It is a strong opening feature in the exhibition’s first room Gospel in the Utrecht Museum Catharijneconvent. Singer Shirma Rouse, co-curator of the exhibition, welcomes visitors through a screen, while a parade of greatest hits is turned off.
The old landmark goes by, known in performances by Aretha Franklin and James Brown. We shall Overcome of course, the song that turned gospel into the martial protest music of the American civil rights movement. And Oh happy daya song that sounds so familiar that one almost forgot that the evergreen also has an ecclesiastical origin.
You realize immediately how influential the gospel has been to the entire music culture, right up to today. And how valuable a museum reminder of the essential history of art can be.
Gospel first reveals two deep roots of spiritual and biblical music before leaping into the vibrant present. A problem for the curators: how does one show or hear where the remotest origins of the ‘rhythmic surrender of faith’ can be found? There is almost no picture from prehistoric times and certainly no sound at all. But the compilers have come up with a solution for that. The visitor can walk along video screens with an audio tour where knowledgeable people explain the story of the Gospel.
Hold on to the hard life
The Dutch minister of Dominican descent Joan Delsol Meade explains, for example, how the hymns of the British poet and pastor Charles Wesley (1707-1788) could become a foundation for gospel culture. “Wesley was able to translate biblical texts into poetry and music,” she says. “And the message is so deep that we just keep singing those songs.” Wesley wrote nearly five thousand hymns. Classics like Love Divine, All Loves Excelling and the Christmas cookie Hark, the Herald Angels sing still blares through churches worldwide, according to Meade, because the lines of the poem are still ‘an anchor’ for young believers today, a grip in the sometimes hard life.
So were the hymns for African-American churchgoers, who from the 1920s refined the hymns into the music we know today as gospel. In black churches, the hymns from the church records were enriched with influences from the traditional African music and spirituals that the enslaved had sung on the plantations as a means of holding their heads high in the face of brutal oppression.
How powerful the musical big bang was that afterwards caused the ‘black gospel’ is beautifully visible. The uplifting music almost literally exploded from the churches and was warmly received in the nightclubs of the big cities in the United States, where blues and jazz had just started the first black music revolution. Old film footage of a white pastor fulminating at a gospel club is very telling because he believes that the sacred biblical texts are being seriously abused here.
The public is going crazy
Gospel shows how the empowering music went around the world. An eye-opener is the room where the Dutch gospel story is opened up. As early as 1877, the spirituals of the American Fisk Jubilee Singers were received on concert stages from Goes to Leeuwarden. The performances were widely discussed in the Dutch press. Unfortunately, not a word was said about the origin of these black spirituals and the slave debt that the Netherlands had to repay, also to, for example, Suriname. Great counterattack from the singing group: the proceeds from the Amsterdam closing concert were transferred to a fund for Afro-Surinamese.
In the sixties, the modern gospel set Holland on fire again. The curators managed to get their hands on amazing cinematic images that will leave you in awe for a long time. On Ascension Day 1964, a festive music service was organized in the Jaarbeurs in Utrecht with the American gospel legend Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972).
The white audience, smartly dressed, goes crazy with the singer’s ecstatic performance, clapping their hands to the rhythm of her confessions. The security in the hall does not know what to do and tries to keep the overly hysterical audience away from the stage. In 1964, The Rolling Stones caused musical chaos in the Kurhaus in Scheveningen, a fact of music history that is remembered with nausea. That’s good Gospel have now contrasted it with the Utrecht Mahalia Jackson mania of the same year, as a historical correction.
Also impressive is the recorded account of the Dutch rapper and songwriter Typhoon, who explains how gospel not only functioned as a weapon in the fight for American civil rights in the fifties and sixties, but is still carried along in demonstrations by e.g. Black lives. Matter movement.
The timelessness of the liberating music is emphasized again in the last room, where a long playlist is played with surrender. Where was Snoop Dogg (The Bible of Love), MC Hammer (Pray), Madonna (Like a Prayer) and U2 (I still have not found what I’m looking for) actually been without the musical biblical fire?
Guided tour of Shirma Rouse
The Dutch singer Shirma Rouse can not only sing very well, she can also talk convincingly about her life in soul and gospel. On November 19, Museum Catharijneconvent organizes a tour with the public, delivered by the singer and co-curator of Gospel. Rouse will probably also talk more about the role her grandmother’s Hammond organ played in her career.