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Soul, Blues, Gospel and Guitar

The recent passing of Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, is a good time to reflect on the music that inspired her and in turn touched us all.

Soul combines two major currents of 20th century African-American music, blues and gospel, which offer two very different ways to respond to the fundamental questions of life. In blues, the answer is temporary: live for today and deal with tomorrow when it comes. Gospel offers a permanent answer: follow Jesus and you will be saved. Musically speaking they have much in common, but this difference in message is revealed in the harmony. Traditional blues changes consist of dominant chords, which contain a built-in dissonance known as the “devil’s interval.” In classical European harmony this dissonance always resolves into a major or minor triad (e.g. E7-A), but the final chord in blues songs is also a dominant chord (e.g. E7-A7) - the song may be over, but the tension remains unresolved. By contrast, gospel songs invariably end on a major chord, often with an amen cadence, or four chord resolving to the one major triad (e.g. D-A). The tension is resolved and God is in his heaven. Amen.

Despite their fundamentally opposing messages, a rowdy blues performance on Saturday night and a sanctified gospel service on Sunday morning display the same level of energy, and the Saturday night/Sunday morning boundary has always been very porous. An early example of crossover was Georgia Tom, a blues piano player and singer who sold millions of records in the 1920s with such risqué ditties as “It’s Tight Like That” before re-inventing himself in the early ‘30s as Thomas A. Dorsey, the “Father of Gospel Music” and composer of all-time gospel standards including “Peace in the Valley” and “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” (a favorite of Aretha). Dorsey applied the personal perspective and energetic delivery of blues to his gospel compositions to create ‘gospel blues,’ the style that came to dominate Black gospel. In the ‘50s, Ray Charles reversed the process, rewriting gospel lyrics to address secular subjects (his first hit, “I Got a Woman,” was based on “It Must Be Jesus”) and incorporating gospel-influenced call-and-response backing vocals behind his sanctified vocal delivery. Out of blues and gospel, soul music was born.

In the early days of gospel, guitars were too closely associated with blues to be allowed in church but there were some notable exceptions. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a powerful singer and electric guitarist who had great success in both gospel and R&B (and her 1939 gospel hit “This Train” was reworked by Willie Dixon into Little Walter’s 1955 blues hit “My Babe”). Pops Staples based the arrangements for his family gospel group The Staple Singers on his tremolo-enhanced down-home guitar style, setting the stage for his daughter Mavis to deliver some of the greatest gospel vocal performances of all time. In the 1950s, certain churches in the Midwest and South introduced electric lap steel guitar (“Sacred Steel”) in place of piano and organ, and the popularity of guitar-backed gospel quartets like the Sensational Nightingales and Swan Silvertones eventually made electric guitar a common feature at Sunday services.

As with vocals, gospel guitar influences are woven into the fabric of soul, blues and popular music. Pops Staples influenced the Impressions’ writer/singer/guitarist Curtis Mayfield, who in turn influenced Jimi Hendrix - “Little Wing” stands right on the church threshold. Steve Cropper wove the “amen sound” into his rhythm parts behind Otis Redding, and like Otis, BB King started his music career as a singer in a gospel quartet and echoed that influence in his guitar phrasing. To develop the sweet side of your playing, there’s no better source than traditional gospel.

Of course the best way to learn about gospel is simply to listen. The best-selling album of Aretha’s career, “Amazing Grace,” is a collection of gospel classics recorded live in church in 1972 that remains the gold standard. Here are a few other notable gospel performances including guitar:

Sister Rosetta Tharpe: “This Train”

Staple Singers: “Uncloudy Day”

Sensational Nightingales: “At the Meeting”

Swan Silvertones: “Savior Pass Me Not”

Robert Randolph with Aubrey Ghent: “Train Don’t Leave Me”

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