May 1999

Praise the Lord! - Gospel Music in Washington, D.C.
Smithsonian Folkways SFW 40113
HDCD encoded
Released: 1999

by David Sherman

Musical Performance ***
Recording Quality **1/2
Overall Enjoyment ***

[Reviewed on CD]African-American gospel music has been widely recorded by professionals over the past 50 years, but the great wealth of amateur gospel music has not been well documented. The exception is the Smithsonian Folkways label, which has presented the changing sounds of gospel music as it exists in different communities around the United States since the 1950s. These recordings are not always noteworthy for their artistry, but they are invaluable for the information they provide and the spirit they transmit. Such is the case with their new CD Praise The Lord! - Gospel Music in Washington, D.C., produced in
conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution, which is documenting religion and faith in the African-American community.

The premise of this recording is that Washington, D.C. has become one of the centers of African-American gospel music along with New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Detroit. To give the listener a well-rounded sample of gospel music from around the D.C. area, nine different groups were gathered for these recording sessions. Their styles range from traditional spirituals (the Shiloh Baptist Church Senior Choir), to contemporary gospel in the style of the Wynans or The Mighty Clouds of Joy (The Salvation Music Ministry). In addition, the group Firstfruit’s style recalls the gospel quartets of the 1950s, with their easy-going vocal harmonies, and the Bible Way Temple Radio Choir’s sound resembles the Chicago style of the '50s and '60s, especially the recordings of Reverend James Cleveland and Mahalia Jackson.

Smithsonian Folkways went to some length to assure authenticity, but not quite far enough. While the ensembles were all recorded at the Bible Way Temple in Washington D.C., many of the tracks were sadly sterile. The artists presented here are active community musicians who appear regularly at their respective churches. Without a congregation present, even the end sections of songs, when the groups “do church” by establishing a continuing vamp, sounded restrained. The performers should have been made to sound the way they do in a real-life church setting.

But the overall recordings are of good quality. Solo voices stand apart from their choirs, and soloists sound present and crisp. A pleasant surprise is the engaging mezzo voice of Evelyn Simpson-Curenton while she expertly accompanies herself on piano with classical virtuosity. Charming too are her talented daughters -- Nancy on clarinet and Juilietta on flute. Fine performances are also turned in by the dynamic teen choir Blessed even though they were poorly recorded; singer Charmaine Faunteroy and the vocal quintet The Salvation Music Ministry also present their special brand of music. The fine gospel keyboard playing of Alvin Dockett, Peter Chatman, and Ester Wroten are particularly strong.

The accompanying booklet is both informative and problematic. The introductory essay by Dr. Gail S. Lowe, the curator of the exhibit, seems too general. People buying this CD are going to buy it for the background and documentation it provides, not necessarily for the artistry. An essay delving into history and background in greater detail would have been preferable.

The liner notes provided by Dr. Horace Boyer, a scholar in the field of gospel music, are exuberant, informational, and interesting. However his statements are sometimes inflated and exaggerated, and in one instance his tone is hard and confrontational. About the Nannie Helen Burroughs School Choir, a well-prepared choir of young school children, he says: “These are beautiful voices, beautifully trained and beautifully demonstrated. I am not speaking of the puny, though beautiful, voices characteristic of the English
Cathedral Schools, but the pure, strong, and involved voices of the African-American church.” Any listener to this track would surely be aware that it is not the National Cathedral Children’s Choir. Nor would the discerning listener make such a comparison. It is a distressing remark, hardly appropriate in these liner notes.

This CD, along with others listed in its lengthy discography, offers a glimpse inside African-American churches, a facet of our nation’s culture that is not well known to white America. It serves not only as archival material, but also as a learning tool. Anyone intent on understanding more about the diversity within the African-American community should consider it a worthy recording.