Magazine article Humanities

Gospel Roots

Magazine article Humanities

Gospel Roots

Article excerpt

ALABAMA & SOUTH CAROLINA WHEN WE THINK ABOUT GOSPEL music, we are apt to think of churches and choirs and Mahalia Jackson with her big earrings, hair piled in a beehive, and arms raised as she belts out a massive note. What perhaps does not come to mind are the all-male gospel quartets that began touring the South in the 1930s and '40s. These groups are the subject of Robert Clem's documentary Hozv They Got Over to be released in May 2016 and funded by grants from the Alabama Humanities Foundation and the Humanities Council of South Carolina. An Alabama native and the son of a minister, Clem set out to tell the stories of forebears of the music he loves, tracking down and interviewing members of many of the greatest quartets of that era.

In the Jim Crow South, there were few opportunities for rural African-American men. "They really didn't have anything else going," says Clem. "They didn't have any jobs ... so when radio and records came around, they suddenly saw this opportunity... to make a living in a way they could enjoy and felt was meaningful, instead of working in the fields or whatever menial work they were offered. ... They said, 'Well, I can sing, I'll get four guys together and yeah, let's go.'" These circumstances brought together groups like the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Fairfield Four, the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Sensational Nightingales, the Skylarks, and more.

Quartets would tour for months at a time, four or five men in one car, traveling from town to town, performing anywhere that would have them. "We spent a lotta nights, riding down the highway, eatin' out of a paper sack," remembered Isaac Freeman, who sang with the Fairfield Four, and passed away in 2012 at eighty-four. A common publicity strategy, known as "wildcatting," was to drive to a town, knock on the door of the radio station, ask to sing on the radio, and give a live performance on the spot. Groups competed in quartet battles at churches, trying to outsing one another, in the hopes of being the group to "wreck the house," and bring the crowd to a cheering frenzy. Not only churches, but schools, town halls, street corners, and barbershops became stages for these inventive performers.

According to music scholar Jerry Zolten, the quartets "fine-tuned" the congregational spirituals that had been sung in American churches for decades. They brought gospel beyond jubilee-style singing (fast, restrained spirituals) and began to experiment: improvising, shouting, preaching, using falsettos, and moving freely with the energy and fervor of what became known as "hard gospel. …

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