Friday, February 21, 2014

The Impact of Black Gospel Music on Popular Culture, Pt. 2

The Impact of Black Gospel Music on Popular Culture:
CL Franklin, Aretha Franklin, Kirk Franklin, and Beyond, Pt.2

Black gospel music historically has had a profound positive impact upon American culture, and indeed the world. During the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 60s, gospel music made a significant impact in helping rid this nation of discrimination and segregation. Black gospel music birthed soul music that contained themes of love, unity, uplift, and empowerment.  This short blog series will examine the impact of postmodernism upon the entertainment industry, particularly gospel and secular music, and the impacts gospel music has had upon society across the eras of "the Franklins," C.L. Franklin, Aretha Franklin, Kirk Franklin, and beyond.

Soul music of the modern era often felt like gospel music, and with good reason. It's roots can be traced back to the black church, and even before that, to the invisible church and the songs of slaves called Negro Spirituals. Werner in his book, Higher Ground could have easily selected Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye and James Brown, to chronicle the rise and fall of soul, but instead he chose Aretha, Stevie, and Curtis. These three all came from the South, and had triumphed in suffering to share their testimonies. Moreover, Aretha and Curtis grew up singing gospel music in the church. At age 14, the first songs Aretha recorded were gospel songs sang at the church her father pastored, New Bethel Baptist Church. How her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin influenced her musical style, Aretha stated, "Most of what I learned vocally came from him. He gave me a sense of timing in music and timing is important in everything." (Werner, 2004, p. 26).  Werner stated:
In 2004, as in 1804 and 1904 and 1954, the challenge was to respond in ways that made it real. As James Baldwin wrote in "Sonny’s Blues,” “For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph, is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.” It was the song that Aretha, Curtis, and Stevie had been singing all along as they summoned countless thousands aboard the gospel train to the higher ground. For those with the ears to hear and the will to respond, the invitation remains open. As Curtis Mayfield once sang to the weary and the wary as well as to the warriors: “You don’t need no ticket, you just get on board.”
With a musical base with roots in the black church, soul music, although secular in lyrical content, shared many similarities with gospel music, including rhythm, melody and vocal arrangement, a call to empowerment, brotherly love, and higher purpose. Nelson George, author of the book, Post-Soul Nation wrote, “soul was descended from gospel, and when performed by a queen like Aretha Franklin, the music possessed the devotional intensity of a Sunday sermon” (George, 2004, p. vii). Soul music included the “call and response,” improvisational rifts and lyrics, handclaps and body movements, and the social commentary of the black church. Soul music included artists like Sam Cooke prophetically declaring “A Change Is Gonna Come” (1964), and Aretha Franklin singing “Respect” (1967), James Brown encouraging healthy self identity with “Say It Loud - I’m Black and I’m Proud” (1968), Marvin Gaye asking “What’s Going On?”(1971). About the songs of the Civil Rights Movement George wrote, “For me this historic period was absolutely about soul in its deepest spiritual meaning. It was about faith in the human capacity for change and a palpable optimism about the future” (George, 2004, viii).
In 1972, Aretha Franklin made gospel music history with her double platinum album, Amazing Grace. It sold over two million copies in the United States, and is the biggest selling live gospel LP of all time. Accompanying Aretha is the Southern Community Choir under the direction of James Cleveland. The LP won a Grammy Award in 1973 for Best Soul Gospel Performance. Here is what's really amazing. Amazing Grace surpassed Aretha's entire body of work and is the biggest selling album of her fifty-plus year recording career.
The impact of gospel music and its message of redemption, triumph, and hope began to wane from around the mid-seventies to early eighties. By then, the Civil Rights Bill and Voting Rights Act had been signed into law, and Dr. King, had been assassinated. A new generation had come of age that had not experience the atrocities of Jim Crow discrimination. Americans developed “Dance Fever,” as the Disco music that originated out of the nightclubs and discotheques of urban sub-culture reached the height of popularity as it became mainstream. Aretha Franklin lamented what she began to see as secular influences in gospel performances,
“There are many ways to praise the Lord. Different generations hear different beats. I must say, though, when the bass lines are pure boogie and the beats are pure funk, I wouldn’t call it gospel. When the performer’s body language is funking so hard as to be religiously disrespectful, then I wouldn’t call it gospel. Gospel is a higher calling; gospel is about God. Gospel is about beautiful and glorious voices and spirit-filled performances, and people who are anointed” (Werner, 2004, p. 265).

(Next time, Part 3: Kirk Franklin)

(Excerpt from my research paper , THE INFLUENCE OF POSTMODERN-THOUGHT IN MUSIC AND ENTERTAINMENT, February 2013.)
The Impact of Black Gospel Music on Popular Culture, Pt. 1


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