Williamstown — So you think your self-funded record album won’t stand a chance against the major record labels? You think it’s futile to compete unless you have enough cash to bribe radio programmers, purchase full-page ads, and buy Grammy votes? Think again. Because, as Williamstown, Massachusetts-resident Jeffrey Gaskill will tell you, the old rules have changed. He should know, because he’s not the first aspiring record producer to flout the old rules and make up his own. And if three Grammy nominations mean anything, Gaskill’s strategy has worked: In 2016, members of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) nominated Jeffrey Gaskill’s “God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson” for a Grammy award in the category “Best Roots Gospel Album.” But three years after its introduction, the “Best Roots Gospel Album” category (originally called “Best Southern Gospel, Country Gospel or Bluegrass Gospel Album” and, later, “Best Southern Gospel Album”) is still of unknown scope, as the category’s latest cohort of nominees awkwardly reveals.
When it comes to organizing the various Grammy categories, the Academy’s rationale is complicated and, at times, seemingly arbitrary. So, exactly how the “Best Roots Gospel Album” category differs from the categories it supersedes is anyone’s guess. But this much is clear: Gospel music’s roots will always be a matter of controversy. That’s because (1) the earliest works of gospel music were not preserved in written form when they were first composed, and (2) gospel music, like every other musical genre invented by woman or man, existed decades — possibly centuries — before anyone actually referred to it as gospel music.
We need an example: By 1871, some years before the term gospel music had appeared anywhere in print, concert programs of the Fisk Jubilee Singers included “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Steal Away,” “Gospel Train,” and many other songs that, well over a century later, are universally recognized as timeless standards of gospel music.
So, when did we start calling gospel music gospel music? The term was widely known by the end of the 19th century, as gospel music found acceptance by both black and white Protestants, having taken its place in church services alongside the old European hymns. And, although Jim Crow laws kept white and black audiences in separate church buildings and auditoriums, they didn’t restrict the free flow of musical ideas; Gospel music practitioners on both sides of the color line exchanged songs and performance styles. Standards like Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” a perennial favorite among black churches, became popular with white audiences, while the best hymns and gospel songs from white churches found their way into black worship services.
Decades before Blind Willie Johnson rose to fame in the 1920s, gospel music had evolved into a smorgasbord of ethnic and regional songwriting norms and performance styles. One of those styles was “gospel blues” (sometimes called “holy blues”), and no one did more to put it on the map than Johnson. He was a bluesman. That’s obvious enough when you hear his music, especially his legendary bottleneck guitar technique. (Ask Jimmy Page or Eric Clapton about this.) But Johnson was, first and foremost, an evangelist — a street preacher — so everything he did as a musician served an evangelistic imperative he’d known since childhood. How should we classify Blind Willie Johnson’s music? Is it blues? American Roots? Gospel Roots? Yes. Johnson’s music fits well into all three categories.
The artists who perform on Gaskill’s “God Don’t Never Change” compilation have an uncanny way of getting to the very essence of Johnson’s music. Tom Waits, in particular, is so good at channeling Johnson on “The Soul Of A Man” and “John The Revelator,” one would hope to hear an entire album of Waits performing this material. There’s no “filler” on this album; Every performance is strong. (Hence the Grammy nomination!) Other cuts:
- Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi on “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning”
- Lucinda Williams on “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and “God Don’t Never Change”
- Luther Dickinson on “Bye And Bye I’m Going To See The King”
- Maria McKee on “Let Your Light Shine On Me”
- Rickie Lee Jones on “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was the Ground”
- The Blind Boys Of Alabama on “Mother’s Children Have A Hard Time”
- The Cowboy Junkies on “Jesus Is Coming Soon”
- Sinead O’Connor on “Trouble Will Soon Be Over”
Little is known of Johnson’s life, but the album’s liner notes contain a few recently discovered details: “Born in Pendleton, Texas in 1897, Johnson grew up around Marlin, Texas. A legendary story has his stepmother, in a fit of rage, throwing lye in his face when he was a child, blinding him for life. From his teenage years, he traveled the region as a street singer, moving between Dallas, Galveston, Houston, Corpus Christi, San Antonio (even travelling as far as New York City) and finally settling in Beaumont, where he thundered out his street corner evangelism, spreading his sacred message through his transfixing music. He died in 1945 in Beaumont, Texas at the age of 48.” (More liner notes at Alligator Records.)
This album project, years in the making, Gaskill calls his life’s work. He explains: “Blind Willie Johnson’s music is imperishable. His music speaks to us as it laments the human condition; it speaks to us as it praises the steadfastness of an unchanging God. It travels through time with the same bold call of repentance that was once delivered to listeners on Texas street corners. Ultimately, it is the message that endures.”
Gaskill’s project didn’t win the Grammy. But simply getting nominated was a far more significant victory for him than an actual Grammy win could have been for any of the smoothly polished competitors from the other side of the tracks.