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Arts & Entertainment

Peter Stenshoel's album of the week: The Best of the Harmonizing Four

The Best of the Harmonizing Four
The Best of the Harmonizing Four
James Kim

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When my family picked up roots from South Dakota and moved to the Twin Cities area, our cultural life grew exponentially. Sioux Falls had no FM radio, and no public television. “The Theater” meant the building where movies are shown, unless you saw the plays Augustana College occasionally staged. Now we had the Guthrie Theatre, Institute of Arts, Walker Art Center, and a vigorous public media service, which were all great, but one institution deserves especially to be remembered. KUXL was a daytime-only AM radio station devoted to music of Black America. My brothers and I were totally unprepared for the exhilarating fare on KUXL. We thrilled to Junior Walker and the All-Stars, Martha and the Vandellas, Fontella Bass, and other R&B stars. Sunday afternoon offered Jazz with Soul Man. He featured funky organ great Jimmy Smith and blues-based sax players like Hank Crawford and Stanley Turrentine.

But the genre that most astonished me was Black Gospel Music. The flamboyance of the music matched the names of the groups: The Mighty Clouds of Joy, The Sensational Nightingales, Swan Silvertones, Highway QCs, and the Dixie Hummingbirds. Knowing as I did the rather staid liturgical traditions of White Protestantism of the mid-60s, I found these hints of Black Church in America to be quite different. I knew the electric preaching styles, spontaneous responses, and occasional holiness dancing signified reception of the Holy Ghost. My father, a Lutheran sometime preacher, had no criticism of such worship beyond calling it “emotionalism,” but I knew it to be more than that. I did not have the language to describe this music but I knew how it made me feel: strong, powerful and washed clean through my fascia with shivers of joy. I would later understand this state as “ecstatic,” a kind of extended experience of heightened senses combined with a perception of “the other.” These states are known to all cultures, particularly through shamanic arts.

But despite its spontaneity, Black Gospel Music is not an anything-goes proposition. It makes its impact through the controlled use of ecstatic elements tempered by tight harmonies and cultivated voices. A case in point is on this week’s album: The Harmonizing Four’s version of the gospel chestnut, Farther Along. The Harmonizing Four resisted some of the modernization taking place in their peers. They stuck to what is called the Jubilee tradition. The group sang the old hymns, but they made each hymn their own. In the case of Farther Along, the Four pretty much rewrote the melody, changing it from a simple major key melody to a far more-nuanced examination, in line with the song’s theme: the desire to understand the secrets of the universe and the reason for stark injustices on Earth. Jimmy Jones leads with his highly expressive bass voice. He is considered the finest of all Gospel bass clef singers, and you can hear why. He ramps up the energy, but with subtle authority and artistic restraint. The other singers give sprightly support. The Harmonizing Four cut the gem in Chicago, April 9th, 1957 for VeeJay Record Company. Thus, this year Easter Monday will be the 65th anniversary of the recording date for Farther Along. I love how a musical meditation on life’s vicissitudes coincides with a storied celebration of victory over Death.

Live on in the sunshine, Harmonizing Four.