It can be such a pretty song that I almost don’t mind the vapid otherworldliness of its theology. Almost.
But I really liked this a capella rendition by a group of cousins at a funeral. Gospel harmonies change the context and the meaning of the song. It relocates the song. Instead of being about flying away to a heavenly mansion, Gospel music reaches up to yank heaven down here where it belongs.
When it succeeds at that, there’s nothing quite like it, which is why this Conan O’Brien bit in which he rehearses with, and attempts to direct, the Greater Traveler’s Rest Baptist church choir, has moments that transcend Conan’s sublime silliness.
Young Kiwi singer Gin Wigmore experienced the power of Gospel music when she attended the Rev. Al Green’s church in Memphis. It was her first-ever church service:
Al Green comes out and says — he’s got a bit of a rusty voice this morning, yet he still nails it, sings every song. And it’s this total celebration. And people are, you know, fainting, and there’s white sheets being run out over people. And it was just totally eye opening.
And I was — I walked out of there, and I was like, right, I’m committed. I’m totally — religion is my thing. I’m going to church every Sunday. … And then I kind of thought about it for about another five minutes and thought, well … if they were actually going to be like this ever again, and it means I have to get up at 10 a.m. every Sunday. I don’t think that’s going to happen.
My favorite bit from that interview was Wigmore’s description of her visit to a juke joint in Clarksdale, Mississippi:
It was really cool. It was Bessie Smith and Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson’s kind of stomping ground back in the day, so it had all that kind of flavor down there. … I ball on in — as you say, pretty delicate at the time with flowing blonde hair … and they’re like, you know, they look at me pretty much up and down about 50 times and say, what are you doing? I said: Well, I’m from New Zealand. I’m here to make a blues record. And they’re like: Oh, yeah. … It was a nice rude awakening, you know, really, that I knew nothing about the blues and that if, you know, he quickly advised me that if I found myself from getting from New Zealand to Clarksdale, Mississippi, that I’d never have the blues because I could afford the plane ticket.
In a similar vein, here’s Roger Ebert on eschatology:
Because we are human, because we are bound by gravity and the limitations of our bodies, because we live in a world where the news is often bad and the prospects disturbing, there is a need for another world somewhere, a world where Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers live.
And speaking of transcendent art, funerals, and resurrection, I hope you didn’t miss this video of a church’s Easter service gone horribly wrong. Or should I say, a church’s Easter service gone horribly awesome. It reminds me of the classic funeral scene in Elizabethtown. My Morning Jacket’s epic rendition of “Freebird” has more spiritual depth than the over-eager music in that church service — methinks they doth profess too much. But I still have to admire the singer for never skipping a beat.