by Juliana Roth
“Those songs are going to linger in somebody’s heart forever,” says the late bass singer from The Fairfield Four, Isaac Freeman, near the end of How They Got Over, a documentary on the legacy of gospel performers currently streaming with Rivertown Film Society. Many of the musicians in the documentary have since passed away, leaving the viewer both in reverence of their performances and curious of how the sound continues, or transforms within the present moment. To add some context and insight into some of the film’s themes and ideas, I spoke with two panelists, gospel singer Minister Angel Brooks Hill and local author Daniel Wolff. Below is an excerpt from a recent conversation we had about live film, gospel traditions, and music history.
[Note: This vibrant conversation will continue live with Rivertown Film Society’s audience on Tuesday, March 8, at 6pm through Zoom. Register here.]
Daniel Wolff is the author of The Fight for Home; How Lincoln Learned to Read; 4th of July/Asbury Park; and You Send Me: The Life and Times of Sam Cooke, which won the Ralph J. Gleason Music Book Award. He’s been nominated for a Grammy, published three collections of poetry, and collaborated with, among others, songwriters, documentary filmmakers, photographers, and choreographer Marta Renzi, his wife.
Minister Angel Brooks Hill is the youngest child of the late Dr. Victory “Vicky” Brooks. The anointed singer, pianist and songwriter of Gospel and Praise worship music discovered her gift of singing and playing the piano at the age of three. Her mother was known as the Queen of Gospel in Rockland County and all of her children were gifted with musical talent. The Brooks Family Singers are known throughout the state for their powerful voices and performances. Brooks Hill has since embarked on a solo career and has performed internationally and throughout the United States.
Angel, what was it like for you to watch this film?
Brooks Hill: It brought back a lot of memories. Where the gospel comes from is really from the experiences you go through. With my siblings and I traveling around, we knew what it is to go and sing and not get paid like they talk about in the film. My mother would never say no. We would sing all over the place. Seeing the history of the song to me is like saying we won’t forget what the music went through—where the music started and where it’s going. Even though the sound has changed the message has remained the same. And, for me, that’s God.
Daniel, I’m curious if you can offer some context on How They Got Over‘s place within the conversation on pop music and trends in sound. You’ve written about some major rock icons and mythologies as well as soul and R&B. Simply, what does rock and roll owe to black gospel?
Wolff: I think it’s a common and misleading question. Black religious music has its own rules, values, power. One of the by-products of segregation was that the forcibly isolated society created a culture that may have reflected the majority – and may have been borrowed from – but, finally, justifies itself.
Brooks Hill: I like the sound of some rock music, but it’s the content, the words. We have to be careful…we really have to be careful where we’re going with the music.
The film introduces the idea that Black women, like The Davis Sisters and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, were actually out-selling the men in the 40’s and 50’s, which prompted a lot of those formerly male acapella quartets to bring in guitar themselves in order to compete. This made me think of the contrast of what happened to the careers of gospel singers like Merry Clayton who became backing artists for rock bands but are only recently getting the spotlight themselves despite being so essential to the formation of that sound.
Wolff: Within the gospel field, women were always heard—and they were key members of most congregations. The comparison to rock is off-base that way: rock had few founding sisters where gospel had many from Mahalia Jackson to Sallie Martin.
Brooks Hill: For women, we’ve struggled for so long. I know when I sing, even when I’m singing someone else’s song, or my own song, I try to find my own self in the song. I recreate the song to find what it means to me. People may say women are more emotional, but I’m coming from experience. I may cry when I sing but that’s because God has brought me through.
My mom was the one who brought gospel music to Rockland County. She was raised in a Christian home in Ohio, but she used to sing R&B and opened up for James Brown and Elvis Presley. She was the organist for Spring Valley baptist church for forty years.
What was amazing about my mother was she did not sight read, but she knew every hymn. She was a pioneer. When my siblings and I sang with my mom, our sound was so tight. We did not take lessons. We would automatically harmonize. So, watching the movie reminded me of growing up.
My mom started all the choirs at First Baptist in Spring Valley—she started the Harrison gospel chorus. She had 4 or 5 choirs underneath her and they used to travel. Now, I play the piano…she played the piano. She directed choirs…I direct choirs. Some people say ‘you’re just like your mother’ to me which is an honor to hear. The song will never end, the song will never stop.
Daniel, what have you learned in your studies of music about how pop music reflects (or doesn’t) the beliefs and values of a time?
Wolff: Pop music is a product of its time; all music is. It can’t help but reflect (in Marvin Gaye’s words) what’s going on. Kendrick Lamar is as entangled with George Floyd as Bob Dylan was with SNCC’s Bob Moses. In both cases, there was also a tradition that affected the music.
Angel, what are your thoughts on the way song making has evolved?
Brooks Hill: When I write songs, you may hear my story or my struggle, but by the end of the song you will hear the answer and that’s God that brought me through. Some listeners’ lives changed during a song that touched their heart and gave them hope. If you put certain rock music next to a plant, not all of it but some of it, the plant dies. You put other kinds of music, classical music, and the plant blooms. If the sound affects the plant, how does it affect the human heart? That’s why we have to be careful of what we listen to. For me, I’m very cautious about what I listen to.
Daniel, do you think paying attention to genre in music can be limiting or is it a mostly helpful way to talk about sound?
Wolff: I think genre is helpful as an organizational tool but also leads into traps. The enforced distinction between religious and secular music, for example: separating Saturday night from Sunday morning. Yes, that clarifies some things. But stay up late enough Saturday night, and we know what it turns into.
That reminds me of the anecdotes shared by musicians in the film about playing at the Apollo for the first time, which they viewed as a turning point, but doing so also symbolized entry into secular music. Many of the groups reflect that the Baptist church was reluctant to accept sounds like guitar, but the Pentecostal church embraced dancing, shouting, drums. Do you think that the enforced division you mentioned between what’s performed in a church versus a club or major venue has shifted over time at all? I’m thinking of how singers like Sam Cooke transitioning to pop from gospel was perceived in the stories shared in the film, that he couldn’t come back after he left, and if you think that would be the same today.
Wolff: It wasn’t a united condemnation even back in the day. Again, I think that’s outsiders trying to impose a strict rule on a genre they aren’t part of. Aretha Franklin recalls that, when she was a girl and Sam Cooke crossed over, it opened all sorts of possibilities. Some gospel performers tried to cross over, many didn’t—and people had a whole range of responses to that. I think those divisions are still there—and still create controversy.
Many of the artists you’ve written about, like Bob Dylan, Woodie Gutherie, and Sam Cooke, wrote and performed what some may call protest songs. What is the role of music in protest and how in particular did these artists use their status within pop culture to create change?
Wolff: I don’t know what protest music is. If it’s Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” isn’t it also Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay?” More to the point with How They Got Over, it seems to me that gospel music praises and promotes a world that ought to be while protesting the world that is. It calls on us to testify, and that testimony includes justice.
Angel, what do you want to see continue in the gospel tradition moving forward?
Brooks Hill: I think if you go into the different churches now, you’ll see there’s still choirs. There used to be choir anniversaries. All the choirs would come and they would sing together in celebration of God, whether it was a choir or quartet, they were all coming to celebrate God. It was like a full blown concert, like 2 hours. People would go to different churches. This happened for years. I believe in some places they’re still happening. We’re about to put together a production for Easter with music and dancing—going from singing acapella to a band to praise dancing to flags. It’s a big full production in churches. As far as the gospel, it still continues.
Nowadays love is just a phrase. But love is an action word. What were my actions towards you? How did I treat you? How did I speak to you? Did I show that I care? That’s love.
What’s a song you’d like to leave us with?
“My Peace,” is the song I always sing. There’s times I just call up people and just sing that song. It’s what’s on my heart, so I sing.
Juliana Roth earned her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Rutgers University – Camden, where she organized the Writers House Film Series and taught creative writing, environmental writing, and composition courses. Juliana has worked for the Edward Hopper House Museum & Study Center, the Ecology Center, the Center for the Education of Women, and the World Animal Awareness Society, as well as being a frequent contributor to Nyack News and Views.