Back when my smallest was a big toddler and we didn’t have to manage four calendars, he and I were the first people up on Sunday mornings. Depending on how alert he was feeling and how committed I was to being awake, it might be barely-light when he came in and gave me a good morning hug.
We’d proceed to the kitchen, I’d open my laptop, and start playing music I wanted him to learn about—usually jazz or swing—and get down to the important business of making coffee. He would listen quietly and watch me operate the grinder. I’d tell him the stories behind the music, how Nat King Cole was just an accompanist until the night the singer cancelled. Sometimes I’d play him funny songs, like Straighten Up And Fly Right or Frim Fram Sauce. The noise and coffee smell would eventually attract other people to the kitchen, and the moment would be lost.
We’re Jewish, so I always felt a bit conflicted about Sunday morning being our quiet, creative, contemplative time. I still feel quiet on Sundays. But it’s only recently that I started listening to Sunday music on a Sunday morning.
When I want to convey a particular mood in my writing or think about a particular theme, I make a playlist and listen to it hundreds of times while I’m at the computer. (Eventually, I have to put in my headphones or else my family rises up against me á la Moses.) I’ve been thinking a lot about the spiritual and gospel origins of popular music, so I’ve been listening to the following gospel songs without cease. And, as if by accident, this has been happening on a lot of Sundays.
Sometimes, I put them on as I make a cup of coffee. Sometimes my son pokes his head in; he usually ends up wandering off to play his own music now. I suppose, some day hence, he’ll stand in a darkened kitchen, grind coffee and tell some small, impressionable person all about Beyonce. But I hope he’ll play a little Nat King Cole, too.
Sunday Morning Playlist
If you’re looking for a one-stop solution, my Spotify playlist is at the bottom of the page.
Abide With Me
Thelonious Monk Septet
I first heard this song at six in the morning in the Portola Drive Starbucks in front of a roaring fire. It was still dark. I was probably drinking a white chocolate mocha, because that’s the sort of thing I did in grad school. That may have made every chord even holier. It’s so short and so perfect.
Roll Jordan Roll
I first heard this song at about 6:02 in the morning in the Portola Drive Starbucks. That’s about the time I put down my white chocolate mocha and went to purchase the CD at the counter. The chill down the spine comes from Isaac “Dickie” Freeman’s otherworldly bass lead on this a cappella track. This video version is live with the Nashville Bluegrass Band, but after a minute they step back and let Dickie rattle the floorboards in the name of eternity.
Run on For a Long Time
Bill Landford and the Landfordaires
Do you remember Moby’s Play album? Moby is singularly responsible for my first forays into the massive Alan Lomax archival recordings. This was not because Moby inspired me, but because I became infuriated when I discovered that the ancient-sounding blues samples on the album were actual, uncredited samples of blues singers. It would have been nice to let us know who the actual singers behind the platinum singles were instead of just giving “special thanks to Alan Lomax” (who would have been the first to say that he did not actually perform them). Anyhow, when I get mad I start googling. These were pretty hard to track down in 1999, but I was stuck at home being pregnant. Run On For A Long Time is sampled in Moby’s song Run On, and by that I mean “quoted almost in its entirety with a drum track tacked on”. I think the Landfordaires are actually credited, but my rant stands.
Oh Happy Day
The Edwin Hawkins Singers
I did not learn about this song from Sister Act 2 in 1993 (see below). I’m sure I knew about it before, probably, though I cannot remember where I came across it. Definitely not from Sister Act 2though. Nope. Some other place. This arrangement, also performed in the movie that was not the first place I heard this song, was a huge 1967 crossover hit. I love when gospel and Christian rock do that (I was very interested when Flood dropped, for example). Is it in spite of the message, or because of it? Plenty of gospel songs are indistinguishable from contemporary music, so what makes those songs different from other gospel songs? Is it the same thing that makes pop songs hits? Fascinating, y’all.
I’ll Fly Away
John Legend (by way of Kanye West)
It’s safe to say that The College Dropout will go down as one of my life-changing albums. Kanye West merged songs I love with working-class-to-middle-class survivor’s guilt I could understand. He questioned the value of following the expected path at a time when I was about to jump off. He was speaking my language, and I was in exactly the right place to hear it. The future John Legend (still John Stevens, then) is all over this album, but the chills moment comes from an all-John-Stevens a cappella group singing this gospel standard.
By the way, life-changing aside, I hate skits with all my heart, and Dropout’s are no exception. Artists, keep your skits to yourselves. I want no part.
Samson and Delilah
Reverend Gary Davis
This song came on my radio careening down the 280 south away from home and I almost drove off the road. This recording is completely insane. Reverend Gary (also called Blind Gary Davis) pounds on the guitar, hoots, squeals, and stomps. I’m pretty sure the verses are out of order, but I don’t care. I like how personally he takes Delilah’s betrayal. He is super angry! That woman better watch her back; Samson is not the real danger here.
I’m sorry this isn’t a video, but this version isn’t on YouTube, and the sedate live version he recorded in the 60s is not at all the same level of weirdness.
Strange Things Happening Every Day
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Some people consider this upbeat recording of a traditional spiritual the first rock-n-roll song. I get it. It was a crossover hit because the song rocks. It’s bouncy, but there’s still plenty of soul here. Rosetta’s voice is so joyous. She’s excited to spread the news, yes, but she’s also excited just to be singing at all. This is what “singing your heart out” sounds like. Get up and move to this. It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.
Some music is just too chills-inducing. Probably the best version of this in the world, for me, is Aretha Franklin’s little-known first album. It’s live, clearly recorded on whatever the 1956 version of an iPhone is, but it doesn’t matter. She accompanies herself on the piano. She is FOURTEEN YEARS OLD, which is impossible because no fourteen-year-old child has ever sounded like THIS. The audience is practically screaming in places, her passion is absolutely sincere, it is one of the best albums I have heard in my life, and I have heard it exactly once because I don’t want to be just sobbing uncontrollably over my new keyboard. Or speaking in tongues. Or both.
Every Mahalia Jackson song is like that. This is literally the only Mahalia Jackson recording I can listen to and still be okay.
Singing in My Soul
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Just pure joy behind the guitar. This song is as bouncy as Strange Things Happening Every Day, and the guitar rocks just as hard. Here, though, her vocals are purely gospel. Her runs are every bit as sharp as Mahalia’s, and there’s one “singin’” in particular that cuts just as deep as anything in Mahalia’s arsenal. Rosetta’s no novelty act. She can rock AND she can sing. She could hold her own behind an organ or in front of a choir if she wanted to.
Lauryn Hill and Friends
Sister Act 2 is time crystallized, a window on a moment in history when a sassy but good-hearted Vegas showgirl could convincingly pretend to be a nun; when we could believe that even a rundown catholic school could be blind to the fact that it was overflowing with improbably attractive and incredibly gifted gospel-singing children; when no one knew the heights to which Lauryn Hill would rise, nor the depths to which she would fall; when it would be not just okay, but somehow desirable for a group of teens to gospel-rap uplifting lyrics thinly based on an ode to sexual infidelity; when, somehow, all these things would combine in one perfect pop-gospel extravaganza. Also, Lauryn just kills it. I take a break from the keyboard and do some aerial flips during this one.
Like Sister Act, parts of Sister Act 2 were filmed in San Francisco. Yay Area! Teach your children.
Jesus, Lover of my Soul
The Edwin Hawkins Singers
There’s a lot of Edwin Hawkins on this list, so bear with me. I really like upbeat gospel choirs with acoustic piano accompaniment. As this list shows, I do not really like modern gospel. This is not modern gospel’s fault, I’m sure. With old-school gospel, I can follow the trail of crossover soul singers back to the originals. You can’t do that with modern gospel. All my efforts lead me to songs that sound like Jodeci outtakes. Saxophone solos do not get me lifted. (Except, of course, this one.) Is it okay that I think the title of this song is kind of strange? I get it, but it’s still distracting sometimes.
I don’t understand why Joshua Nelson is not the most famous singer in America. I think he should have all the awards. I can’t tell you whether he sings gospel music with Jewish themes or Jewish liturgy with gospel elements but the kavanah is so, so there either way. He’s another singer who sounds just so happy to be singing. Unfortunately, there is no full video of his version of Mi Chamocha, so you’re stuck with Spotify, which I hope works. I also own his music from iTunes, if you would like to actually pay for his music, which you should.
To My Father’s House
The Edwin Hawkins Singers
I like that the soloist is slightly offended at the idea you might not believe her when she says there are mansions in her Father’s house.
Maybe God is Tryin’ to To Tell You Somethin’
The Color Purple
From the first note, this song is designed to get your attention, and it does. Talk about modern gospel music—this song was written by Quincy Jones for The Color Purple soundtrack. It’s meant to sound like a classic gospel song, the kind everyone would know but a very special singer would put a very special stamp on. It comes at a moment in the story where people—in particular longtime sinners—are starting to have second thoughts about the lives they’ve led up to this point. (The video is from the movie.) The song makes you sit up straight, look around, and do a quick inventory of your spiritual life, or, at least, it’s supposed to.
I always play this song last because I wouldn’t want to be the song that went after it. Once it’s built from one voice repenting to a whole community rejoicing, I’m ready for Sunday afternoon because church is over.