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The Saving Grace of Gospel Music

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the ‘60s, the music of protest against the Vietnam War was that of Bob Dylan and his fellow folk-rock singer-songwriters. In contrast, the defining musical cry for justice in the civil-rights movement was “We Shall Overcome,” a gospel song.

One of the many intriguing anecdotes in “The Story of Gospel Music,” a new documentary airing Wednesday on PBS’ “Great Performances,” is that for all the emotional punch it still packs, “We Shall Overcome” is a watered-down version of a song written by 19th century composer Charles Albert Tindley.

“One of his best-known compositions, ‘I’ll Overcome,’ was adapted, modified and actually domesticated in the civil-rights anthem ‘We Shall Overcome,’ ” explains author Anthony Heilbut, one of more than a dozen musicians, writers, historians, musicologists and others interviewed in the BBC production. “By ‘domesticated,’ I mean Tindley wrote, ‘If in my life I do not yield/I’ll overcome someday,’ which is a good deal more aggressive than ‘Deep in my heart I do believe/We shall overcome someday.’ ”

“The Story of Gospel Music” spends 90 minutes tracing the integral role that gospel has had in the African American community throughout history.

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In fact, author and musicologist Rev. Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker goes as far as to suggest that, “Had it not been for the cohesive character of our African American sacred music--and for the the sake of discussion, secular music--I don’t think black people could have made it on the North American continent. It has been the primary ingredient which has bonded us together as a surviving people.”

Other documentaries have better captured the spirit of the music itself, notably “Say Amen, Somebody,” a 1982 theatrical release, and “Going Home to Gospel,” which aired on PBS in 1991.

This one, perhaps reflecting the British love for all things intellectual, weighs in heavily on the side of analysis of the cultural, social and political aspects of gospel music.

The talk is interspersed with performance snippets featuring such gospel pioneers as Thomas A. Dorsey, the first and arguably still the most important composer of gospel songs, and Mahalia Jackson, such key figures in post-war gospel as James Cleveland and Shirley Caesar and contemporary chart-toppers such as Tramaine Hawkins.

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Gospel’s reach extends even further into pop culture because so many soul and R&B; singers of the rock era grew up singing in the church, from James Brown and Aretha Franklin through Sam Cooke and Otis Redding to Al Green and Whitney Houston.

Besides R&B; and soul, the forms of jazz, blues and even rap have roots in gospel, which drew upon singing styles of the West Africans who were brought to this country as slaves, and here introduced to Christianity.

“It was difficult for us to sing naturally within the print-oriented strictures of the European hymn form,” says Walker, author of the gospel music history “Somebody’s Calling My Name.” “So what we did was improvise. We stretched out the [time] signature, introduced the syncopation and the rhythm.”

Those same elements define all the forms of popular music born in the African American community and, in turn, found their way into rock ‘n’ roll.

At times, “The Story of Gospel Music” allows the story to overshadow the music, but things start to jump with vintage footage of some of the women singers who, significantly, seemed to have no trouble gaining recognition in this field: Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe (who is captured displaying her fiery way with a guitar), Caesar and Franklin.

It bypasses any debate on the issue of whites imposing Christianity on transplanted Africans, but the show isn’t afraid to risk getting a little polemical within the context of the musicological exploration.

At one point in discussing differences between black and white gospel styles, Walker says, “The genius of black people is that we have never let the influence of the West rob us of our enthusiasm in our worship. I think what has made white Christianity so sterile is that somehow they bought into the business that to be emotional is to be unintellectual, which is simply not true.”

Horace Boyer, author of “How Sweet the Sound,” puts a good-humored spin on the same subject. After demonstrating the nature of the call-and-response form that’s central to gospel singing, he says with a wide grin, “You’re not going to get anything like that out of the Presbyterian church!”

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Caesar, who was nominated last month for her ninth gospel Grammy, believes this latest documentary, because it’s airing on PBS, “is going to cause a lot of broader audiences to become aware of gospel.”

Long one to reach out beyond the converted, Caesar frequently sings for audiences of drug addicts, stumps for Democratic candidates (she sang in Washington last month at the inaugural for President Clinton’s second term), and toured public schools briefly with a McDonald’s-sponsored outreach program.

For her, what matters most about gospel isn’t whose music is better or whether singers who turn from gospel to secular music are turning their backs on God. The only question for Caesar is whether lives are improved through the gospel music she sings; the gauge she uses is the people she reaches directly.

“I’m getting great response,” Caesar, 58, said by phone from her Pasadena hotel room while in the Southland to perform recently. “Every week I’m getting letters from people, young men and women, who have kicked the habit; they’re in church, doing good. I’m excited about that. It’s working.”

“The Story of Gospel Music” airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. on “Great Performances” on KCET.


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