Summer of Soul and the Heart of Gospel

I love this film. (It’s available in the UK on Disney+). The 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, the same summer as Woodstock; filmed but not — until this film — seen. Incredible performances from Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, Sly and the Family Stone, and more.

I first heard African American music when I was about 14. Somehow I got cassette tapes of Nina Simone, Miles Davis and Keith Jarrett. I remember night after night, sometimes alone and sometimes with a friend, lying and listening. So intently, so completely. I had never heard sounds like this. I’d heard classical at home, pop on the radio, folk in the neighbourhood. White music. Ok. Thank you. But black music was different. I was mesmerised.

Now I’m releasing an album. My biggest album ever by a long way. Budgets and paid musicians and a professional studio and all the things. It’s called Crossing The Ocean and it’s due to release 25th February 2022. I’ll be 42.

So, when you register your music in all the places you register it, you have to specify your genre and your sub genre. So I say folk-soul-jazz.

But really, inside, it feels more like Pagan Gospel.

Nice bass grooving away James Jamerson style, the nicest drums I could manage; the choir going for it, and in the middle, me preaching on the mic. Strings bringing more European style harmony, horns mid-Atlantic — part orchestral / brass band sound fused with New Orleans style improv. It’s a sound I had a feel for in the air one day in the supermarket parking lot. And now I actually hear it, it feels a bit like white Gospel.

I looked up Gospel on Wikipedia and it says it has to be Christian. My work and I are not Christian. We’re rooted in Earth-based spirituality; eco-Soul; sex positivity; healing and environmentalism, the Wheel, conscious culture, Native American influence amid touches of Jewish, Eastern, yoga, pick and mix, make it up, call it Pagan. Pagan basically means local folk religion. OK.

Then I hear Greg Tate speaking on Summer of Soul. (Greg very sadly passed about two week after I wrote this.)

The late Greg Tate

“There’s something very specific about what happened in Black America,” says Greg in the film, “where I think about the only place where we could be fully expressive was in music, was in these church rituals.

“Gospel was channeling the emotional core of black people who were inside as a Christian experience and who redefined it for themselves, and that goes all the way back to the first moments probably of black conversion to Christianity. There’s this notion of Spirit possession that comes from Africa. It’s part of seeking a certain kind of release and catharsis. This is an eruption of Spirit; to arrive at an inner peace through being completely expressively open.” — Greg Tate in Summer of Soul

Boom. This is where I feel a kinship; a common root or reaching forwards towards a common root. The eruption or possession of Spirit, the release and catharsis that precedes conversion to Christianity.

There’s so much in what he’s saying that I relate to.

Music, and dance, being the only places I can be fully expressive. Channeling my emotional core through song. Collectively on the dance floor, an eruption of Spirit every Sunday (in California), and through both singing and dancing arriving at an inner peace through being completely expressively open. Will the live music and the dancing come together in this way of release and catharsis one day?

Then there’s spirit possession and improvisation. I don’t know if I would call it possession but it’s definitely a duet when a droplet of unique song comes through the void and I do my best to give it voice.

I track: a long love of African American music on my part. Those early years with the cassette tapes leading to later transcribing, analysing, playing Nina, Stevie, Bobby, Esperanza, Cory, Abdullah Ibrahim, it continues, I continue. On I go. What I see is that so much African American music — all of it? — roots back to the Black church and its roots in community, spirituality, expression, catharsis, healing.

These were all the things I found somewhat absent in my initial white music cultures (well, folk had a community aspect), and found later in Indian, African and African American musics and tried to make sense of within my whiteness, art and teaching.

“Gospel was more than religious” says the next speaker in Summer of Soul. “Gospel was the therapy, for the stress and pressure of being black in America. We didn’t go to a psychiatrist. We didn’t go lay on a couch. We didn’t know anything about therapist. But we knew Mahalia Jackson.”

I don’t want to rip you off, black culture. I want to bow at your altar. I want to learn how to relate to you as respectfully as I possibly can. I’m scared of fucking up. But I love this music and these values so deeply. It speaks to a rich possibility of sound to my ears and a wide, true spectrum of human expression.

Thank you Greg Tate for spelling it out so eloquently. Thank you Summer of Soul for taking care of those precious records.

Pagan Gospel… white expression…. what next?

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Briony Greenhill is a folk-soul improvisational artist who teaches Collaborative Vocal Improvisation (CVI) internationally

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Briony Greenhill

Briony Greenhill

Briony Greenhill is a folk-soul improvisational artist who teaches Collaborative Vocal Improvisation (CVI) internationally

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