Gettin’ Giddy: Rejoice and Shout

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.”
Smokey Robinson

Rejoice and Shout: The Definitive History of Gospel Music

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“If we really heard the voice of God, we would be reduced to juice.  The vibration of His voice would reduce us to liquid. . . So He has to use other people to speak his word.”

–Pastor Andraé Crouch

Perhaps the most intense and emotional music one can ever hear is the best of African-American Gospel music.

Packed with evocative photos, rare audio recordings, stirring film appearances and TV performances, REJOICE AND SHOUT covers the 200 year musical history of African-American Christianity.  Culled from hundreds of hours of music, REJOICE AND SHOUT features the crème de la crème of Gospel music.

REJOICE AND SHOUT traces the evolution of Gospel through its many musical styles – spirituals and early hymns, four-part harmony-based quartets, the integration of blues and swing into Gospel, the emergence of Soul, and the blending of Rap and Hip Hop elements.

REJOICE AND SHOUT:The Definitive History Of Gospel Music

Gospel music also walked in step with the story of African-American culture – from slavery, hardscrabble rural existence and plantation work, the exodus to major cities, the Depression, World War II, to the civil rights movement and empowerment. REJOICE AND SHOUT connects the history of African-American culture with Gospel as it first impacted popular culture at large – and continues to do.

Years in the making, REJOICE AND SHOUT captures so much of what is special about this music and African-American Christianity – the sermonizing, the heartfelt testimonials, getting “slain in the spirit,” the hard hollerin’, and of course the inspiring music.

Rejoice and Shout The Gospel Music DocumnetaryGospel music.  The very words evoke images of powerful voices singing skyward, of tearful shouts of joy and praise.  Of African-American men, women and children, exhilarated by the freedom of expression of their faith, shouting aloud in joy or laid low by the humility the music instills in them, releasing the hardness of their lives into the hands of their Lord.

Gospel has been around in America since the days of slavery, as slaves sought to lighten their load each day in the fields, turning to the source of their lives in response to their dreary existence.  And that music has remained a source of strength and direction in the African-American community ever since.

The story of this music is one that producer Joe Lauro has been wanting to tell for some time. “I’ve always focused on trying to find some of the great Gospel that I knew had to exist on film,” he explains.  “I’ve slowly, for 10 years or so, been acquiring material for representation, looking up the old producers or finding shows that were long-defunct, to try and find prints.”  The search resulted in over 10,000 hours of amazing material – as can be seen in REJOICE AND SHOUT.

Though Lauro himself did not grow up hearing Gospel music in his own Sunday church experience, it nonetheless, like for many white Americans, had a tremendous impact.  “It really is a minority music, truly, in so many ways.  White folks really don’t understand the importance of it and the power of it.  It’s the bond in the African-American church community.  But it’s beyond just singing at church.  The music is so moving and riveting and visceral.  And I’d never seen anything that really got into the story of this music.”

Filmmaker Don McGlynn decided fairly early on, for the most part, to play performance clips in their entirety.  “I think it’s really important that you see the music numbers play out – because they’re music films,” he says.  “I think it’s kind of strange when you see movies about music where there barely is any, just musicians talking.”

Indeed, the director soon realized that it was important to provide viewers a context to understand the music and its history.  “There’s always the challenge of, ‘How do you balance this?  How do you set off each of the individual numbers, so they have the maximum impact?’  You don’t do that by just lining them up and playing them.  You have to contextualize them.  We’re telling a musical story, but we’re also coming at it from an historical, social, cultural and personal level at the same time.”

In order to provide SHOUT  AND REJOICE that context, three eminent Gospel music historians provide perspective.  Anthony Heilbut is well-known for his definitive book on the genre, “The Gospel Sound,” written in 1968.  Lauro says, “Tony’s life has been devoted to this music.  He has single-handedly helped keep the community organized and get records out there.  He’s championed some of the older performers.  And he’s an expert.”

Two other experts, both from the Washington, DC, area – author Bill Carpenter and radio host Jacquie Gales-Webb – also provide great context, often offering a perspective on the personal histories of the artists.  “They know where everybody is in the community, and they understand it well,” Lauro notes.

Ira Tucker and Dixie HummingbirdsOne of the last great elder statesmen of Gospel, The Dixie Hummingbirds’ Ira Tucker – who died in 2008, before the release of the film – appears, alongside his son, Ira, Jr., and Willa Ward, of The Ward Singers, as does Marie Knight (who has also since passed), another performer from the classic era, offering the kind of perspective only those who lived through this history can provide.

“When you see Ira early in the film, you just see this wonderful old gentleman in his cap,” notes Lauro.  “But once he begins telling stories, it allows you to somehow beam yourself into his memory and become part of the places and the things that he did.  That’s part of what drives me, as a filmmaker and as a historian, to fantasize about being there.”  McGlynn agrees.  “These people actually witnessed a lot of the events that we’re describing in the movie.  So when they say something about it, you have the benefit of seeing things from a personal point of view.  So we have personal reminiscences of things from the late 20s and early 30s, which is remarkable.”

Offering a more contemporary perspective are R & B greats Smokey Robinson and Mavis Staples.  Though known to secular audiences in the 1970s for rhythm and blues, Mavis, since her childhood, was, alongside her siblings and father, “Pops” Staples, part of The Staple Singers, well-known for their Gospel music long before their days in the pop world.

Smokey Robinson‘s appearance in the film is not simply one of a musician offering an appreciation.  “Look at Smokey and The Miracles in 1964-65, and what he’s singing,” Lauro says.  “They all come from the Gospel church.  When you see them perform ‘You Really Got a Hold On Me’ on The Tami Show in 1964, if you look at TV Gospel Time from the same year, with some of the other quartets and quintets, it’s the same stuff.  Just the lyric is a little different.”

Smokey Robinson and The Miracles- “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me”

Even more important to McGlynn was Robinson’s spiritual perspective.  “He talks about a lot of things, like about his belief in God and how he spends so much time throughout his day praising God and asking for guidance,” McGlynn says.  “I realized that was something that was essential to a movie like this.

REJOICE AND SHOUT, in fact, spends its first 15 minutes exploring this very topic – laying the spiritual groundwork for what is to follow.  “In so many of these types of historical documentaries, they usually say why the thing’s important and why you’re watching it in the first two or three minutes, and then they cut to the baby picture,” the director explains.  “In this case, I thought, ‘This is about Gospel music.  What’s the most important thing about it?’  The number one thing you need to know before anything else is you really have to see what these people feel about God and how they express it in the music.”

REJOICE AND SHOUT is loaded with rare audio and film clips, from the Historic Films archive and other sources, dating back to the beginning of the last century.  “We’re very proud of the archival material, some of which hasn’t seen the light of day since the day it was filmed,” says Lauro.

The very first African-American vocal group to make a phonograph recording is represented in a rare 78 rpm disc from the Dinwiddie Colored Quartet – “Gabriel’s Trumpet” from 1902.  “Black artists, such as the Dinwiddie Quartet, traveled around the United States, playing tent shows and in black vaudeville, which was still at its very beginning,” explains Joe Lauro.  This disc, from Lauro’s personal collection, was recorded by Monarch Records, a precursor to RCA Victor.  “This is about as close as you can get to the way it sounded during slavery days.”

The disc is significant for another reason, McGlynn notes.  “This record precedes by almost two decades the secular blues and jazz, which started getting recorded around 1921, 1922.  I guess because this was God’s music, they thought it was more important to document.  It’s just sort of an accident that they happen to have been recorded, and they happened to make history.”

REJOICE AND SHOUT opems in New York on June 3rd and in a limited number of cities throughout the U.S. on June 10th.  Start today calling your local theaters to bring REJOICE AND SHOUT to your town.  Every music fan needs to see this movie.  Everyone interested in cultural developments of the past 200 years needs to see this movie.

Check in with us next week when for our review of REJOICE AND SHOUT. We will provide you our biased insight and more details on how the movie takes you through the history of Gospel music.  REJOICE AND SHOUT is a real American treasure that every reader of this site needs to see.