Gospel's evolution - and Philadelphia's role in it - is message of 'Rejoice & Shout'
PSALM 98 exhorts us to make a joyful noise unto the Lord, and while there have been many honorable attempts, nobody did it like Thomas A. Dorsey.
When the jazz-age artist took a break from Ma Rainey's Wild Cats Jazz Band and started bringing his blues riffs to religious music, something happened that was joyful indeed - a music and a ministry captured in the remarkable gospel documentary "Rejoice and Shout," opening today at the Ritz Bourse.
"Rejoice" is both a history and an appreciation of gospel, and works on both counts.
Director Don McGlynn and archivist Joe Lauro have unearthed and cleaned up (the sound syncs are incredible) some rare and stunning footage/recordings of gospel music and its antecedents.
There's a wonderful 1928 Movietone of the Norfolk Jubilee Quartet singing "Do You Call That Religion," but Lauro's archive goes back even further - we hear a 1902 recording of the Dinwiddie Colored Quartet singing "Gabriel's Trumpet."
"Rejoice" moves ahead with Dorsey's influence and innovations, given voice by Mahalia Jackson and The Dixie Hummingbirds, the legendary gospel group that made Philadelphia its home.
McGlynn has captured an interview with Hummingbird headliner Ira Tucker Sr. shortly before his death - he's seated at Philadelphia's Metropolitan Opera House (an essential gospel hub) and flanked by son Ira Jr. and Willa Ward of the Ward Singers.
Tucker Sr. talks about his music and we see him perform. Again, a strength of "Rejoice" is the sound and the footage - Sister Rosetta Tharpe and her guitar (and her dancers!), and a thrilling piece featuring the Swann Silvertones. McGlynn, as he does so many times, eschews the snip 'n' clip approach and lets the song play to its full length.
There are historians to explain how religious music and gospel evolved as African-Americans evolved musically and politically. Mavis Staples talks of touring with her father, meeting Bob Dylan, recording "Respect Yourself" and watching it becoming an anthem of the civil rights era.
But "Rejoice and Shout" reminds us constantly that gospel isn't merely a sound - it's an expression of a spiritual idea, explicitly religious.
Staples, Smokey Robinson, Andrae Crouch and other artists all talk of the presence of religion in their lives - it's where the power of the music comes from.
"Rejoice and Shout" has some pacing problems - it moves deliberately and leisurely from the late 19th century to the civil rights movements, then tries to squeeze the last 50 years into about five minutes.
Contemporary gospel acts get short shrift, as do their efforts to take the music in new directions.
Not everyone is comfortable with the direction modern artists have taken gospel (toward hip-hop, for instance), but today's performers say they only want what Dorsey had - a chance to change with the times, to express themselves and their passion.
Says one, "We're free. When it hits, we let it all out."