Musician And Historian Honor Gospel Music History

To celebrate Gospel Music Heritage Month, host Michel Martin talks about the genre's roots in American history and how it's grown. Joining the conversation are Brian Courtney Wilson, contemporary gospel singer-songwriter whose latest album is Just Love and Bill Carpenter, author of Uncloudy Days: The Gospel Music Encyclopedia.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we will talk about living history. We'll hear why 200 history makers are going back to school tomorrow. We'll have that conversation in just a few minutes.

But, first, making a joyful noise to celebrate September as Gospel Music Heritage Month.

(Soundbite of song, "Already Here")

Mr. BRIAN COURTNEY WILSON (Musician): (Singing) We worship and praise until there's no debate. And we recognize you're already here. Hallelujah. You're already here.

MARTIN: That song, "Already Here," is from contemporary gospel singer and songwriter Brian Courtney Wilson. His 2009 album "Just Love" has been a mainstay on the Billboard Gospel Charts for more than a year. He joins us now from member station KUHF in Houston. Also with us here in our Washington, D.C. studio is Bill Carpenter. He wrote the book "Uncloudy Days: The Gospel Music Encyclopedia." And I thank you both so much for joining us.

Mr. WILSON: Thank you.

Mr. BILL CARPENTER (Author, "Uncloudy Days: The Gospel Music Encyclopedia"): Thank you.

MARTIN: Bill, could you just start us off by just telling us, for those who aren't aware, what is gospel music and where did it come from?

Mr. CARPENTER: Well, gospel music was born in plantations. The Africans who came over, they were not Christians, per se, but they were very spiritual people. And as they integrated into the colonial society and went to the churches that the masters had set up for them, they began to take the European elements of worship and mix them with the African forms of worship and created what we now consider gospel music.

In that early period that would be songs like "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" and "Steal Away Jordan" and all those kinds of songs, which were also codes for, you know, running away from slavery and all that kind of stuff.

MARTIN: You know, one of the things I learned from your book is how early gospel music was recorded. In the early 1900s you have the Dinwiddie Colored Quartet, which produced some of these early gospel recordings. We actually have - we have a short clip. I'm going to play a little bit. We're lucky to have that. Here it is.

(Soundbite of music)

DINWIDDIE COLORED QUARTET (Musicians): (Singing) (unintelligible)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) You say your Jesus set you free.

DINWIDDIE COLORED QUARTET: (Singing) (unintelligible)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Why don't you let your neighbor be?

DINWIDDIE COLORED QUARTET: (Singing) Went down the old (unintelligible) ground.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) I'm going to search for the (unintelligible).

DINWIDDIE COLORED QUARTET: (Singing) Went down the old (unintelligible) ground.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) And before six months (unintelligible).

DINWIDDIE COLORED QUARTET: (Singing) Went down the old (unintelligible) ground. There's a jubilee. There's a jubilee.

MARTIN: When you hear that early recording, something like the Dinwiddie Colored Quartet, how does that make you feel, Bill?

Mr. CARPENTER: In my case, it takes me back to a time I never experienced and helps me see things in perspective. For instance, you know, with the whole - in the black community, this whole Uncle Tom thing. If you act a certain way, blah, blah, blah. But if you can sort of put your mind in the mindsets of the people who lived during that time and what they had to face, it would change your perspective.

It's easy to say I'm going to act this way now, when I don't have the barriers around me that I had then. So when I hear music like that, it just puts me in the mindset to go back and think on how it was then.

MARTIN: And, Brian, do you mind if I ask you, how does it make you feel when you sing gospel?

Mr. WILSON: I feel alive and connected to, you know, a very rich history. And then, you know, humbled at the same time because, you know, as I was listening to Mr. Carpenter just talk about what the Dinwiddies had to go through to sing their song, you know, I feel like sometimes I'm going through some things now to sing my song, but it does not compare to, you know, what they had to go through.

MARTIN: How did you first become involved with gospel music?

Mr. WILSON: I think like many people, you know, I was raised in the church, so, you know, I watched my parents deal with their own form of working on a plantation, you know, working a job to pay for a mortgage and bring their kids through school 'cause they had to. And then kind of going to church and singing these songs to just get through the week and make it. And that's what I grew up watching and listening to.

And, you know, I heard somebody give the descriptor the other day, you train up a child in the way that they should go - and when they get older they won't depart from it. And I think I'm living that out now.

MARTIN: You actually have been quoted as saying that some of the songs that you used to have to listen to when you were growing up used to get on your nerves, actually.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILSON: Yeah, I mean we sang them, you know, and as a child you don't really get "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" means when your best friend is Tommy down the street. But then when you get older, you kind of understand more about what those hymns that we've been singing for years, years and years actually mean. And it goes a lot deeper.

MARTIN: Well, talk to me though, if you would, about what impact you think gospel music has had on this country. And Bill, I'll ask you to chime in on this too. But Brian Courtney Wilson, what impact do you think gospel music has had on this country, such that it would be awarded the honor and the recognition of a heritage month?

Mr. WILSON: I think one thing it definitely does is inspire. And I dont want to sound too cliche, when all hope is lost, in our darkest time, you know, it gives us hope and it inspires us.

MARTIN: Bill?

Mr. CARPENTER: I would agree. Gospel means good news. So gospel music brings good news and it brings hope. And it's just like after 9/11. Churches were flooded with people who were looking for hope. People who weren't even believers before were just looking for some sort of answer to what's going on. And throughout the years, the gospel music that has remained has been that that has that hopeful message - oh happy day, those kinds of songs. It's not hell and brimstone, its inspiration.

MARTIN: Now, can I ask though, Bill that this is a religiously diverse country.

Mr. CARPENTER: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And there are many people in this country who are not believers or who have other faith commitments. Do you think that people who are not Christian can relate to the music?

Mr. CARPENTER: Totally. And a perfect example is two days ago, a friend of mine, Mavis Staples, who did the forward to my book, has a new CD out, which is getting no play on any gospel radio. Yet, it's in the top 100 sellers because she's doing authentic old school gospel, which a lot of people look at as a cultural thing. They're not looking at it from a face standpoint. They're looking at it as something cultural, like going to see a certain type of dance troop, Alvin Ailey or something. Some of the biggest supporters of gospel music have been cultured people who just think of it as an art form.

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And we are celebrating Gospel Music Heritage Month with Bill Carpenter. He's the author of the book "Uncloudy Days: The Gospel Music Encyclopedia," and also award-winning singer-songwriter Brian Courtney Wilson.

Well, Brian Courtney Wilson, if you'd talk a little bit about the sort of the contemporary trends in gospel music, is there still this kind of divide between traditional gospel and the so-called contemporary gospel?

Mr. WILSON: I've heard that. And actually, you know, if you kind of surf Facebook and Twitter and you see some of what the newer artists are doing and then you see some of the comments that are made about how that's not a pure worship, you'll see stuff like that or that's not anointed. And one of the things I've been trying to do as a new artist is just bridge that gap, because again, I realize acutely that I'm connected to a legacy of music, so I try to make that connection when I'm in front of the audience.

MARTIN: Given where gospel has been, as you said, born on the plantation, and has now become infused with all musical styles, has also influenced other musical styles.

Mr. CARPENTER: Yeah.

MARTIN: As we know so many artists like Ray Charles, influenced by his background in the church. And I mean so many, Brandy, I mean we can, Aretha.

Mr. CARPENTER: Little Richard.

MARTIN: I mean how many can we name? What do you think is next for gospel, Bill Carpenter?

Mr. CARPENTER: Well, I think the nice thing about gospel in the last decade is that it's been innovative. The gospel up until the '80s was pretty much the same. Then you had the Winans come and then Kirk Franklin and Mary Mary and groups like that who have, you know, brought a greater sense of musicality to it. It's not just worship, but its worship and innovation. And I think that's what's going to make it popular in the future.

MARTIN: Brian Courtney Wilson, a final thought from you. What's next for you?

Mr. WILSON: We have the American Heart Association tour, where, you know, and I think that's another thing that gospel music can do is like connect with things that aren't, you know, spiritual per se but, you know, do kind of enrich us spiritually if we do them, if we the choices to end stroke. And that's the name of the tour, The Power to End Stroke Tour. We'll be going to eight cities across the country and just talking about the choices that you make to end stroke in our community.

MARTIN: And finally, I did want to ask Brian Courtney Wilson, what is your sense of in a country like this, where people practice so many religious commitments and faith commitments or none at all, does gospel continue? Does it - what does it have to offer going on into the future, in your opinion?

Mr. WILSON: That's why I call the album "Just Love." You know, for me, that is the common denominator. If we just love, then I think we can make connections. And when I think about the early church even, it was known for its ability to reach out to untouchable people, and that's why it spread. Not so much the doctrine, like, you know, they were making the best argument. It was because wow, you know, that's - they're hanging out with lepers. I got to be a part of that. And I think if we, as a gospel community, continue to embody that, you know, beyond what we're saying musically, by how we're living, I think it'll have impact moving forward.

MARTIN: Brian Courtney Wilson is a contemporary gospel singer-songwriter - an award-winning and songwriter. His latest album is called "Just Love." He joined us from NPR member station KUHF in Houston, Texas. Also with us here in our Washington, D.C. studio, Bill Carpenter. He's the author of the book "Uncloudy Days: The Gospel Music Encyclopedia."

And I thank you both so much for speaking us and happy Gospel Music Heritage Month to you both.

Mr. CARPENTER: Thank you.

Mr. WILSON: Indeed. Thank you. I appreciate it.

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