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PCR # 100 (Vol. 3, No. 8) This edition is for the week of February 18--24, 2002.

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The Enlightenment by Terence Nuzum

Part 5:
Jesus Comin' Soon: The Gospel Blues
Holy Blues

The Holy Blues, a contradiction. Blues that preach the word of God, the Gospel.

The Gospel blues and the blues itself derived from the same sources, it was the singers that chose different paths. To understand this, blues must be viewed as a musical form and not lyrical expression. While Robert Johnson sang "Me and the Devil", gospel blues singer Blind Willie Johnson sang "John the Revelator". Both musically the same yet lyrically different.

Gospel blues sold more than any other race blues recordings of the era. Many African Americans were highly spiritual and when they could afford a record it would more likely be a record about Jesus than the Devil.

After Mamie Smith and then Blind Lemon Jefferson broke the gates wide open for blues artists, the church saw a way to "spread the Lord's good word". Most gospel blues singers were preachers. Where as most general blues singers were EX-preachers. Son House fell into this latter catagory. House would often attack the church's hypocrisy as in these lyrics from his "Preachin' the Blues":

Woh, I'm gonna get me a religion
I'm gonna join the Baptist church
Woh, I'm gonna get me a religion
I'm gonna join the Baptist church
I'm gonna be a Baptist preacher
And I sure won't have to work

House obviously believed that most blacks became preachers to escape field work and that "getting a religion" was actually a career oppurtunity rather than a leap of faith.

The gospel blues, while still classified musically as blues, still had its own trademark sound. It would either sound like a choir, a straight sermon with musical accompaniment, or a stir-fire growling sermon such as the songs of Blind Willie Johnson.

J.M. Gates
Reverend J.M. Gates was the most popular of the early gospel artists. Between 1926-1941 he recorded close to two-hundred titles. Gates had a wailing chant to his singing like a gospel choir. His best song critically was "These Hard Times" his message about depression.
Arizona Dranes
Arizona Dranes, a born-blind painist was 21 when she first recorded. Her most famous piece was an instrumental called simply "Cruxificion". Dranes inspired none other than 50's rocker Jerry Lee Lewis.
Reverend Blind Gary Davis
Most gospel blues artists, in addition to being preachers, were blind. Of these traveling blind evangelists, the most known to modern audiences is Reverend Blind Gary Davis. Davis usually played second guitar to Blind Boy Fuller but when he went to record his own songs, he sang the gospel. He had a falling out with his producer in the 1930s and didn't record again until the 1950s.

Washington Phillips
Washington Phillips
Washington Phillips was one of the first gospel blues singers to make it big. Phillips, unlike the other growling preachers, sang with a soft delicate voice and used a zither-type instrument called the Dolceola or "plucked piano". His songs frequently attacked hypocrite preachers like in "The Church Needs Good Deacons":

All that some of them is fittin' for
Is to run 'round at night

Phillips also protested against the different dominions and sects in "I am Born to Preach the Gospel":

Oh preachers ought to stand together
But you see yourself they have split;
Now what all the churches is needin' right now
Is a regenerated pulpit, Oh yes!

Tom Dorsey
Thomas Dorsey, father of gospel
The two superstars of Gospel Blues though were Tom Dorsey and Blind Willie Johnson. Thomas Dorsey started out singing church music but by the 1920s was lured to "devils music" when he married "Ma" Rainey's wardrobe mistress, Nettie Harper. Harper introduced Dorsey to the big city blues of "Ma" Rainey and Bessie Smith. As Georgia Tom, Dorsey acted out his sins in the music of the blues. He recorded with Tampa Red the raunchy "It's Tight Like That", played piano for Rainey, and even recorded with female impersonator Frankie "Half-Pint" Jaxon. In 1930 Dorsey repented, leaving the blues for good. He took up gospel again. As if to make up for his past musical sins, Dorsey recorded dozens of spirituals which were catchy enough to sell in the city. He became so popular that to this day he is known as the "Father of Gospel".

Blind Willie Johnson
The only known photograph of Blind Willie Johnson
If Dorsey was the commercial soft side of Gospel blues than Blind Willie Johnson was the rough painful truth. Johnson's music was harsh and gripping, it pulled no punches. His voice was a vicious growl umatched in bluesdom even next to Charlie Patton's. Bookman reviewer Edward Niles described it as "..violent,..tortured, absymal shouts, and groans...".

Between October 1918 and February 1919, an epidemic took the lives of an estimated 21,642,274 people and then disappeared as quickly as it came. Johnson sung his sermon on this years later.

In the year of 19 and 18
God sent a mighty disease;
It killed a-many thousand
on land and on the seas

Johnson ends this song with this apocalyptic verse

Read the book of Zechariah
bible plainly say.
Says the people in the cities dyin'
'Count of they wicked ways.

Johnson's songs were also political. Johnson viewed the U.S. as a modern version of the sinful Babylon. A Babylon that God would eventually punish.

Johnson was born near Marlin, Texas around 1900. He was blinded at age 7. Johnson's widow Angeline told researchers that he was blinded by his stepmother who threw lye in his face after an argument with Willie's father. Another source says that Johnson went blind from staring at an eclipse. But Johnson himself claimed that he went blind from wearing a discarded pair of glasses. Blind Willie AdWhen Johnson was as teen his father made him a cigar box guitar. After he eventually acquired a six-string guitar his dad would take him to play on street corners. He became popular all through his teenage years playing clubs and church functions. His love was for gospel music, yet he saw the blues ability to get people to listen. So like so many he combined them to create a powerful sermon of music. In June of 1927 he married Angeline after meeting her on a street corner where he was playing. By December of '27 he made his first recordings for Columbia. He recorded his last session in 1930 and died in the 1950s. His early records were hits but by the Depression his record sales dropped drasticly. The nation didn't want the rugged truth, but instead the gentle tunes of Tom Dorsey. Nevertheless Johnson's growls still ring true while Dorsey's music remains dated.

Gospel blues actually remained closer to its roots, the hollers and spirituals, than the blues itself. It was the complete antithesis of the blues in many ways. It was the voice of a highly religous people during a time when religion was in high fashion so to speak. But even after the dust settled the voices can still be heard. The faith was in the voices. A sound that to this day one can not deny. The true believers of the era weren't the preachers, but the vagabond travelers who were spilling their guts out on the road to strangers and delivering the message of God to the people.

Oh, I'm gonna have to stay on the job
I ain't got no time to lose;
Hey, I ain't got not time to lose
I swear to God
I got to preach these gospel blues
(spoken: Great God A'mighty!)

--Preachin' the blues (Son House, 1930)

Church Blues

NEXT: The Urban Blues

"The Enlightenment" is ©2002 by Terence Nuzum.  Webpage design and all graphics herein (except where otherwise noted) are creations of Nolan B. Canova.  Contents of Nolan's Pop Culture Review is ©2002 by Nolan B. Canova.