational Nightingales
  11. I Want Jesus to Walk with Me —Madame Emily Bram
  12. Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross —Sister Jessie Mae Renfro
  13. If You See My Savior —Ira Tucker and the Dixie Hummingbirds
  14. Maybe It’s You —Ira Tucker and the Dixie Hummingbirds
  15. If This Ain’t the Holy Ghost —Marion Williams
  16. Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone —Brother Joe May
  17. We’ll Understand It Better By and By —The Famous Davis Sisters
  18. My Eternity —Bessie Griffin
  19. O Lord It Is I —Robert Anderson
  20. You Must Be Born Again —Dorothy Love Coates and the Gospel Harmonettes
  21. He’s Right On Time —Dorothy Love Coates and the Gospel Harmonettes
  22. Let the Church Roll On —Inez Andrews and the Andrewettes
  23. He’s Been a Shelter for Me —The Soul Stirrers
  24. I’m a Soldier —The Soul Stirrers
  25. I’ve Been Dipped in the Water (Watcha Gonna Do) —Professor Alex Bradford
  26. Deep Down in My Heart —James Cleveland
  27. It Is Well with My Soul —Marion Williams

I haven’t had a chance to watch this in full yet, but I wanted to note that I bought it because of two tracks that blew me away via YouTube postings: Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Up above My Head I Hear Music in the Air,” with its blistering electric-guitar work (SO unexpected to see, that first viewing!), but especially The Meditation Singers’ mighty “Sanctified Lord,” in which Laura Lee Rundless transformed it from just a rollicking great Gospel track to something mighty and rocking.

One strange thing I noticed in those two YouTube-posted videos, which were (I believe) from an East Coast “Gospel Hour” program, is the bafflingly soulless choirs behind the performers. Here are these magnificently passionate and grooving performers delivering the testimony of their songs, and this bunch of stiffs in choir robes behind them clap and sway awkwardly on cue. My immediate reaction, in both instances, was a phrase I probably got from my father but certainly have as part of my own vocabulary, thankfully rarely utilized: “They clap like white folk.” (Which is a negative appraisal, if you weren’t sure. Not all black or white people fit into any generalization, but white folk in the United States (and perhaps Europe) historically tend to be less attuned to syncopation and therefore clap either on the 1 and 3 of a 4/4 beat or do the 2 and 4 stiffly as is the case here.) There are fleeting expressions of enjoyment and appreciation on faces here and there, but those are bizarrely rare considering how moving the performances are.

Another context I’ve encountered this odd cultural fumble is in performances of the Gospel Messiah arrangement of Handel’s “And He Shall Purify”—Seventh-Day Adventist choirs that might deliver the vocals in force but seem to be lacking the Soul Clap gene.

Mercifully, that soulless backing was bucked somewhat for Marion Williams’s “If This Ain’t the Holy Ghost,” and the choir (which, mind you, isn’t shown actually singing at any point on any of these tracks) at least shows a little life and pleasure in Williams’s sassy performance.

How Brother Joe May can both belt long loud notes and have to take breaths between not only single short words but (inexcusably) break the word “Jesus” for a breath, on “Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone” is a mystery for voice teachers to explore with their students, I suppose.An equally big bafflement is the logic behind the camera getting RIGHT INTO the face of the lead singer of the Soul Stirrers on “He’s Been a Shelter for Me,” to an extreme that made me wonder if we were going to segue to a laproscopic camera’s view next. Marion Williams’s “It Is Well with My Soul,” which closes the DVD, is similarly afflicted by demented camera work, at one point apparently focused on her painted-on eyebrows to an extreme that makes me think Roy Lichtenstein was directing.

The Famous Davis Sisters track, the classic “We’ll Understand It Better By and By,” is the sort of thing I look for in Gospel recordings and reminds me of the bits of Gospel I grew up on (black Gospel music, that is; white Gospel of the Church of God stuff was another in my landscape as a child, but it was always a turn-off because it was so syrupy and sanctimonious and SLOW…actually a bit like Robert Anderson’s “O Lord It Is I,” on this DVD, tiresome indeed, complete with the ridiculously melodramatic organ work I used to hear with scornful disbelief at such tacky antics). It’s not polished and slick, but it’s pure and powerful and beautifully delivered in that context.