NPR logo Finding Warmth in a Raucous Affirmation

Finding Warmth in a Raucous Affirmation

Up Above My Head (I Hear Music in the Air)

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Friday's Pick

  • Song: "Up Above My Head (I Hear Music in the Air)"
  • Artist: Ruthie Foster
  • CD: The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster
  • Genre: Soul

Ruthie Foster transforms an old gospel hit into something a bit more down-to-earth. Scott Newton hide caption

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Scott Newton

Sister Rosetta Tharpe turned "Up Above My Head" into a hit when she was a gospel star in the '40s, fighting off the song's sap factor — "Up above my head, there's music in the air / I believe there must be a heaven somewhere" — by turning the song into a raucous affirmation, punctuated by her gutsy guitar work. Frankie Laine, Al Hirt and Rod Stewart, among many others, all followed in those upbeat footsteps, but Ruthie Foster finds a different way to get the message across.

Foster opens "Up Above My Head" with a minor-key electric-piano riff, conjuring up Marvin Gaye's hypnotic "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and the '70s pop-gospel hits of The Staple Singers. Then comes the 43-year-old Texan's warm, down-to-earth voice, with its undercurrent of wistfulness shining through in the way she takes a word like "believe" or "somewhere" and cascades its syllables over a haunting run. In the meantime, the fuzz of the Wurlitzer and the soft echo of the background singers provide a warm counterpoint.

Foster's slow-paced version offers an intimate confession, tinged with pain yet somehow full of hope. The source of her faith seems just as mysterious as the music she's always hearing in the air, even without an iPod plugged into her ears. In other words, there's little false bravado in the title of her new album: The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster.

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