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(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMAZING GRACE")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Singing) Amazing grace...

RACHEL MARTIN, host: It is one of the most enduring melodies in American music. What was once a stoic Christian hymn in 18th century England was reborn through the impassioned interpretations of African-American churches in the United States. And that's the story of gospel, really. From African slaves came a new American tradition.

JACQUIE WEBB: They were pushed into the European religion, but they brought their own rhythm with them.

MARTIN: That's gospel music D.J. Jacquie Webb, in an excerpt from the new documentary "Rejoice and Shout." Don McGlynn is the film's director, and I asked him about that little girl singing the a cappella version of "Amazing Grace" that opens his movie.

DON MCGLYNN: I came into that shoot that day, and I was greeted by this enormous family, the Selvy family. And that was this 12-year-old member of the family, and they kept saying: We want to make sure that she sings. We want to make sure that she sings. And so we were just getting the cameras ready, and when it happened, I went: Oh, my goodness. This girl is so incredible. And I thought this is probably going to be right near the start of my movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMAZING GRACE")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Singing) But now I see.

MARTIN: It's really unbelievable. And the Selvy family that you talk about really represents how gospel is being presented today. But in your film, you really want the audience to appreciate where gospel started. In the film, you feature the first known recording of gospel music: a 1902 record by a group called the Dinwiddie Colored Quartet. Let's hear a little bit of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF DINWIDDIE COLORED QUARTET)

MCGLYNN: I was so startled by that recording because what you're basically hearing is, you know, the barbershop quartet approach. And that slowly evolved, you know, over the next few years into a whole 'nother tradition, which we hear in the Norfolk Jubilee Quartet and later on, the Golden Gate Quartet.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOUNDBITE OF GOLDEN GATE QUARTET)

MARTIN: I was surprised to learn, through your film, that the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet performed at the inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

MCGLYNN: Yeah. That's incredible, isn't it? But you know, they were real celebrities. There were a number of gospel people that were on the radio during that era, you know? Like, Wings Over Jordan were on during the '30s.

MARTIN: And obviously, that got them exposed to a whole different demographic of people.

MCGLYNN: It reached everybody.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWING LOW, SWEET CHARIOT")

CLARA WARD: (Singing) Swing low...

MARTIN: I also loved the story of Gertrude Ward. She, herself, wanted to be a singer. She didn't quite make it, and so she was living vicariously through her daughters, Willa and Clara, right?

MCGLYNN: Absolutely. And of course, you know, I've grown up knowing, for instance, the Stephen Sondheim musical "Gypsy," you know, which is very much the same story. And there's that great Luchino Visconti film "Bellissima." You know, these are the ultimate stage mothers.

MARTIN: Exactly.

MCGLYNN: And Gertrude Ward was a really good example of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARD: (Singing) Oh, swing low, chariot. I said, swing low, chariot...

MARTIN: And, I mean, this was kind of a tough life. I mean, she didn't just let them sing in church and in community performances. She uprooted them - took them out of school and moved them to Vegas.

MCGLYNN: She was so controlling. You know, some people think that she was so controlling, that she may have stressed Clara so much, that she, you know, died at a lot younger age than she, you know, necessarily would have.

MARTIN: And the Ward Singers are out there wearing really glitzy outfits, things that people wouldn't really associate with gospel music even in the mainstream.

MCGLYNN: Yeah. That's what distinguished the Clara Ward Singers because they did bring glamour to this kind of music, and then they, in turn, brought that music to a lot of other venues - you know, like Vegas, like nightclubs, like television.

MARTIN: My guest is Don McGlynn, the director of the new gospel music documentary "Rejoice and Shout." Talk a little bit about Mahalia Jackson, and how she shaped gospel music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCGLYNN: You know, I have certain favorites in this film, and one of them has to be the sequence about Mahalia Jackson because there's just something so fascinating, gripping, spiritual about her singing. And in the film, we tracked down her very first TV appearance, which was on "The Ed Sullivan Show."

(SOUNDBITE OF MAHALIA JACKSON PERFORMANCE)

MARTIN: And if I'm remembering correctly, she had doors open for her. There were opportunities she could have pursued to sing more secular music, and she just said: That's not for me.

MCGLYNN: Yes. I think, you know, early on she said: I really can't follow this track of Bessie Smith, you know, singing the blues, you know, it's the same God and devil argument. But on the other hand, she had these very strong supporters in the media. You know, Studs Terkel introduced her to regular audiences, you know, on his radio show out of Chicago. And then she ended up performing here at Carnegie Hall in New York City, and that just sort of lit her career on fire.

MARTIN: Gospel music now, it's such a part of American culture, and it has crossed into the secular audience. But at its core, this is deeply spiritual music, and it comes out in that Mahalia Jackson performance on "The Ed Sullivan Show." She is not really concerned with how people are perceiving her. She is singing because it's what she's been called to do.

MCGLYNN: That's absolutely right.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAHALIA JACKSON PERFORMANCE)

MCGLYNN: I thought that was important in this movie, near the beginning, that we set up that these people really mean it. They are singing with body and soul. You know, this is very intense for them. And I think that's one of the reasons that the music just comes over so powerfully.

MARTIN: And you know, what's interesting in your film, you talk about what is really the story of families as well. I mean, we've got the Staple Singers and the Ward family, several other different families. This is really an intimate experience at a familial level - the creation of this music, and how it's spread.

MCGLYNN: Well, you know, it's not for nothing that when you go to an African-American church, everybody's calling each other brother and sister. And that's because if you are a good Christian, they are your brothers and sisters. These are the people that want to help you in life. And that's one of the really great things about how Christianity has manifested and becomes part of people's lives because they want to continue these Christian ethics.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Can you hear me? I said, I'm leaning on Jesus.

MARTIN: Don McGlynn is the director of the new documentary "Rejoice and Shout." It opened this weekend in New York City;more cities to follow. Mr. McGlynn, thanks so much for talking with us.

MCGLYNN: Yeah. It was my pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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