Oh, how I love Black Music Month. You’re more likely to stumble across a song or vintage music you’ve never seen on television. Also, there’s no end of amazing documentaries to be seen, sometimes on channels you might not expect. Case in point, Soul Deep, a six-part BBC series that I managed to catch on my beloved VH1 Soul over the weekend.
Episode 2, The Gospel Train, focused mainly on the transition of gospel music into secular pop, a pathway inimitably carved by the one and only Sam Cooke (look for a long, loving upcoming post on him soon). The documentary was amazing, especially for an old-music junkie like me. I got to savor archival footage of R H Harris and the Gospel Paraders, The Soul Stirrers, and the Dixie Hummingbirds.
The documentary was great and very thorough, but I noticed a lack of focus on the female tradition in gospel and jubilee singing. (Which makes sense, because the documentary really focused on the successful males of the era). But you know me, I gotta throw in my two cents wherever I see the sistas missing in action.
There were many influential all-girl gospel singing groups representing for the female belters of the era. One of the best were the Gospel Harmonettes, led by Dorothy Love Coates, one of the most fervent, feel-the-spirit, slept-on gospel greats of all time. The Caravans were at one time led by the one and only Shirley Ceasar (but click here for an undeniably incredible Caravans version of Wade in the Water by Albertina Walker and Loleatta Holloway). Then there were also the Imperial Gospel Singers, The Loving Sisters who sang backup for Reverend Cleophus Robinson, The Drinkard Sisters (sister Emily is now better known as Cissy Houston, by the by). And here’s one for my girl Fresh — Jesus, Be a Fence by The Meditation Singers. These groups all helped to shape the layered harmonies more modern girl groups like En Vogue came to employ.
Many of the older gospel groups continue in new incarnations, and keep the traditions alive. Then there’s Sweet Honey in the Rock, an all-female, Afrocentric, a capella singing group that reinvents the genre. Bernice Johnson Reagon founded the group in 1973, from members of a vocal workshop she taught with the D.C. Black Repertory Company. The group was named after a passage from Psalm 81:16, which Mamie Forehand popularized as a gospel refrain — Honey in the Rock. It’s all about abundance provided by God, and these sisters have that kind of talent.
The group was originally founded as a quartet, who set themselves apart by dressing in regal, bright, and traditional African garb, wearing turbans and natural hairstyles. The group sings a capella — traditionally unaccompanied but for the occasional use of percussion instruments like rattles, gourds, and sticks. Although the group now is comprised of six women, they often refer to Sweet Honey as one person that they all embody on stage.
The group has undergone tremendous overturn in more than 30 years of existence — even the group’s founder retired in 2004. Still, the Sweet Honey flows on, providing rich musical sustenance to those who listen, and remaining strong and unchanged in the face of a fickle music industry. When it comes to lyrical content, Sweet Honey isn’t about “by the light of the silvery moon” kind of sentiments, or purely religious doctrine, neither. Founding member Reagon once explained, “I think everything is political. We are about being accountable.” In a time when few musicians are taking such a stand, Sweet Honey is to be celebrated and applauded.
Their messages are often timely, case in point Give the People The Right to Vote, which is all about the DC Voting Rights act, and boldly declares, “no taxation without representation.” The women’s voices — bold, tender, bass, soprano, and every note in between — combine to stir the listener into feeling and understanding. Unfortunately, there aren’t many video links for Sweet Honey in the Rock. For now, enjoy the brief song posted below.
I also found a working link for Ella’s Song. Listen to it, let the voices and lyrics wash over your spirit, then do yourself a favor and buy one of their CD’s. These women are incredible. Congrats to the women of Sweet Honey! You’re Afrobellas of the Week!