“I believe our worship experience penetrates the soul because we are free. We believe in free worship. We are not ashamed and when it hits we let it all out.”
Darrel Petties, the Memphis based preacher/choir leader/singer who started his career at age 13, said this at the end of the Rejoice and Shout. I think this sentiment reflects maybe the central theme of this open armed celebration of gospel music. Rejoice and Shout celebrates not only the artistry of this seminal American musical style but also the history and cultural significance of the Church and of gospel music for a segment of society whose American roots started in chains.
Rejoice and Shout does not dwell on the historical wrongs done to Black Americans but highlights the worldly comfort the church brought to a suppressed people. First, during slavery the church was a promise of eternal freedom. Then as emancipation turned to segregation and suppression the church became an outlet for open expression of joy and sorrow. As blacks worked through the low paying blue collar jobs of the rural south, church became a place to clean-up for, to dress-up for, to act as free men and women.
Rejoice and Shout shows us how Gospel music followed Black America in its journey through Western Christianity and, in the process indelibly changed American music. When slaves were sent to the strange customs of the American church, in the south, they began to bring their own African heritage to the worship–primarily the drums, rhythms and call and response preaching. That combination of American shape note church songs with African sensibilities created gospel, which begat the blues, which merged with ragtime to create jazz. That doesn’t even consider gospels influence on Celtic folk music to create American country music which mixed with the secular expression of Gospel, R&B, to create Rock n Roll.
Rejoice and Shout uses a combination of interviews and wonderfully edited performance clips to tell the story of Gospel. My single favorite part of Rejoice and Shout is director Don McGlyn’s decision to use extended performance clips to tell the story of expressive freedom. As you watch The Swan Silvertones, The Dixxie Hummingbirds, Mahalia Jackson or Sister Rosetta Thorpe you don’t see a disaffected, suppressed people but transcendent men and women wallowing around in their redemptive salvation. As Darrel Petties said these people are not ashamed. The sometimes wild antics and vocal gymnastics of gospel singers are not perfomance stylings but outpourings of inner joy.
The wonderfully restored archival video of mid-20th century performances are worth the price of admission alone. The Swan Silvertones performance of “Only Believe” from the 1966 Newport Jazz Festival is a revalation on its own. The smooth, nuanced falsetto vocals of Claude Jeffries tells us of Al Green‘s roots. When set-off against Louis Johnson‘ s growling baritone in a dual lead call and response, the result is a powerful barn burner.
Throughout Rejoice and Shout we see the influence these early 20th century Gospel singers had on our musical icons. Early on in Rejoice and Shout we see Shirley Caeser with The Caravans. To watch the dimunitive singer with her chin held high, to watch her cock her head on high notes, to watch her quick, short steps around the stage; you swear you are watching James Brown. The duel lead, choregraphed dance moves and coordinated suits of The Dixie Hummingbirds created the sound that The Temptations made famous with Motown.
All of the performances are put into context by a group survivors (Ira Tucker, Willa Ward, Mavis Staples and Maria Knight) and three gospel music historians (authors Anthony Heilbut and Bill Carpenter and radio host Jacquie Gales-Webb). The histrorians move the narrative forward by providing us perspective of how each era of gospel music developed and built upon the recent past, as well as its impact on the secular culture of its time. The survivors’ first person recollections bring the depth and color to the story of gospel music. Maria Knight is a joy because she seems to have known all of the big names and shares stories with humor and admiration for her friends who just happen to be music legends.
All of the history, cultural influence and great music make for a fine documentary. What puts Rejoice and Shout on the must see list for me is how the filmmakers communicate the central redemptive love that these performers have for God. 70′s gospel and R&B superstar Andrae Crouch discusses throughout the film the overwhelming greatness of God and our struggle to give ourselves fully to Him. The revelation for me was Smokey Robinson.
For those who only know Smokey Robinson as the singer for The Miracles, you have completely missed his influence on American culture. The singer, songwriter, record executive was referred to as” America’s greatest songwriter” by Bob Dylan. As the number two at Motown Records, from the very beginning, he had as much to do with the “Motown sound” as anyone on this planet. Smokey was brought into Rejoice and Shout to put perspective to the influences of gospel on American music. Instead, one of the most influential music people of the last 100 years spent most of his time sharing his faith. This did more to express the meaning of gospel music than anything else in this wonderful film.
“I have a daily walk with God. I praise him every day.”