Robert Darden. People Get Ready: A New History of Black Gospel Music. New York and London: Continuum International, 2004.
It was in the 1930s that the influence of black gospel music first extended beyond the walls of the church. Since then, black gospel has become a staple of American popular culture, impacting media ranging from radio to motion pictures. Despite its enormous presence in the American musical tapestry, this genre has only recently become the subject of serious scholarship. The earliest comprehensive efforts to document the history of black gospel music were published in the 1970s, and in more recent years, the likes of Mellonee Burnim, Portia Maultsby, Horace Boyer, Jerma Jackson, and Deborah Pollard have continued to expand the perimeters of research into this subject. In People Get Ready: A New History of Black Gospel Music, Robert Darden of Baylor University seeks his place among those who offer well-grounded discourse on this important topic.
Richly detailed and colorfully told, People Get Ready owes much of its narrative flavor to Darden's years of experience as the gospel music editor of Billboard Magazine. Darden states that rather than write an "encyclopedia of gospel music," his goal instead is to "somehow put it all in order, find the connections, and tell the stories of some of the most fascinating people on the planet." In roughly the first half of the text, Darden provides historical context for the emergence of black gospel by examining its West-African roots and the antebellum ancestry of the music, considering both slave religion and the Negro spiritual. He then examines the societal conditions of the Reconstruction era, the rise of Pentecostalism, and the northward migration of African Americans early in the twentieth century as forces that give rise to the music. In the course of this discussion, he addresses the connection between the barbershop quartet and the jubilee quartets. He also examines the place of African Americans in the blossoming recording industry.
In the last half of the book, Darden shifts his focus to the seminal personalities of black gospel. He begins this discussion with biographical sketches of pioneering artists William Sherwood, Charles Tindley, Lucie Campbell, and Thomas Dorsey. He then examines the contributions of mid-century artists including Clara Ward, Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson, and the Soul Stirrers. Alex Bradford, James Cleveland, Edwin Hawkins, and Andrae Crouch are the focus of Darden's discourse on black gospel's shift toward contemporary styles and larger commercial venues during and after the 1960s. Finally, Darden concludes with a look at current artists like Donnie McClurkin, Fred Hammond, and Kirk Franklin. While some readers may take issue with the scarcity of actual gospel music examples in the text, and others may complain that Darden could have given much more attention to Holy Hip Hop—black gospel's most recent trend—Darden's mastery of story-telling more than compensates for whatever omissions might be perceived. Although his lively and engaging narrative style owes much to his prior journalistic experience with Billboard, it is to his credit that he cites his own work only occasionally (I counted fewer than a dozen self-citations) and that instead, he uses sources that convey his wealth of knowledge and broad grasp of discourse on the topic.
At the outset, Darden announces to his readers that People Get Ready is neither a musicological study nor a theoretical treatise. One need not apply the rigor of professional musicology, however, to notice that the text was perhaps not as carefully proofread as it could have been. While his major points are largely intact, certain details are treated with such inaccuracy and/or inconsistency that they compromise an otherwise enjoyable reading experience. For example, Darden cites varied and conflicting dates for the Great Awakening, a flaw noticeable to even the reader who may not necessarily know what the Great Awakening was. The reader will certainly be confused to read that this eighteenth-century religious revival took place in the 1730s, in the 1740s, and again during the nineteenth century. (This reviewer noticed the flaw in both the uncorrected, advance proof copy of People Get Ready, and in the final version of the book that was released to the public for sale.)
This flaw notwithstanding, People Get Ready is rich with history, insightful commentary, and sprinkled with heavy doses of passion and journalistic flare. Darden includes carefully chosen photographs to enhance his well-crafted narration, images which include publicity stills and candid shots of live performances, as well as historical field shots from the Library of Congress's famous Lomax collection. Music buffs will find its discography of particular use, and researchers will benefit from the wide array of bibliographic sources cited.
The magnum opus of books on black gospel music has yet to be written. In the meantime, however, true lovers of American music should certainly make a space for People Get Ready in their personal libraries.
Teresa L. Reed