Today is both Good Friday and Passover, so with Easter celebrations just around the corner, I thought we’d feature music for this special holiday this week on Rhythm Planet. Some of these tunes are homegrown; others come to us from different corners of the world.
Some would say there’s nothing like starting off Easter with a good, old “fire and brimstone” sermon by the Reverend Dr. J. Gordon McPherson (b. 1869–1936) to deter one from a life gone astray. The Reverend recorded six albums by the name ‘Billy Black Sunday.’ “This Old World’s In a Hell of a Fix” was the most famous of his fiery evangelical admonitions, recorded live in 1931 during a church service in Grafton, Wisconsin.
Let’s then switch tunes and launch right into Easter with the Edwin Hawkins Singers doing “Oh Happy Day.” Re-arranged from a 19th century English hymn, this 1969 remake topped the charts here at home and abroad and has since been recorded by countless artists. Next, we have Sister Rosetta Tharpe paying her respects to the Almighty on electric guitar with her classic “Up Above My Head, There’s Music in the Air.” One of my all-time favorites, The Dixie Hummingbirds, follow with their catchy gospel classic, “Bedside of a Neighbor.”
Rebecca Malope is South Africa’s Queen of Gospel. Born in the small township of Kanyamazane, she and her sister left at the age of 18, traveling 400km on foot to Johannesburg to fulfill her dream of becoming a professional vocalist. Fast forward 14 recorded albums, countless awards, and her own television program later, Malope is now an internationally touring gospel superstar. We’ll listen to her “Uhlal’Ekhona,” which translates to mean “He is Always Available” in Zulu. Then, we have the prolific Trinidadian, Wilmouth Houdini, who was referred to as the ‘Calypso King of New York’ back in the 1930–1940s for songs like “Happy Land of Canaan.”
America had its own 'Queen of Gospel,' the powerful contralto and activist, Mahalia Jackson, who used her music to protest segregation during the Civil Rights Movement. She sang this live 1954 recording of "How I Got Over" for New York's Bethel Gospel Assembly's congregation before later performing it for 250,000 people at the 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Jackson used to say that singing gospel filled her with hope.
Next we have baritone Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughan doing their jazz take on perhaps one of the most popular Easter songs of all time, “Easter Parade.” Written by composer and lyricist, Irving Berlin, the song was first featured in the 1933 Broadway musical, As Thousands Cheer, and has been reprised ever since.
The Sons of the Pioneers hold a special place in Americana. In their various configurations since the the group was started by Roy Rogers in 1933, they have pioneered “a new genre and library of music…synonymous with the American West and the Cowboy.” We’ll listen to their 1937 classic country song, “One More River to Cross.”
G. I. Gurdjieff Sacred Hymns is a deeply contemplative collection of religious hymns, written by the late Armenian mystic and composer, George Ivanovich Gurdjieff. Performed and recorded by Keith Jarrett himself for ECM Records, it’s an intriguing exploration into the psyche of Gurdjieff and perhaps his philosophy and spiritual teachings on ‘esoteric Christianity.’ Lebanese legend Fairouz comes next with her Good Friday song, “Kamat Mariyam” which director Julian Schnabel once brilliantly included in his soundtrack for the film, Before Night Falls, about Cuban poet, novelist, and playwright, Reinaldo Arenas.
Here are two tracks from my Trance Planet series: a remix of “Ave Maria” by Belarusian male countertenor, Vyatcheslav ‘Slava’ Kagen-Paley, followed by a track by the Senegalese Benedictine monks of Abbaye de Keur Moussa singing “Mon Âme Exalte le Seigneur.”
The jubilant Golden Gate Quartet deliver a colorful a cappella rendition of “God Told Nicodemus.” And I’ll close out this week’s show with a rousing 1963 church recording from the Reverend Louis Overstreet and His Sons from the Powerhouse Church of Christ in Phoenix, Arizona. This is one powerhouse performance that just builds and builds…
It’s an Eclectic Easter. I hope you all enjoy the show and have a good Easter (and Passover) weekend.