Want to hear some fantastic gospel singing? Here are four of my favorite selections that I’ve found in the Internet Archive’s vast catalogue of digitized 78rpm records. Scroll down to read the story of how I first came upon these gems.
Even though I don’t think there’s much point in trying to compare musical styles or in arguing whether one is better than another — they’re all unique and multifaceted and fundamentally incomparable, like people themselves — if you insisted that I name the one musical style that I find the most moving, I mean the most physically and spiritually rousing, I mean the style that most makes a person want to stand up and clap and sing, I mean the stye that most makes a person want to praise “the Lord” in the current moment of listening, no matter the prior depth of the listener’s belief — I would have to say it’s gospel music, especially the gospel music composed and performed by black artists. But even though I’ve held gospel music in high regard for as long as I can remember, it was a genre that I didn’t really collect, back in the CD era when I still collected music.
Fast forward to Sunday September 19, 2021. It’s the streaming era now, and the most common way I encounter new music is by clicking links that are shown to me on YouTube or Twitter, a process of mindless self-subjugation to the whims of an algorithm, a process that leaves me thoroughly uninvested in the music I find. But on this particular Sunday, my partner and I wanted to take a day trip… and because we decided to go ahead and rent a car even though we were getting a late start with noon coming and going and no destination chosen… and because we finally got in the car and turned on the radio and started flipping through FM stations… and because we whimsically kept flipping even after finding a few decent options… only because all those things happened the precise way they did, including the nice weather that prompted the idea of the day trip in the first place, we landed on WZBC 90.3 Newton, “Boston College’s premier student-run radio station!”, at exactly the right time, 12:25pm, when it was playing selections from a compilation titled A Capella Black Gospel on the NarroWay label, and I was rapt.
Later that day I did some sleuthing and found that my favorite selection from the radio broadcast — “In The Garden” by a group called The Masters of Harmony of Detroit — was available online at The Internet Archive. It turns out that archive.org has a treasure trove of digitized 78rpm records that are in the public domain, now freely available to play and download in beautifully scratchy audio. If you were a kid in the 1980s like I was, your parents probably had a collection of LPs and maybe a separate box of 45s stashed away somewhere, and maybe in that special box there were a few stray 78s. Even back in the 1980s, 78s seemed like relics to me. I certainly never imagined that years later, I’d be able to go somewhere called “online” and search for any of those 78s my parents owned, and any 78s my neighbors owned, and in fact any 78s anybody ever owned, and probably find them and be able to hear them without needing a record player.
It looks like “In the garden” is one of the few available recordings by The Masters of Harmony of Detroit even though the group’s remarkable leader, Thomas Kelly, who founded the group in 1953, kept performing with it through 2017 when he was 103 years old. I’m particularly taken by the entry of a strong, cutting bass voice halfway through that track, and it made me realize that strong bass entries — whether vocal or instrumental (e.g. a powerful emergence of the subject in a Bach organ fugue on the pedal) — are pretty much my favorite thing that can happen in music. Anyone else share this preference for those moments when the lowest voice takes the spotlight?
The other three selections are not ones I heard on the radio that fortunate Sunday the 19th, but ones that caught my ear in the subsequent week of digging around the collection of gospel 78s at the Internet Archive. “I’m Alright Now” stands out to me for the way it builds and builds till it reaches a point of near-ecstasy but stops in time to fit neatly on one side of a 78. Who is this amazing soloist? I’m not sure how to find out, but I did follow a link to a scanned issue of The Cash Box magazine from 1955 where the album is reviewed. The reviewer gave “I’m Alright Now” a C+ which meant “Good” according to the magazine’s uninflated grading scheme. Still, I’d say the grade should have been a couple of letters higher — what do you think?
The third selection, “Run on Home and Live with God,” starts with such passion that I imagine the ensemble and soloist had been singing their hearts out for hours, reaching a state of utter joy before the recording was made. For a producer or recordist, it must have been a challenge in those days to try to represent the best of what a group could do, given that you had only two short sides of a 78 to work with. Certainly this track has me hooked on the Soul Satisfiers of Philadelphia — but who were they and how can I hear more? It’s tantalizing that in our current age when so much media is instantly accessible, we can’t access anything by this group except for this one track and the flip side.
As for “Precious Lord” by the Kinds of Harmony of Alabama, well, I find it hypnotic, complex, and totally moving — maybe you do too?