I am still waiting for the big book or the great film that conveys the sweep of gospel music, how the white South generated a river of churchsong that merges and parts from the passion of the black church traditions.
Perhaps three dozen songs form the core of that bicultural repertoire, the “old-time religion” that lends itself so abundantly to a cappella arrangements by white and black choirs alike. Jimmy Swaggart and Jerry Lee Lewis roared out of the Pentecostal tradition; Ernie K-Doe and Aaron Neville came out of a black experience that identified the struggle of slaves into freepersons with the children of Israel in exodus from captivity, bound for freedom.
Songs such as “Amazing Grace,” which share a common religious property, take on different nuances across the racial divide. In like measure, “This Little Light of Mine” became an anthem of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. By the 1990s, it was a favored song of girls in a choir at the Academy of the Sacred Heart. The first time I heard the song was in 1971, in Fayette, Miss. The singer was the short, stout, indomitable freedom fighter Fannie Lou Hamer.
This little light of mine
I’m going to let it shine
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.
Pounding a tambourine, singing with a power the printed word cannot convey, she interlaced the lyrics with recollections of her struggle to get the right to vote: “Ah sang that song when I was locked in the jail cell in Sunflower County. Sen. Eastland’s men was beatin’ me … but I kept prayin’ and singin’ … cause I knew God was on my side.”
Many years later, after James Eastland and heroic Fannie Lou Hamer had left the earthly stage, I watched John Lee and the Heralds of Christ perform at Jazz Fest and realized that the rolling melodic line of “This Little Light” was symmetrical with “Jesus on the Main Line.” You can sing the words of one tune to the melody of the other, so close are they in substance. Charging tempos, with textures that invite improvisational designs of the vocalists, give the lyrics a quality of craving, the hunger for faith given, love earned.
Jesus on the main line
Tell Him what you want
Call Him up and tell Him what
you want …
The image of Jesus ready to take the call at the other end of the telephone is personal-encounter religion at its richest. Toward the end of the 1980s, at a service in the 9th Ward, I heard a man cry, “I’m pushing 411!” each time the choir hit the line “Tell him what you want.”
On the CD Deacon John’s Jump Blues, the Zion Harmonizers make a guest appearance, singing “Jesus on the Main Line” in a tower-of-power uptempo cut. Sherman Washington’s voice, full of fervor, wails the words “Call him up! Call him up!” like a drill sergeant marching white-clad minions down to the banks for baptism by immersion in the cleanest bayou of the land. The sheer power of Washington’s voice summons an aural texture of camp meetings, down-home chapels rocking to the rhythms of black improvisations of old white Protestant hymnals.
It was inevitable, I suppose, that a white group, Ollabelle, six artists from the lower East Side in New York, would take “Jesus on the Main Line” in another direction. Ollabelle, on the Columbia label, combines folk, blues and gospel stylizations. A guy named Glenn Patscha is the lead vocalist on “Main Line,” and his slow, mellifluous approach stands in counterpoint to the pew-shaking stylization that we have come to expect from the black Southern tradition. Patscha’s tender tones furnish the quality of a lullaby, a ballad crooned as if to a child of a merciful, ever-present Savior close enough to answer that phone.
Gospel music draws an important lesson from jazz in the way singers absorb and adapt lyrics, fusing them with an essence of churchsong. Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” echoes the movement ethos of civil rights years, a goal wedded to the horizon where “any day now, any day now, I shall be released.” Dylan’s lyrics have an elegiac quality to shadow the freedom-striving theme of choirs in many black churches. Black choirs borrowed from the New England and Philadelphia hymnals in the 19th century.
With “Jesus on the Main Line” gaining a new lease on popularity through Ollabelle, so the tradition continues.