While it confused the hell out of my mother, it's obvious to me what attracted this Long Island Italian Jew to gospel music. Done right, gospel is a foot-stompin', hand-wavin', sweatin'-your-ass-off, dancing-in-the-aisles, losing-your-mind and crying-in-public sort of experience. It's as groovy as James Brown and its daddy-the Negro spiritual-is the root of most American music.
"They all have their roots in the Negro spiritual-jazz, rock 'n' roll, disco, pop, on down to what they are doing now with rap and hip-hop," says Ken Anderson, who lectures on gospel at UCSD and directs both the college's Gospel Choir and the Martin Luther King Community Choir.
"It's a real sharing of oneself," he says. "The soloist is the person that actually shapes that song. They pour their personal story into it and the song will change with each soloist. So while everybody will recognize it's the same song... gospel music is never the same twice."
To understand why gospel is so chock full of grit, joy, pain and depth, just check out the history. Negro spirituals, sung by slaves and largely based on African rhythms, were often written as "code songs." Certain words served as cues for slaves who wanted freedom.
"Jordan River," for example, was code for the Mississippi or Ohio River and "The Promised Land" and "Calvary" were both code for freedom. Hence, "I ain't gonna let nobody turn me 'round, gonna keep on marchin' to Calvary..."
"When their masters caught on that they were using instruments and vocal cries to communicate, instruments were taken from them and they were forbidden to speak in the fields," Anderson explains. "But the rhythm remains in the music. In the spirituals and gospel, even when it's slow, it's still very rhythmic. Then that evolved into swing and rag and jazz and blues."
Aretha Franklin was my first gospel crush. Her father being a minister, Franklin grew up with gospels as her first lullabies. With songs like the bluesy "Ain't No Way" and old-school numbers like Thomas Dorsey's "Precious Lord," Frankliln sings from her spirit, which is the essence of real gospel-to hell with Julie Andrews.
Dorsey, famed for heaps of jazz and blues, is considered the father of gospel, penning classics in the early 1900s. Before him, the music was largely passed down through oral tradition. In the '60s, early spiritual tunes were revamped and saw a revival with the civil rights movement marches.
Though gospel-and most religious-based music, for that matter-has long been deemed "uncool," a recent increase in college choirs suggests that it's being rediscovered by tastemakers (read: American youth). Anderson's UCSD choir once sported 1,600 singers (with new university limits on class size, they now have about 500).
"These kids come from every religious background and non-religious background. Most of them had never sung in a choir before," says Anderson, who's led the choir for 14 years. "They aren't really in tune with the message. They're in tune with the beat and the emotion, the spirit and the sense of community that it fosters."
Most UCSD choirs perform once a year. After having to turn throngs away from the campus' 785-seat Mandeville Auditorium, Anderson's choir now performs about eight times a quarter.
But don't mistake the growing interest as an indication that gospel is "hip," says Larry "Preacherman" Thompson, a former pastor and current host of Late Night Gospel for Late Night Saints on 1210-AM (KPRZ).
"Gospel music is not hip music... because that which is hip, by definition, implies temporary status," he explains. "It is music that is about life, the life of the individual and their relationship with God. If I had two options, to be hip and trendy or to be stable and sound, I would choose to be stable and sound. It's a deeper thing."
The money is stable, too. While record sales in other genres have plummeted, gospel sales were up in 2001 and 2002, accounting for almost 7 percent of all records sold, according to the Christian Music Trade Association.
"Immediately after 9/11, sales for gospel music shot through the roof," says Thompson. "There's just an uncertainty that's in the world today."
Anderson's Martin Luther King Community Choir, whose season runs from September through June, is considered one of the best in San Diego. Thompson also points to Eddie Baltrip and the Voices of Fulfillment, who recently recorded a live album at the Bayview Baptist Church, which boasts one of the city's largest congregations. On June 28, urban gospel legend Kirk Franklin will perform at the Del Mar Fair.
Other than that, Anderson simply points people to southeast San Diego, where, he says, "you can't stretch without hitting 30 churches." ©