The Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic Justin Davidson wrote a review a few years back about the opera “St. Francis of Assisi,” by the 20th century Frenchman Olivier Messiaen. Messiaen’s musical language is a blend of the modernist and the mystic – incorporating allusions to medieval chant, Hindu rhythms, and lots of birdsongs. But Justin found this work to be problematic for him, because of the other language that Messiaen used. Basically, the opera is a reflection of the composer’s own devout, if slightly unorthodox, version of Catholicism. And Justin’s review dealt mainly with the question, what do we do with sacred music when it comes from a belief that is not our own? He felt he was missing a layer of meaning – but at the same time, he was assuming that layer was there (which knowing Messiaen is probably correct) – because he did not share Messaen’s faith.
This is a vexing question. Maybe, if a listener feels he or she is missing something because the “message” keeps them at arm’s length, it’s because for them at least, the music isn’t strong enough to carry the day. This can apply to political songs or any other topical song form as well – if the music is strong enough, the song will be able to stand on its own, regardless of whether the war has ended, or the candidate has been elected, or pop culture references or contemporary slang in the lyrics have faded into near-oblivion.
And so it is with Gospel music. For me, and probably for a lot of others who didn’t grow up in this musical or spiritual tradition, the best Gospel music is music first, and the more obvious the message, the harder it is to like. When we think of Gospel, we think primarily, and correctly, of singers; but happily for heathens like myself, there is a history of instrumental Gospel music too. The trombone shout choirs of the United House of Prayer come to mind – and if you ever have a chance to see McCullough Sons of Thunder, the trombone choir from the United House of Prayer’s Harlem congregation, please don’t miss it. I presented them once in a sacred music festival at Merkin Hall and I literally feared for the roof of the hall, what with all the instrumental shouting and the dancing that broke out in the aisles. There are also other great Gospel instrumentalists, like the sax player Brother Vernard Johnson; and there’s the “sacred steel” tradition, which began in churches too poor to buy an organ and used local pedal steel guitarists instead, and which is best represented by Robert Randolph and his family band.
Of course, old Gospel songs, message and all, have become such a part of American culture that believers or not, we accept them as part of our cultural currency. Look how readily people of different faiths, and no faith, took to the early Gospel songs revisited on the “O Brother Where Art Thou” soundtrack. And the singular voice of the legendary Mahalia Jackson remains irresistible, even if you’re not listening to the words.