The new documentary Rejoice and Shout, which opens in select theaters this weekend, celebrates the history of gospel music in America as told through some of its most famous and influential icons.
Director Don McGlynn, a veteran of the music documentary genre, wanted to trace gospel from its earliest roots to its current incarnation in the music world. The film even plays the first known recording of gospel music, a record made in 1902 by the Dinwiddie Colored Quartet.
"I was so startled by that recording," McGlynn tells All Things Considered host Rachel Martin, "because what you're basically hearing is barber shop quartet approach, and that slowly evolved in the next few years into a whole 'nother tradition."
That evolution is chronicled in the documentary, told through the stories of and about some of its greatest singers. The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, The Ward family, The Staple Singers, Marie Knight and Mahalia Jackson are all featured prominently in the film.
Mahalia Jackson, know as "the Queen of Gospel," is one of McGlynn's favorites.
"There's just something so fascinating, gripping, spiritual, about her singing," McGlynn says.
Jackson was the first gospel singer to perform at Carnegie Hall and in Rejoice and Shout we see footage of one of her earliest television appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. Several times throughout her successful career, she was offered opportunities to record and sing secular music but always turned them down, despite the fact that they could have made her an even bigger star.
"Early on she said I really can't follow this track of Bessie Smith, you know, singing the blues ... it's the same old God and Devil argument," McGlynn explains.
The gospel music of today is represented very differently from where it first began, but as we see in Rejoice and Shout, the feelings and emotions that the music evokes remains the same.
"They're singing with body and soul, you know, this is very intense for them," McGlynn says, "and I think that's one of the reasons that the music just comes over so powerfully."