Gospel Songs, Negro Spirituals, and This Heathen

The great Mahalia Jackson

I’m a non-religious person, an atheist, a freethinker, a heathen…. whatever you want to call me, any of those terms suits me just fine. I also love a lot of ‘God-dy’, spiritual music.

I grew up Catholic, but for the most part, our church music didn’t ‘stay’ with me as an adult. I’m just not that into chants (I usually find them kinda depressing) and traditional Catholic and Christian hymns tend to be pretty chant-y, or too ponderous and formal for my taste. ‘Ave Maria’ is lovely, and some of the Christmas songs, but overall, that style just doesn’t do much for me. Nor did I ever like the more modern, multi-denominational Christian hymns: they’re mostly pretty corny, and are as artistically satisfying and pack as much of an emotional punch as a discount Hallmark card. The absolute worst of all: Christian rock, country, and pop music. ***shudder***

But let me tell you: if I had grown up in a Baptist church in the South, and heard that passionate, joyful gospel music every Sunday, or those soulful Negro spirituals, I may have remained a weekly churchgoer to this day. I just don’t know if I could have torn myself away from those songs, which alternately uplift the hearer to dizzying heights, or tears your heart apart with the most delicious pain as it simultaneously heals you.

Why do I love this brand of religious music? Why do I find it ranks right up there with the very best of human artistic accomplishments?

I’ve thought this over quite a bit, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there are three main reasons:

1) Time: Gospel songs and Negro spirituals were developed from centuries of earlier forms of music, from standard Christian church songs, American folk songs, and rhythmic African music. The crafters of these songs had a rich tradition to draw from, and this music was developed and perfected over centuries. Of course, this is true of all types of music one degree or another, so now we add the next basic element:

2) Indirectness: For some as yet poorly-understood reason rooted in human psychology, I find that the most sublime, most important emotional truths are rarely well conveyed if the language used is too literal. The words can be simple and seemingly direct, but what they’re ultimately alluding too, the deepest and most transcendent parts of human experience, are somehow out of reach of ordinary language. When it comes to religious music, it has a way of revealing the depths of pain, joy, gratitude, ecstasy, and connection with each other and the universe as it’s couched in the symbolic language of the supernatural. (To me, that is; to its authors, the supernatural imagery is often meant to be taken literally). Other forms of poetry do the same; that’s why similes, metaphors, and other linguistic forms of insinuation and suggestion are so universal. Like symbolism, they are incredibly effective in igniting the imagination and setting it free to roam the universe and explore our inner depths. Yet there’s one more element needed to really raise these forms of music to the heights of artistic expression:

3) Authenticity: Gospel songs and Negro spirituals (along with other related forms of American music, blues, country, and folk) are a direct outpouring of some of the greatest suffering, coupled with the deepest longing for redemption and relief from suffering, that humankind has ever known. There is little to no affectation in this music. Much of this music is the legacy of slavery, the outpourings of the tortured human spirit in the midst of oppression, torture, hopelessness, and despair resulting from one of the greatest evils the human race has ever inflicted on so many of its members. So it’s no wonder that the language of religious redemption, combined with the longing for liberty and freedom from pain on earth, and the joy at the thought of its attainment, resulted in some of the most transcendent, stirring music that our species has ever created.

That’s why I find, heathen that I am, that most freethought and atheist songs leave me cold: they are missing one or more of these elements. Steve Martin is just about right: ‘Atheists Don’t Have No Songs‘! They are too gimmicky, too ‘clever’, too literal, too simultaneously reactionary to and derivative from religious music. The few freethought songs I like are are almost always the funny ones, where cleverness is what the song’s all about, such as Roy Zimmerman’s Creation Science 101.

It’s no surprise that agnostic, atheist, irreverent songs are generally not very good, since freethought as a movement is still very young compared to religion. Give it some time and good songs will come, no doubt, once they’ve escaped the overly-rational, self-consciously non-spiritual constraints they’ve placed on themselves. Tim Minchin, by adding some heart to the mix with his witty and sweet White Wine in the Sun, moves freethought songcraft in the right direction.

So who cares about religion or no religion in music: all are created by human beings for the enjoyment of other human beings. Here’s a list of some of my very favorite gospel and spiritual songs (and songs inspired by that tradition) that I think are more moving than just about anything else you’re likely to hear:

He Must Have Known‘ – Mahalia Jackson – (Thanks for this one, Mike LaSalle)

Let It Shine‘ – Blind Willie Johnson

Didn’t It Rain‘ – Sister Rosetta Tharpe (and well, pretty much every other song she ever did!)

Sending Up My Timber‘ – Blind Willie McTell

I Saw The Light‘ – Hank Williams as Luke the Drifter

Com’ By H’Yere Good Lord – Nina Simone

I Must See Jesus – Snooks Eaglin

Uncloudy Day – The Staple Singers

I Was Standing By the Bedside of a Neighbor – Michelle Lanchester and Sweet Honey in the Rock

I’ll be adding to this list from time to time as I think of them, or find a new must-hear. In the meantime, dance, weep, jump up and down, sway, transcend, and enjoy!

2 thoughts on “Gospel Songs, Negro Spirituals, and This Heathen

  1. 'Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.' – Karl Marx, 1844, from A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right


  2. Recommendations of a fellow ex-Catholic who loves gospel:

    “How I Got Over” – Clara Ward, but Aretha Franklin’s and Reef’s (!) covers really take me there. Reef’s removes any overt reference to Jesus, interestingly.

    “Eyes on the Prize” – Emmaus Group Singers; not a traditional one. It’s actually from a soundtrack, but…DAMN.

    Alternately, Zeal and Ardor have a brilliant take on the old spirituals. Not for everyone, but they’re a marvelous example of how it could’ve gone Left Hand path instead of Christian:


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