In the winter 2003 issue of the lamentably defunct magazine Sound Collector Audio Review, writer/critic Mike McGonigal gushes about two recent compilations of “raw gospel”—a strain of church music so fiery, gritty, and raucous it seems to emanate from below. Though enthusiastic throughout, he finishes the piece with this adage: “This music is so good I almost don’t want to write about it. Seriously, I do not want you dorks in trucker hats crowding me out in the Salvation Army for the one music left that I can actually still find for cheap.”
Six years later, McGonigal is courting the dorks: He has just compiled and produced Fire in My Bones (Tompkins Square), a three-CD overview of fierce postwar gospel music. “Being evangelical has always been my motto, ever since I started my first fanzine,” McGonigal tells me while on the road in California, where he’s producing a documentary about the modern garage-rock revival for Vice Broadcast System. In the ’80s and early ’90s, he was an early proponent of (then) little-known bands like Stereolab and Pavement, both with his first ‘zine, Chemical Imbalance (which also ran the first published work of David Sedaris), and The Village Voice. It’s safe to say that such evangelic fervor paid off for a few of those bands. “That’s what motivates me, whether I am compiling gospel or writing about it,” he continues. “I’m pretty much only interested in turning people onto stuff.”
As Fire in my Bones came together, the original intent—to thoroughly document and classify the fervent religious music lurking beyond the resplendent harmonies of the vocal quartets that typify gospel’s Golden Age (which historically falls between the end of World War II and the rise of “rock ‘n’ roll”)—was completely overwhelmed. Not only was there a lot of great music from that era, but it continued right on through the ’60s and ’70s and into the present age—the box goes as late as 2007. The set gives in abundance, beyond classification. The keening, traditional-blues slide guitar of Willie Mae Williams’s “When the Sun Goes Down” stands alongside the nimble country shuffle of Reverend Lonnie Farris’s “Peace in the Valley.” Reverend Louis Overstreet’s “Working on the Building” slowly turns into congregational ecstasy, while the reverberated stomp of the Abraham Brothers’ “Spirit of the Lord” could pass for a garage-rock revival number without setting off any atheist alarms. And then there’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Sermon,” which is too delicious to simply give away here.
In compiling the set, McGonigal worked from his own collection, also cherrypicking selections in tandem with WFMU gospel enthusiast Kevin Nutt and a few other collectors. But how does one move from worshipping slacker-kings Pavement, Kali-loving kooks the Sun City Girls, bubbly agit-poppers Stereolab, and noisy New Zealand bands to preaching the good news about long-lost gospel acts like the Bible Aires Spiritual Singers, Reverend Roger L. Worthy & his sister Bonnie Woodstock, and Straight Street Holiness Group? “What led to this was pretty gradual,” McGonigal remembers. “When I was 17, I bought Mississippi Fred McDowell’s Amazing Grace record. I just thought it was an anomaly—I didn’t think it was part of a tradition of sanctified blues. But I did find myself for years having trouble with gospel because of the lyrics.”
Indeed, that can be a stumbling block for Jesus-averse listeners nonetheless curious about this music, even if you’re familiar with the old adage that soul music just swapped out “God” for “baby.” Semantic tricks aside, gospel lies at the root of our popular music, the sacred Abel to the blues’ profane Cain. Acts as diverse and crucial as Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the Staple Singers came up through the church. And in the 21st century, appreciations of sacred harp or shape-note singing (courtesy of the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack), old gospel (see Dust-to-Digital’s epochal Goodbye, Babylon box set or Nutt’s weekly Thursday night radio show, “Sinner’s Crossroads”) or a new wave of Christiandie acts like Sufjan Stevens and Danielson Famile, seem to indicate we’re over that particular God complex.
“I do understand how some people might have personal baggage because they were made to go to church by Mommy and Daddy, or the preacher was mean,” McGonigal says. He himself remained a skeptic for years, until a drug-abuse problem consumed him. Reaching a personal nadir and finally seeking a higher power, gospel music suddenly became part of the recovery process. “I got clean and sober and realized that part of the 12-step deal is the God stuff,” he explains. “Suddenly, it wasn’t a problem to hear that word in all these songs. Gospel, in general, is a message of hope.”
And the deeper McGonigal dug, the weirder this sanctified music got: “These private-press selections feel like a message in a bottle, a weird thing from another planet, another time,” he gushes, adding a few laughs in his high, effervescent titter. As he listened to its myriad iterations—field hollers, fife-and-drum duos, shout trombone, sacred steel—on comps offered by such labels as CaseQuarter, Arhoolie, and John Fahey’s Revenant, he eventually connected the church back to his hardcore roots. “Coming from a punk and indie background, gospel is way more DIY, way more underground, and not interested in the financial side,” he says. “It’s not interested in anything other than trying to communicate with the listener. That’s all it wants to do. It’s an unaffected music.”
Mike McGonigal will be DJ’ing rare gospel at the Ace Hotel November 19