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    Great Men of Gospel

    Heavenly choirs

    "Great Men of Gospel" is a joyful journey through black music and history by a talented sextet of singer-actors.


    One almost shouldn't review "The Great Men of Gospel" at all. It's not a show to be intellectualized — it's a show to open your ears to, clap your hands to, wave your arms to, sway back and forth and catch the spirit to. For a critic to mince it into little overanalyzed bits in print seems beside the point.

    Written and directed by: Elizabeth Van Dyke.
    Henry Street Settlement
    466 Grand Street near Pitt
    March 10 - April 11, 2004

    But what the heck, mince we must.

    A six-man cast guides us through the history of this music — with a minimum of history and a maximum of music — from slavery-era work songs through civil-rights era styles that make plain where the soul in soul music came from. There's only a little bit of explanation of what's going on — many of the songs are prefaced only by an introduction of the artists. But an alert observer might pick up the gradual emergence of frontmen and multipart harmony, the assimilation of blues and jazz, and the advent of show-business values and stars.

    The music mirrors black history — in fact, it's an element of black history — and we discern its role from early in the show. Singing lightens the work for a group of slaves, and we soon see what else it's good for. Scolded for singing to their African gods, the men learn to substitute biblical figures for the ones they're familiar with. Songs about Moses and deliverance from the pharaoh echo their desires for freedom, and hymns like "Follow the Drinking Gourd" and "Wade in the Water" refer directly to escape on the Underground Railroad.

    You can hear jazz and blues muddying the music as soon as the piano starts up, and angry parishioners protest, "You can't sing that music in this church. That's sin music!"  

    The turn of the century finds free blacks in their own churches, and the dapperly dressed singing group of the time, the Foster Singers, has a hint of the barbershop quartet to it. Not so, twenty years later, when we see the choir led by Thomas A. Dorsey. You can hear jazz and blues muddying the music as soon as the piano starts up, and angry parishioners protest, "You can't sing that music in this church. That's sin music!"

    Entertainment values transform the music again as the radio era becomes the TV era. A couple of the more outlandish personalities get laughs from the crowd, and we can see the groups' images go from godly to glitzy. Still, this era gives us some of the show's best music — the group's impression of the impeccably outfitted Dixie Hummingbirds being the high point of the show.

    We continue throught he civil-rights era, when a huge repertoire of gospel music (not just "We Shall Overcome") inspired movement participants to acts of tremendous courage and united them in prison during the "fill the jails" efforts. And yet, this is approximately where this historical revue ends, and that's another way in which the show echoes the history. It's striking that people's idea of the "civil-rights era" ends with the King assassination, and in fact if you go to see the so-called Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, it shows a timeline ending in 1968. This widely shared view implies one of two things — either civil rights were achieved by that date and we entered a golden age of equality, or people just gave up. Neither is true, and it's sad that either idea persists. Similarly, it's a little bit sad that the "Great Men of Gospel" program ends with the late 1960s too. Gospel may not be the cultural force that rap is today, but there is still great music being made.

    "Great Men of Gospel" may pull up short of the present day, historically, but it does demonstrate that the music still has power to move people. The closing number, the huge 1969 crossover hit "Oh Happy Day," was indeed a joyful noise that had just about everyone dancing and waving their arms. You could say that the six talented singers on stage were preaching to the converted — in the sense that most of the people in the audience seemed to be knowledgeable gospel fans to begin with — but even this outsider could feel the love and warmth in the air.

    APRIL 11, 2004

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