Ben Hall Gospel Archive

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DRAM is very pleased that the author and musician Rick Moody agreed to write a special introductory essay to this archive of gospel music from Detroit-based musician, restaurateur, artist, and social activist, Ben Hall.

 

Gospel For Beginners

 Rick Moody

 
I was at a conference in Oxford, MS, one time. Ten years ago. Oxford has many things going for it. It’s old, it’s got a great bookstore, it has clubs that offer some semblance of the blues. Oxford also has Southern literature. William Faulkner’s house, Eudora Welty’s house, etc. But what I remember that trip for, most of all, is discovering gospel music.

Which is to say: whereas Oxford, MS, offers a lot of the white history of the south, nearby Memphis, TN, features a lot of the African-American counternarrative. Stax Records, for example. And: the Full Gospel Tabernacle, noteworthy among other things for its pastor, soul music legend Al Green. A friend was along for this trip, and she suggested we take in a Sunday service at Al Green’s parish while we were in the neighborhood. And so we did.

Now, I knew something about gospel music, because you can’t listen to the contemporary popular song and not know something about it. You can’t listen to Aretha Franklin and not know something about it, you can’t listen to the Staple Singers and not know something about it, you can’t, in fact, even listen to the later Talking Heads and not know something about it. To the extent that the American popular song stands on African-American bedrock, from the blues up through (and including) hip-hop, the American popular song cannot shake the legacy of gospel.

It’s one thing to know abstractly about gospel, however, to know about the simple open-hearted chord progressions that dominate in the idiom, and about the big choirs that are often a part of the way it is executed, and it’s another thing to go to the churches themselves and to open yourself up to the experience.

Al Green’s church was not gigantic, not overcrowded, at least not on the Sunday I was there, and it was integrated (because so many people love to go and hear the Rev. Green carry the message), and in my recollection it didn’t have one of the megachurch choirs that would have required a lot of resources and a lot of rehearsal to carry off. What it did have, indisputably, was faith. What I learned about gospel, from watching Al Green perform it, was that in the African-American gospel tradition, the music is the liturgy. There is not much of a service, despite the readings from New Testament and the sermon. Indeed, not much happens apart from the music. The ministry is musical, even the preaching is a series of musical moments. The featured vocalist, in this case Al Green himself, is improvising his impressions over the music, and this is how the message is carried, even during the sermon, that is how the holy ghost, to speak in the idiom of gospel, broadcasts its purpose. I can remember the Reverend Green looking around the room and singing about being able to see the light in the audience—“I can see the light in that sister there, I can see the light in this brother here”—and so on. While the band vamped. Going through the audience nearly entirely. No doubt, the Rev. Green is able to see the light every week, the light is amply demonstrated every week, along with speaking in tongues, spontaneous dancing in the audience, and so forth, but the reliability of the presentation (such is ritual) does not diminish the absolute fertility of Green’s singing, his flexibility, his incredible phrasing, his ability to go very soft where others need to go very loud, and in this way, over the course of a couple of hours, you are transported, in this way you learn just how redeemed you are.

The experience at the Full Gospel Tabernacle was a life changer for me, just as I have often heard from others who have begun attending African-American churches and in the process first encountered gospel live. But I was not changed simply because I needed the boisterous, unfettered love of the service. More epiphanic was the way the service changed how I thought about music. Gospel, according to this experience (and according to how I have experienced it since), is tendentious music. It is music with a goal. Accordingly, whereas the language of scripture, especially in the current translations of the Holy Bible, has become commonplace, rote, degraded, predictable, the music of gospel is anything but commonplace. It is virtuosic, transformative, reverential, and sung with complete abandon so as to give evidence of spirit, so as to cause the heart to understand what language itself may not always be able to convey. If Jesus spoke in parables because it was hard, otherwise, for him to make clear what he intended, gospel music has a similar form, a parabolic form, as if to suggest: what we want you to know about God is in the shape of this statement, in the experience of singing this music and listening to this music. If you can be transported here, inside the church, by this music, you can be transported out there.

Which is a lot different from how ministry works in the Episcopal Church of my childhood. The mainline protestant experience is not without its transcendental moments. Especially in the Eucharist. And the mainline protestant evocation of Protestantism often features powerful music. The Episcopal Church has a great hymnal, and this hymnal has been incredibly influential. But this brand of reverence is rarified, distant. It overpowers with awe, not with experience. You have, in the hymnodies of Episcopalianism, high art, and our religious experience is in the admiration of high art, as in a sculpture by Bernini, or a fresco by Caravaggio. The gospel message is completely different. It’s about getting down into the aisles with the choir, and it’s about being part of the music, and it’s about simplifying the message so that participation is everything, and participation is transcendence, and no singer, no participant, will be left behind. The harmonies may be astounding, whether in a small group setting (The Dixie Hummingbirds, let’s say, or The Swan Silvertones) or in a choir of a hundred singers, but the song is not about harmony entirely, it’s about erasing the distinction between congregation and choir, and by singing the song, you are made part of the work of grace.

The massive collection of gospel recordings we have before us here, assembled by musician Ben Hall, is composed entirely of vinyl, and the vinyl is part of why it’s a great collection. Vinyl is warmer. The understanding of the superiority of the vinyl medium is like the intuitive experience of the light in gospel. Gospel on digital is one step removed from the Holy Ghost, because digital mastering is about sheering off the sheer sonic delight of the human voice and making it more streamlined. If the live experience of gospel is best, it follows that the recording must be closest to the live setting, and the vinyl reproduction is closer to that live message, by reason of warmth, than the digital version. Furthermore, the snap, crackle, and pop of this collection suggests the many times these recordings were treasured and listened to by their owners over the years. In some cases, these are seventy-eight r.p.m. recordings that date back many decades. That the preservation of the recordings is now digital and happening on a web site is a curatorial fact of necessity, not a fact in nature, and you are enjoying these recordings despite this. They are being made available to you when you otherwise might not have the opportunity to partake.

The other salient feature of the Ben Hall collection is that it was mostly assembled in and around the Detroit area, often from tag sales, flea markets, and the like. What does Detroit tell us about this great wealth of gospel music, as collected by Ben Hall? It tells us that the most destitute and impoverished cities are the most spiritually advanced cities, and that God, to use the gospel way of thinking, is most present where people are suffering most. Detroit, which civically is barely hanging on, is the perfect place for the gospel message, and not only because a lot of African-American people live there, but also because Detroit has a wealth of impoverishment, and though a lot of this music was recorded elsewhere, it was all owned, at one time or another, in the Detroit area, where people are thinking about eternal life and the savior divine because they have little else to think about, what with an extraordinarily high unemployment rate, a mostly beleaguered auto industry that has shipped away many of its jobs, political corruption, etc. As Roland Barthes has said, the site of a negation always, inevitably, becomes the place of affirmation, and here are the affirmations, I dreamed the angels came down! And the evening and the morning were the first day! The gospel message takes hold where there is the least hope. You could almost chart the future sites for similar gems, as far as this message goes: all the suffering metropolises of the Northeast and the Rust Belt, the beleaguered border cities of the Southwest, the failing democracies of Europe.

In a collection this large, there must be heterogeneity. There has to be more going on in the form than you think, and the Ben Hall collection does not fail to disappoint. First, the music was produced over a great many years, nearly sixty, and thus there are a great variety of sounds, recording technologies, styles of singing. And then there is so much range in the ensembles themselves. There are gospel ensembles here that sound like funk bands from the seventies. There are gospel ensembles that sound like Motown bands. There are gigantic, and well funded choirs here that sound more like the kind of gospel that might be performed before the president of the United States at some state dinner. There are ensembles here that even rely on relatively inorganic sounds like the synthesizer, and which therefore are not completely ignorant of such local developments as Detroit Techno.

And yet despite the great heterogeneity of the sounds, there is an abiding message, and the abiding message is the good news is coming. It is easy, in this historical moment, to disbelieve that the good news is coming. There are a great number of people who would tell you otherwise, relying on the facts and figures of empirical reasoning to “prove” to you that this is so. But these recordings, while they require the lyrics that argue for the imminence of good news, do not just argue for it; they actually embody the good news. A fine example for me, though there are many of them here, is the track called “Genesis” by the Palestine Missionary Baptist Church Concert Choir. This composition attempts to rehearse, in recitative, the entire opening of the Genesis chapter of the Old Testament, but that’s nothing compared to what happens once the choir itself starts getting into the act, most potently at about the five minute mark, and the rhythm section starts and stops with them, over and over and over, to the growing delight of the audience, who begin anticipating the stuttering rhythm, applauding for it, with testifications, all on the occasion of the phrase “Let there be . . .” The place that the audience is transported to, with its ecstasy in the sheer message of the song, likewise its pacing, as conveyed in the performance, is the enaction of reverence for the creation story, a reverence that is all but absent, in, for example, the translation known as the New Revised Standard Version. This reverence is not in the words alone, it is as much in the song as a whole, in the music, in the singing.

            To single out one track in Ben Hall’s collection does an injustice to the whole, which must be experienced in just the way a spiritual life should be experienced, which is to say in an improvised journey over a great period of time. I have myself been living with these tracks for a couple of months now, letting them surprise me, in any way that they need to surprise me, by sheer volume, by stylistic diversity, and I have not gotten close to exhausting the collection, nor even to having more than a nodding acquaintance with the better part of it, and I imagine that a complete understanding of this work will take years, and though Ben Hall is a young man still, one can only surmise that the work of his collecting has been just as thorough, just as committed.

There are three layers to the great gift of this collection, therefore, one is the musical layer. If you want to know about how gospel sounds and how it has developed over decades, especially in Detroit, then you are in the right place. The second layer is the sheer scholarship of the collection itself. It’s a curatorial virtuosity, especially as collated in a spot, online, where many listeners may avail themselves of its riches. We have Ben Hall himself, and the Database for Recorded American Music to thank for this access. But the third layer is an ineffable one and one harder to talk about, and that is about the effect that this work has on your spiritual life over time. I defy you not to feel at least some musculature beginning to move, that’s first, and then some other part of you is moved, the heart, whatever that organ means to you, and it happens in increments, as it did for me in Memphis, in the sway of the Full Gospel Tabernacle; I was a child, I was but a child, before the Full Gospel Tabernacle, I was but a child, until I heard something there, I heard something, I was a child, but then I heard something, and it was in a certain repetition, it was in the one and the four, in the way the words were improvised over the chords, that was where I heard something, though I couldn’t even say what I heard, a sense of history, of a music that was made of oppression, that provided some relief from oppression, and which provided it in repetition, even when it couldn’t say how it was providing it, and didn’t subject its effects to the kind of scrutiny that explained it all, and I was impervious, because I was a child, and the lessons of oppression weren’t meant for me, because I had no experience of it, but then the repetitions caught me up, just as they caught up everyone else, because there was no one who could sit by and not get caught up, because if the message had any specific meaning, its specific meaning was that the good news was possible, in the repetition, and having experienced this, having felt what there was to feel in it, I ultimately went in search of more. Which may be how a person becomes a collector.

Rick Moody is one of the most gifted American novelists of his generation. Born in New York City, Moody spent his childhood and youth in many northeastern American locations. The suburbs of New York City; Manchester, New Hampshire, where he attended St. Paul's School; Hoboken, New Jersey, where he lived after graduating from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island; and Columbia University in New York City all appear in barely disguised form in his fiction. Like the work of other well-known East-Coast American writers (John Irving, John Updike), Moody's fiction is firmly rooted in, as well as written in response to, the urban, rural, and suburban landscapes of the area roughly bounded by New York City to the south and Boston to the north. His three novels, Garden State, The Ice Storm, and Purple America, and his short story collection, The Ring of Brightest Angels around Heaven, all published at a prolific pace within five years, create not only a distinct literary geography but also a fascinating temporal picture. Like the fiction of his contemporary, the Canadian novelist Douglas Coupland, Moody's fiction features protagonists of Moody's own generation. These are Americans (a word Moody often uses to ironic effect) who lived through the Vietnam War as pre-teens, came of age during the Reagan-era 1980s, and who are intensely aware of the significance of pop cultural references, right down to the significance of their own clothing.
 
Read more about Rick Moody at http://biography.jrank.org/pages/4604/Moody-Rick.html

 

 

Suggested Listening


Ben Hall Gospel Archive Album 7

Ben Hall Gospel Archive Album 14

Ben Hall Gospel Archive Album 20

Ben Hall Gospel Archive Album 32

Recently Added Albums


Ben Hall Gospel Archive Album 50

Johnny Thompson and the Pennsylvania District Choir F.B.H.
Ben Hall Gospel Archive Album 49

Ben Hall Gospel Archive Album 48

Ben Hall Gospel Archive Album 47

Ben Hall Gospel Archive Album 46

Ben Hall Gospel Archive Album 45