I used to marvel at gospel and opera singers when I was a kid. It seemed like so many of them, if not most of them, were fat. To my young mind, this didn’t seem like a health problem, but a requirement for good singing. I imagined these singers’ big bodies to be filled with music instead of fat. Their big, powerful pipes would not have been able to make the sounds they did if they came from small, thin bodies.
On several occasions in the past, I’ve attended Black Baptist services and am always so impressed and moved by the gospel singers’ strong and powerful faith that they express through music, and the spiritual transcendance that infects the entire congregation whenever they sing. Their voices and harmonies alone can send the Holy Spirit into every spectator in the room. These big, soulful gospel hymns aren’t called “spirituals” for nothing! Even if you’re not a believer, you can’t listen to a Black Baptist choir and not feel their joy. Joy in spite of the harsh realities of racism, discrimination, oppression, grinding poverty, and a second class status in the white man’s world. Where does all that joy come from? Strong faith in the One who created them seems to be the only answer.
And while not all are, many of the singers with the biggest voices happen to be big ladies or men. I really think those big gospel singers need those imposing bodies to hold in the Holy Spirit that fills them with song, and then spreads to everyone who hears them. I call this “spiritual girth.”
Aretha Franklin started her career as a gospel singer and never gave up singing spiritual songs, like this big soul/gospel hit from 1968 (also recorded the same year by Dionne Warwick in a more subdued style). Burt Bacharach wrote the tune.
I think Monday’s a day everyone could use a little music, so I decided to start a new regular feature on this blog, Monday Melodies. Each Monday, I will feature one song from the past that I really like and share it with my readers. I’ll give a little background about the song and explain why I like it so much.
This week’s selection is “Walking in Memphis” by singer-songwriter Marc Cohn.
This song was a big hit in 1991 and is the only hit for Marc Cohn. He wrote it after a trip to Memphis, Tennessee in 1985 which proved to be a musical and spiritual awakening for him. Many people think Cohn is a born-again Christian because of the line at the end, “Tell me, are you a Christian, child?” in which he replies, “Ma’am, I am tonight!” This is the song’s iconic line. It grabs your attention and pulls the whole narrative together. But Cohn is and was a New York Jew. He’s describing how he felt the pull of the religious fervor (and many would say the Holy Spirit) surrounding him as he sang “Amazing Grace” with 60 year old gospel singer Muriel Wilkins playing piano. (See the Wikipedia entry for more background.)
I love this song because to me, it’s perfect in nearly every way. Cohn’s voice is powerful and emotional, the lyrics are great, and the production isn’t overdone. It’s a song you don’t forget, and I think that’s why it’s still often heard on the radio, even though it’s 25 years old. It’s timeless. The gospel choir at the end gives me chills every time. The way the song ends reminds me of waking up from a beautiful dream for some reason.