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