Radio project examines the ‘overlooked’ impact of gospel

Alumnus Bruce Warren is one of the project’s program producers at WXPN.

WXPN’s Gospel Roots of Rock and Soul project hosted a concert at the First Unitarian Church on Chestnut Street near 22nd in Center City on Thursday. The concert included performances by the choirs of the First Unitarian Church and the Mother Bethel AME Church in Center City. | RHIANNON RIVAS / THE TEMPLE NEWS

When Bruce Warren thinks about the influence of gospel music on contemporary genres, he thinks of the song “Gold Digger” by Kanye West.

The single hit No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 in 2005 and sampled the song “I Got a Woman” by rhythm and blues artist Ray Charles.

Charles’ song was originally inspired by “It Must Be Jesus,” a gospel song by The Southern Tones.

“A lot of Black gospel is very funky and soulful, the call and response, the rhythmic element…the choirs, those musical elements have had an influence on contemporary music,” said Warren, the assistant general manager for programming at 88.5 WXPN, a public radio station based out of the University of Pennsylvania.

Warren, a 1979 education alumnus, is one of the program producers for “Gospel Roots of Rock and Soul,” a multi-platform music project by WXPN. The project is an ongoing series, funded by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, that explores the connection between gospel and contemporary music. The program is also trying to revive gospel music’s popularity.

The project was launched in February and will run through early 2019.

“Gospel Roots of Rock and Soul” has an interactive website that preserves popular gospel and gospel-inspired secular music through articles written by music experts like David Byrne and interviews of contemporary gospel artists, talking about their connections to the genre’s history.

The website also has more than two dozen Spotify playlists categorized as either gospel or rock and soul. Another section showcases a video curation of gospel, rock and soul performances from artists like John Legend.

“It’s [about] the musical element and the inspirational texts and feeling and soulfulness that contemporary musicians have drawn from gospel music over the years,” Warren said.

The project will include free events and concerts in Philadelphia. The Fisk Jubilee Singers will perform historic songs of faith at World Cafe Live on March 29.

Resources from Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection are also being used for research in the project.

Warren said Philadelphia is the perfect location for the project. Popular musicians like Marion Williams, Clara Ward, The Dixie Hummingbirds and Edna Gallmon Cooke were either from Philadelphia or lived in the city while they made music.

He said there’s a lack of discussion about gospel’s influence on contemporary music.

“There’s a lot being written about gospel music, and about rock and soul, but the influence piece is usually relegated to a chapter or paragraph in a handful of books,” Warren said. “We couldn’t help but notice that so much of early rock ’n’ roll and soul music really had a lot of gospel feel, very spiritual, very uplifting.”

“There’s musical elements from gospel that R&B and rock ’n’ roll performers took on and we wanted to kind of give it a deeper voice,” Warren added.

Ann Powers, NPR Music’s critic and correspondent, helped conceptualize and narrow the focus of the project. She’s helping produce the website and will serve as a liaison to explore aspects of gospel music and interview artists outside Philadelphia.

“Gospel is acknowledged as a source for secular music, but usually it’s acknowledged in a kind of a casual way, or a very narrow way,” Powers said. “But the intricacies of gospel’s influence on secular music remains fairly unacknowledged by most writers and historians of music.”

Powers grew up singing the spiritual song “Kumbaya” in the Catholic church during Mass, but she later discovered the song originates from enslaved communities in the south. She said it made her realize that African-American music is often at the root of American popular music.

She added that Sister Rosetta Tharpe, an African-American, mid-20th century gospel musician, was one of the first major electric guitarists. Her music has influenced other music makers, like Aretha Franklin and Chuck Berry.

“All of those connections are often overlooked, and that’s what I think we need to bring out into the open again,” Powers said. “Gospel music evolves from very old traditions to connect with the popular music of the 20th century, and it became the hybrid forum that had room for jazz and pop elements, but also carried elements that were 200 and 300 years old.”

“I love the mix and the depths of those connections and that’s what I hope we’re going to make,” she added.

To wrap up the project in 2019, there will be a documentary about “Gospel Roots of Rock and Soul.” While the documentary is still in the planning stages, the overall theme is the influence that gospel music has on popular secular music and tensions or relationships that music fosters among faith-based and secular music listeners, or people of different races.

“I think it’s important to know that a lot of the music that we’re listening to today started some place and with some musician and instrumentation,” Warren said. “So it’s important to not only preserve it, but to highlight it with respect to the musicians that created it in the first place, and also for younger generations to know exactly where it came from.”

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