Highway 61 Revisited: The Tangled Roots of American Jazz, Blues, and Country Music

By Gene Santoro | Go to book overview

9
The Gospel Highway

THE GOSPEL HIGHWAY, the church-based circuit toured by African American preachers and religious entertainers, was paved largely by segregation, but it also meant to bypass the world's sinful mores. To trace its twists and turns is to follow strands of America's cultural DNA, peer into its cognitive dissonance and paradoxes. Observers, for instance, may discuss the genetic relationships and stylistic affinities of gospel and blues, but for true believers, one is holy and the other satanic—period. That explains why Ray Charles was so viciously reviled by the faithful in 1955, when he rocked an old spiritual in the then-new soul gospel style, added leering lyrics, called it “I Got a Woman,” and scored a hit that helped launch soul music: He had blasphemed, as surely as if he'd had sex in Sunday school.

Charles's new sound transposed the Pentecostal moans of soul gospel's male quartets into popular culture, with indelible results. Among the outstanding quartets developing that style were the Dixie Hummingbirds, and in his thoughtful, well-organized Great God A'Mighty! The Dixie Hummingbirds: Celebrating the Rise of Soul Gospel Music, Jerry Zolten both recounts their career and uses them as a lens to view larger contexts. He sees the Hummingbirds consistently reinventing themselves within the evolution of African American religious culture, and positions them as key movers in the between-the-wars shift from old-time “Sister Flute” spirituals to the denser, more driving hard soul gospel of the male quartets. These four-part-harmony groups (actual numbers could vary; the 'Birds were usually a quintet or sextet with multiple tenors) shouted with a raucous call-and-response fervor that fused Holiness Church grace with devil blues, attracting women, young folk, and integrated audiences. In the process, they helped link the Gospel Highway to the vast interconnected web that the postwar American entertainment business was becoming.

Drawing on seminal books like Anthony Heilbut's The Gospel Sound as well as his own research and interviews, Zolten skillfully navigates these sometimes explosive changes. He conveys the complex moral codes of the churches in which the Dixie Hummingbirds sang while illustrating how

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Highway 61 Revisited: The Tangled Roots of American Jazz, Blues, and Country Music
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Highway 61 Revisited - The Tangled Roots of American Jazz, Blues, Rock, & Country Music iii
  • Contents v
  • Introduction 1
  • Part I: Avatars 5
  • 1: Louis Armstrong 7
  • 2: Woody Guthrie 17
  • Part II: The Postwar Jazz Era 31
  • 3: Mary Lou Williams 33
  • 4: Max Roach 37
  • 5: Sonny Rollins 49
  • 6: Chet Baker 64
  • 7: Miles Davis 68
  • 8: Herbie Hancock 80
  • Part III: Rebirth of the Blues 91
  • 9: The Gospel Highway 93
  • 10: Chess Records 99
  • 11: The Folk Revival 104
  • 12: Willie Nelson 119
  • 13: Lenny Bruce 124
  • 14: Sweet Soul Music 135
  • Part IV: In the Garage 151
  • 15: Bob Dylan 153
  • 16: Electric Blues Revival 171
  • 17: Buffalo Springfield 179
  • 18: Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris 185
  • 19: The Grateful Dead 193
  • 20: The Band 204
  • 21: The Firesign Theatre 216
  • 22: Bruce Springsteen 223
  • 23: Tom Waits 235
  • Part V: Possible Futures 241
  • 24: Ken Burns, the Academy, and Jazz 243
  • 25: The Politics of Music Don Byron and Dave Douglas 257
  • 26: Cassandra Wilson 265
  • 27: Marty Ehrlich 278
  • 28: New Jazz Fusions 283
  • 29: Ani Difranco 297
  • Index 302
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