The irony is lost on no one—except, of course, for Elder Beck himself. He’s in full fire-and-brimstone mode, locked into a trance-like cadence and sounding a bit like a man possessed, even as he busies himself decrying the demonic nature of rock and roll. It’s the devil’s music; it’s leading the young people astray; it’s single-handedlydestroying our culture. And behind him, a young man from Beck’s own congregation lays down some blistering guitar licks that anticipate Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page by a solid decade. The congregation moans their approval, though I strongly suspect that their amens are not for Elder Beck.
That’s the basic gist of the second song on Mike McGonigal’s first-class collection of “raw, rare, and otherworldly” black gospel music, circa 1944-2007, provocatively titled Fire in My Bones. It’s a three-disc, four-hour hunk of music that’s assembled with an eye for history—and, as Beck’s “Rock and Roll Sermon” illustrates, an ear for humor—but also, and perhaps primarily, for diversity.
Consider, if you will, that Beck’s electric diatribe is bookended by a serene instrumental reading of “Peace in the Valley,” played with meditative calm by one Rev. Lonnie Farris, and a more traditional (but spirited!) vocal arrangement of “If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again,” a song that, interestingly enough, has been recorded by electric guitar virtuoso Ben Harper in the past few years.
And those are simply the opening three tracks on the first disc; there are, in all, a rather daunting eighty tracks, spanning six decades and encompassing a roster of performers that are almost entirely lost to history—save, of course, for this fine collection. Consider also that the songs assembled here include both professional sides, made in honest-to-goodness recording studios for small, regional labels, as well as field recordings from churches, retirement homes, and yes, actual fields.
But Elder Beck’s sermon is illuminating in a more vital way than its sly embodiment of historical irony. It’s also indicative, however unintentionally, of a certain give-and-take that makes this music so interesting, and this collection so revelatory. On the one hand, Beck’s rhetoric is obviously tied to tradition—religious, cultural, perhaps regional. On the other, the music itself is alive with the same pulse as the surrounding culture. Beck preaches against rock and roll, even as his musical accompaniment pushes rock and roll forward.
The most valuable insight of McGonigal’s collection, then, might be that this isn’t black music or gospel music so much as it’s folk music, plain and simple: It’s tied to tradition, passed down from one generation to the next, and adapted as it needs to be.
And so, you have a group of women from the Madison County Senior Center singing “Wasn’t That a Mystery” in 1983, sounding like it could have been a field recording from 1953, or even 1923. And you have holy-rolling rock and rollers who lock themselves in their basement and bang out spiritual songs with all the righteous thump of a 70s-era funk track or a prime rock and roll single, bowing down to Elvis as king, Jesus as Lord. (And then you have a number performed by a drum-and-fife corp, and a singer who sounds for all the world like she’s Nina Simone, and a cut that sounds like some weird hybrid of gospel and acid jazz—where these fit in, I haven’t quite decided, but really, who cares? They’re all terrific songs.)
As culturally-aware as some of this music is, it’s never culturally-centered; that is to say, even when the music is pushed to the cutting edge, the creed that unifies these diverse performers is amazingly steadfast. It’s telling to look at the broad, thematic headings that McGonigal gives to each disc—The Wicked Shall Cease from Troubling, God’s Mighty Hand, and All God Power Store—to see what lies at the heart of this music.
For one, these are songs written in the face of bleak, trying times. For another, they take solace in God—specifically, in His divine attribute of power—as a way of putting those troubles into perspective. And God really is at the center: Hard times may have inspired these songs, but they dwell on the solution not the circumstances. The songs are not about who we are or what we can do for God; they are about what God has done—what He still does—for us. The biblical tradition of remembrance, of celebrating God’s history of redemption, is upheld, and that makes the music powerful in a mighty and undeniable way.
It isn’t hard to understand why these songs are so often borne of trouble. Not only are they folk songs, written from the stuff of everyday human existence in all its joy and sorrow, but they are songs from a community that faced no small amount of social and political persecution during the long stretch of time in which this music was recorded.
But what I most love about McGonigal’s collection, and his sparse liner notes, is that this point isn’t belabored, or even explicitly acknowledged. We can imagine for ourselves what might have been going through the head of a given singer or songwriter, but McGonigal doesn’t bludgeon us with sociological conjecture, and the music itself is content to exist as spiritual, not political, music.
Indeed, this music does not need annotation or explanation in order to move us; like the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack from almost a decade ago, Fire in My Bones prove the living, breathing power of folk songs, and it does so with ten times the magnitude of that album, if only for its sheer girth, and for the fact that these songs are all the real deal, not modern-day replicas. These songs are part of us, part of our culture: They live with us, they grow with us, and they speak to where we’ve come from, and where we find ourselves today.
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Written by: Josh Hurst
Josh Hurst lives in Charlotte, NC and writes about music and film for Christianity Today and his own blog, The Hurst Review.