Culture > Music

Music: Black gospel's richness

Music | Despite historical confusions, the spirit of the music shines through

Issue: "Is McCain able?," Aug. 21, 1999

Given that black Christianity in America is often presented as something narrowly political instead of something eternally rich, any media event that closes the gap, so to speak, is welcome. It's in such a spirit that Christians of any background should welcome Testify! The Gospel Box, Rhino Records' latest multi-disc compilation of 20th-century, black-gospel highlights. Having welcomed it, though, let's note its shortcomings. Gospel fans will note that nine of the set's 50 recordings are already included on volumes one and two of Rhino's Jubilation! series, a 1992 black-gospel collection that's still in print. Testify!'s other shortcoming is its attempt to demonstrate gospel music's development through chronology alone, an attempt that results in Andrae Crouch's "My Tribute," the last track on Disc Two, serving as a link to Disc Three's exclusively contemporary lineup. Andrae Crouch, however, isn't a musical link so much as a cultural link, and the cultures that he links aren't those of older black Christians and younger black Christians but those of black Christians and white. Does such infidelity to history rob Testify! of its entertainment value, which is considerable, or its devotional value, which is more considerable still? No, but it does obscure the big picture: No matter how celebrity-driven and splashy some forms of black gospel have become (Whitney Houston closes Disc Three), its older and simpler styles still thrive with a vigor that implies, among other things, that the Source of its inspiration is infinite. No collection captures the vigor of the old styles better than Cello's Music Maker Series, a group of new recordings by poor, elderly southern folk-blues musicians who, despite the seminally influential nature of their work, have never reaped its worth in lucre. Of particular interest is Honey Babe by Algia Mae Hinton, a 69-year-old North Carolina native whose weather-beaten voice and acoustic guitar are the authentic version of the rural blues that Bob Dylan affectionately mimicked on his debut album 37 years ago. Except for "If You Want to Go to Heaven" and "I Want Jesus to Walk with Me," Honey Babe's 16 selections are secular, but they reflect the strength and compassion that Mrs. Hinton evinced while single-handedly rearing her seven children after her husband's death in 1965. And as the songs "When You Kill the Chicken Save Me the Head," "Cook Cornbread for Your Husband," and "Lima Beans" prove, nothing gets one through the hard times like a well-rounded diet and a sense of humor.

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