From today's New York Times--a familiar tune.
Gospel's Got the Blues
By ROBERT DARDEN
Published: February 15, 2005
AT the Grammy awards on Sunday, viewers saw the marriage of old-time gospel
and new: the classic artists Mavis Staples and the Blind Boys of Alabama
performed a medley with a young musician, Kanye West, that included Mr.
West's gospel-tinged hip-hop song, "Jesus Walks."
Blessed with a rock-solid foundation, contemporary gospel is thriving. In
the past decade, new releases have been selling copies in the millions - a
major milestone in a musical genre that emerged in the 1930's, when the
songwriter Thomas Dorsey set the words of Sunday morning to the music of
Saturday night. But the early gospel may soon be lost forever. Although
albums by the legendary Mahalia Jackson are easy to find on CD, of the
thousands of tracks recorded by less known greats like Clara Ward, the
Sensational Nightingales, the Roberta Martin Singers, Sallie Martin, the
Georgia Peach and the Spirit of Memphis, only a few are available.
Why is this music so difficult to find, or even hear, today? Although small
gospel labels still release classics, and reissue labels like Document
Records and Collectables have repackaged some Golden Age music, these
companies don't have the wide distribution of the major labels and mostly
depend on mail and Internet orders. In fact, catalogs of early gospel
labels are mostly owned by the large corporations that dominate the music
industry. For the most part, these companies have released only a few
classic albums on compact disc.
For an unabashed fan like me, it's a painful situation. I realize that no
corporation is going to put out albums just to please a few aficionados,
but they may not realize that many people want to hear this music. Each
time I do a radio interview and play a classic gospel song, the phone lines
immediately light up. The callers need to discuss what this music has meant
to them. They invariably ask where they can buy it and most of the time I
have to tell them they can't.
Classic gospel can experience the same success that major-label reissues of
jazz and blues have enjoyed in the last two decades. It was once difficult
to find the jazz masters, but reissues of John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and
dozens of others have brought labels renewed sales, a new audience and
critical acclaim. These reissues came about because of the aggressive
lobbying by jazz lovers and the foresight of a few label executives. The
same can happen with early gospel.
Music historians should also get involved: major record labels can form
alliances with archivists like the Smithsonian, Rounder Records and the
Library of Congress. Each day, irreplaceable master tapes deteriorate, get
lost, or are simply tossed out.
It would be more than a cultural disaster to forever lose this music. It
would be a sin.
Robert Darden, an assistant professor of English at Baylor University, is
the author of "People Get Ready! A New History of Black Gospel Music."