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Grooving for God

It seems appropriate to have a bit of religious music this week. Of course, there is plenty in that vein in the world of pop, and much of it pretty awful. Featured here are seven religious-themed songs that I think are rather good (especially Atomic Telephone), and one of supreme kitsch value.

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Marlena Shaw – The Lord Giveth And The Lord Taketh Away (1974).mp3
The wonderful Marlena Shaw sang some of the finest soul tracks of the late 1960s and ’70s, and is even more popular among the fans of vocal jazz. The Lord Giveth and The Lord Taketh Away, a Shaw composition, appeared as the shortish closer of the first side of her 1974 album, evocatively titled Who Is This Bitch, Anyway?. The album is mostly a soul affair, though on this jazzy gospel track (preceded by her version of Roberta Flack’s Feel Like Making Love) she does the jazz thing with which Diane Schuur later found greater success. The first side of the album in particular is quite special. It starts off with You, Me And Ethel, a very funny satire of an attempted pick-up in a singles bar, and ends with her nod to Lord-praising.

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Johnny Cash – I Saw A Man (live, 1968).mp3
In 1968, Johnny Cash released a concept album based on his pilgrimage with June Carter to the Holy Land. The same year, Cash performed a concert based on the same premise which would be broadcast on the BBC on Boxing Day 1968. June was not there, it seems. But her mother, Maybelle of the Carter Family —  the massively influential country trio that started its career in 1927 — sings on two songs, as do Carl Perkins and the Statler Brothers, whose non-religious Flowers On The Wall is rather out of place, great song though it is. A concert of religious songs might seem, well, a bit dull. In Cash’s hands, it’s quite brilliant..You can find a vinyl rip of the studio LP (which does not include I Saw A Man) at this very fine blog.

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The Spirit Of Memphis – Atomic Telephone (1952).mp3
The Spirit of Memphis is usually described as a gospel quartet, even though its ever-changing line-up sometimes exceeded that number. The group was active for half a century, beginning in the 1930s. Atomic Telephone was released on King as the b-side of He Never Let Go Off My Hand in 1952, very much reflecting the zeitgeist of the early 1950s. A white quartet, The Harlan County Four, released a cover of Atomic Telephone soon after. “If you are in trouble, and afraid of all mankind, pick up the atomic telephone and get Him on the line.”

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Sufjan Stevens – To Be Alone With You (2004).mp3
Perhaps the coolest Christian in music today (though his friend Damien Jurado is rather admirable too), Sufjan sings about his faith introspectively. You’ll not find much by way of praising the Lord with Sufjan; his relationship with Christ is an intimate affair, and his faith acknowledges the dark side that resides even in the believer. On his song about serial killer John Wayne Gacy Jr, he meditates on the inherent sinfulness — the dark side — of everybody, including and especially himself. To Be Alone With You, from the Seven Swans album, might sound like a sweet love song at first, but Sufjan is not addressing a love interest. He is fooling us at first: “I’d swim across Lake Michigan, I’d sell my shoes, I’d give my body to be back again in the rest of the room, to be alone with you.” But in the second verse it becomes clear that he is addressing the crucified Jesus who “went up on a tree”.

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Blind Willie McTell & Kate McTell – God Don’t Like It (1935).mp3
Willie McTell was one of many 1930s blues musicians who incorporated their blindness in their stagename. An accomplished blues guitarist, McTell has influenced not only the usual suspects — Dylan, Allman, Page & Plant et al — but also many modern performers, including Jack White of the White Stripes and Kurt Cobain. The writer of the 1970s hit Streets Of London changed his name from Ralph May to Ralph McTell in homage of the bluesman.

Blind Willie recorded God Don’t Like It in Chicago on April 25 with his wife Kate, whom he had married a year earlier. It was one of the few tracks they cut for Decca before moving on to Vocalion Records. The song condemns the hypocrisy of Christians, including ministers, who preach temperance while getting drunk on moonshine . Far better to feed and clothe the family than to get drunk: “They say that yellow corn makes the best kind of shine. Well, they better turn that corn to bread and stop that makin’ shine.” God doesn’t like alcohol abuse and hypocrisy, nor do the McTells. And they don’t care who’ll get pissed off at their forthrightness: “ I know you don’t like this song just because I speak my mind, but I’ll sing this song just as much as I please, because I don’t drink shine. Now God don’t like it and I don’t either.”

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David Axelrod – Holy Thursday (1968).mp3
Well, it is Holy Thursday, and while this orchestral jazz track might not feed your pieties, it should at least get your toes tapping. That does not mean that the title is irreverent. Axelrod, son of a leftist activist who grew up in a predominantly black neighbourhood, wrote and recorded several musical works referencing religion. In 1971 he arranged a jazz-rock interpretation of Handel’s Messiah and in 1993 he titled a work on the Holocaust a “requiem”. I have read that Holy Thursday also featured in Grand Theft Auto V, a game I’ve never played but the soundtracks of which seem quite excellent.

Axelrod has had a massive influence on jazz, in particular fusion. He produced legends such as Lou Rawls and Cannonball Adderley (including his big hit Mercy, Mercy, Mercy), as well as avant gardists The Electric Prunes. Axelrod, who’ll turn 74 on April 17, still records and performs. Visit his homepage here.

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Jess Willard – Boogie Woogie Preaching Man (1951).mp3
Willard, named after the boxing heavyweight world champion who in 1915 knocked out Jack Johnson, was an associate of Jack Guthrie, Woody’s cousin and a very influential country figure in the 1940s. After Jack died of tuberculosis in 1948, Willard vowed to continue his friend’s legacy. Alas, Willard himself did not have much time left. Having toured and briefly recorded with Eddie Cochran and his brother Hank in the mid-’50s, he died of a heart attack in 1959 at 43. “Get religion while you can, and get it from the Boogie Woogie Preacher Man!” Willard’s preacher, happily, is a nice guy who won’t fleece you on TV (though I must say, that Creflo Dollar dude at least has an honest name) and won’t try and steal your children with hands that sport LOVE and HATE tattoos on the finger knuckles.

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Red Foley – Our Lady Of Fatima (1950).mp3
Next to a local cinema there is a shop that sells kitsch items. Among the novelty clocks, garden gnomes and lava lamps, there is a small selection of Catholic images depicting the Virgin Mary in various apparitions and what looks like a surfer Jesus with wavy blond hair (actually, it’s the picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, I think). What the hyper-ironic clientele of the kitsch shop probably don’t know is that the very same pictures are for sale, with no irony and much cheaper, at the back of the local Catholic church. Red Foley’s paean to the Marian apparition at Fatima in Portugal is supreme kitsch, capturing the post-war American Catholicism of Bishop Fulton Sheen and The Bells of St Mary’s. Our Lady of Fatima was recorded with the Anita Kerr Singers, whose voices backed something like half of all records recorded in Nashville in the 1950s; Elvis’ pals, The Jordanaires, appeared on the other half. Red Foley was Elvis’ childhood idol: his Old Shep was the first song Elvis Presley ever performed in public, at the age of 10. Foley featured on the Retro Christmas mix with a lament about the absence of Christ in Christmas, and a year after Our Lady Of Fatima had a hit with There’ll Be Peace In The Valley (another Elvis favourite), thereby ushering in country-gospel as a commercial proposition.

And here’s wishing y’all a happy Easter, whichever way you spend it.

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  1. Douglas
    April 1st, 2010 at 07:57 | #1

    Nicely done, Dude.

  2. ian
    April 2nd, 2010 at 23:17 | #2

    I love Sufjan Stevens stuff and you name checked John Wayne Gacey Jr, which for me is his finest song on his finest album.
    But for me as a fully paid up atheist I still think that XTCs Andy Partridge tackles that whole God thing best on “Dear God”
    Probably doesnt quite enetr into the spirit of this list though……

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