From the extraordinary recordings of the true guitar evangelists Blind Willie Johnson and Reverend Gary Davis to classic spiritual renditions by legendary bluesmen Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Skip James, this handpicked selection highlights the mutual influence between Gospel and blues.
At first glance, the musical genres of gospel and blues have little in common, with one calling to mind spiritual joy and hope in a higher power and the other rooted in the secular world of pain that lacks a divine outlet. However, on closer inspection one soon realises that the blues and spirituals flowed from the same bedrock of experience, and that neither was an adequate interpretation of life without the other. As different as these genres may seem, they both share the expression of aching hearts and troubled minds. The blues are secular spirituals, or as T-Bone Walker put it, 'The blues are just gospel turned inside out.'
As the market grew for blues records during the 1920s, a black audience developed in parallel for religious songs and sermons. Consequently, many famous bluesmen including Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Willie McTell recorded spiritual songs, often under different pseudonyms, to avoid offending the church, who wouldn't look favourably on confusing the music of worship with that of the devil. Despite the image of the hard-drinking and hard-living early bluesmen, there were many that held on to some vestiges of their faith from their early years of church-going and included religious songs in their richly varied repertoires. The belief in the power of faith and the possibility of redemption meant that however much they enjoyed the good times of the juke joint there was always the possibility of a return to the path of God.
Reverend Gary Davis was one who abandoned the blues to exclusively sing gospel, which he accompanied with a complex ragtime-influenced picking style that left its mark on many great guitarists who were left spellbound by his playing during the folk-revival. Other featured legendary early blues guitarists, who also found a new lease of life in the 1960s, include Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James and Josh White, each of whose brilliant spiritual renditions illustrate the ease in which they could freely switch between the two styles.
Many of the included artists would have started out singing music in church choirs early on before crossing over to the blues, whereas others remained gospel singers whose music was influenced by blues traditions. The 'guitar evangelists' combined the raw earthiness of the Delta blues with gospel sentiments, the most prominent being Blind Willie Johnson whose extraordinary recordings have left their mark in the annals of Afro-American music. While both religious music and blues have their own distinct characteristics, Johnson's music perfectly illustrates the mutual influence between the two and how a blues song could be transformed into a gospel song, or vice versa, simply by changing a few words in the lyrics. Other true guitar evangelists such as Reverend Edward Clayborn and Blind Gussie Nesbit give further evidence of how playing slide for the Lord sounds pretty much like playing slide for the other side.
Very little is known about several of the artists including female singers Mother McCollum, who was billed as the 'Sanctified Singer with Guitar', and Blind Mamie Forehand whose utterly unique sound turned songs like the featured 'Honey in the Rock' into haunting, atmospheric masterpieces, complete with hazy bells and chimes. Another highlight is Blind Willie and Kate McTell's classic duet 'God Don't Like It', which warns us about hypocritical preachers, and like all the featured tracks goes to prove how blues and gospel, at once close relatives and mutual enemies, are above all musically complementary.