Gospel highlights the best of religion. If you’re not a religious person, or at least a subscriber to an organized religion (much like this writer), then it’s easy to get cynical about anything and everything overtly God-related. Church music, on the surface at least, is antithetical to rock & roll, punk rock, or whatever; because at its essence, it’s about behaving yourself. Being good. Doing what you’re told, by a good book. You’d think that there’d be no room for rebels in gospel music.
With How They Got Over: Gospel Quartets And The Road To Rock And Roll, a new movie from Robert Clem—recently screened at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles—we learned, as is usually the case, things are rarely that clear-cut. There’s so much joy and raw emotion, so many characters, so much history and, yes, the occasional rebel in the world of gospel. Not only is it easy for music lovers with an open mind to enjoy (regardless of their personal spiritual beliefs) but it’s actually hard not to love it.
Clem’s movie doesn’t take us right back to the beginning, largely because it would be practically impossible. Most scholars believe that American gospel can be traced to the 17th century but it’s tough to put your finger on exactly where it began. So the director picks the end of the civil war, and slavery, in and around 1865 as the starting off point, quickly moving to the turn of the century.
And that deep, often dark, history is why gospel highlights the best of religion. The advent of radio in the 1920s brought the best gospel voices into homes all over America, and those voices, throughout their history in the United States, could easily have believed their God had forsaken them. The end of slavery, of course, didn’t mean the end of segregation or, as we should all know, institutional inequality and racism. The suffering was far from over. And yet the joy in the music was and is awe-inspiring.
We’re taught about the evolution of gospel, that saw it go through a “hard” period (extra fiery and passionate vocals), then “soft” (defined in the movie, somewhat bizarrely, as having “sexier” vocals), while the drama constantly increased (performers on their knees, audiences on their backs).
As the title suggests, we’re also taken along the road that leads from gospel to rock & roll. And by the way, here the term rock & roll seems to apply to popular, secular music. When Sam Cooke left The Soul Stirrers, as far as the gospel crowds are concerned, he “went rock & roll”. He wasn’t welcome back when he attempted to later rejoin the band. The influence that the music had on artists including The Temptations, James Brown, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, etc. is mapped out in full.
The film is a rewarding experience and was a twelve-year endeavour for Clem. At the end, heartbreakingly, we’re shown which of the musicians interviewed for the movie passed away before it was completed. But thanks to this documentary and all involved (including producers Jerry Zolten and Opal Nations) their story has been told.
And again, it’s a story for everyone. “Going rock & roll was easy,” Clarence Fountain of the Blind Boys of Alabama says towards the end. “You just replaced the word ‘Lord’ with the word ‘Baby’.”