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The Rough Guide to Gospel
(World Music Network, 2002)

According to the liner notes of The Rough Guide to Gospel, gospel music's roots lie in slavery, when few forms of musical expression were allowed to African slaves. Most slave owners permitted working songs, traditional call and response and church singing, and these musical forms became the foundation for modern gospel music. Thomas A. Dorsey was one of the first to develop gospel music as a form and in fact "was also responsible for advocating that this music was referred to as 'gospel'" in order to distance the association with slavery.

This music praises God and Jesus and spreads the "good news" of the Gospel, and The Rough Guide is packed with samples of the top performers in the field -- good news indeed. From the start, when the Soul Stirrers proclaim "Christ is All" to the end, when the Fairfield Four sing "Hallelujah," you can't help but feel uplifted.

No gospel sampler would be complete without a song from the magnificent Mahalia Jackson and the collection doesn't disappoint with two songs: "I'm on My Way to Canaan" and "Run All the Way." Her gorgeous voice rolls through both songs, but hers is not the only powerhouse voice on the CD. Shirley Caesar (with the Caravans) sings "I Feel Good," and you believe it while Bessie Griffin informs us in no uncertain terms that she is going to "Move Upstairs" from her spiritual basement.

Another metaphorical song takes us to "Heaven's Grocery Store" with the Dixie Hummingbirds, where everything is free because Jesus already paid the bill. The bluesy sound makes the song work; it is nowhere as facile as the description may sound.

The Staple Singers and Sweet Honey in the Rock are familiar names in mainstream music, but they are also well known in gospel circles. The Staple Singers offer up "New Home" and "Jesus is All" while Sweet Honey in the Rock combine beautiful a cappella harmonies in "Leaning and Depending on the Lord." The Fairfield Four's "Hallelujah" is also a cappella, also with gorgeous harmonies, and the end of the CD blends perfectly into the beginning.

You don't have to be a believer to appreciate the performances on The Rough Guide to Gospel. The music, the harmonies and the passion say it all.

- Rambles
written by Donna Scanlon
published 10 January 2004

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