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East-West Travelblog: A gospel moment: Oh Happy Day!

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (RNS) I've always wanted to sing backup to a musical great. My trip to Nashville gave me the chance.

Travelblog is a series of occasional posts by RNS national correspondent Kimberly Winston, who is on the road in Washington, D.C.; Nashville, Tenn.; Honolulu; Kuala Lumpur; and Lahore and Islamabad, Pakistan, with the 2015 Senior Journalists Seminar, sponsored by the East-West Center in conjunction with the U.S. State Department.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (RNS) I knew this was going to be a great trip. I did not know it would afford me a chance to scratch off the top item on my bucket list.

But when the iconic gospel singer Bobby Jones met with the band of international journalists I am traveling with on a fellowship from the East-West Center, he mentioned the song “Oh Happy Day” was so popular among his fans in Russia, Italy and Japan that he can’t get offstage there without singing it.

Religion News Service video by Kimberly Winston

I love that song. We used to sing it in church when I was a kid. Its heartfelt lyrics boil Christianity down to its bare bones, to something all Christians — and people who just love gospel or folk music — can come together on, drawn in by its call-and-response format.

Jones gave us a crash course on the history of gospel music. He told us how, in the early 1900s, Thomas Dorsey, a black, born-again musician, began adapting the sounds of the Saturday night honky-tonk for Sunday morning worship.

For a long time, church people — especially black church people — rejected the music, Jones told us. It was too emotional, too down and dirty, and had a little too much of the blues heard in the honky-tonks. But Dorsey, joined by gospel pioneers such as Willie Mae Ford Smith, kept writing the songs, singing them in whatever churches they could and selling the sheet music for 10 cents.

“The people attracted to it were poor,” Jones said. “Actually, ‘po’ is a good word for what they were. They took more to the music because the lyrical content expressed the situations they were in and they were pleading to God to help them get out.”

Jones knows some of those situations very well. He told us a little about his childhood, marked by violence, abuse and alcoholism. He entered Tennessee State University and moved in with an uncle whose wife had a piano and played by ear.

“I was amazed with the way she did it,” he said. “I sat at the piano and taught myself how to play. I played with three fingers and one chord. I was spiritually led.”

Pretty soon he was playing piano in a small black Baptist church. At the same time, gospel music was gaining in popularity. In 1968, Edwin Hawkins rearranged “Oh Happy Day” from 18th-century hymn into a gospel classic. Gospel hit the mainstream.

Meanwhile, Jones was making a living as a teacher as he continued to sing and play in churches on Sundays. Pretty soon, he had a following. When Black Entertainment Television (BET) was founded in the 1980s he was tapped to host a half-hour gospel music show on the new channel.

“Bobby Jones Gospel” became a phenomenon. Virtually every gospel singer of note came up through the show, which became the backbone of BET. So when Jones announced that the current season — his 35th — would be his last, it sent loud laments through the gospel music industry. Jones taped the final episodes of his show just a few weeks before meeting with us in Nashville, where he lives.

“Never in my life did I think I would be involved with gospel music,” he said. “My mother was a Methodist and she would be, ‘Oh dear! Oh, dear! Are you really doing that?’ But I say, ‘Forgive me, please, but yes I am.’”

And though he has retired from the show, he has no plans to retire from gospel. “I don’t know what I am going to do next with my mammoth creativity,” he said. “I am looking for some divine guidance.”

With a grin, he added, “The Bobby Jones Gospel Music Channel. Wouldn’t that be delightful?”

At the end of our question-and-answer session, I asked whether, since so many of my fellow journalists on this trip are from overseas and may not be familiar with gospel, he might give us a sample. Perhaps “Oh Happy Day?” He was gracious enough to oblige and asked whether anyone knew the song and would sing with him.

Was I really the only one present who knew the song, or was I just the most brave? I don’t know, but in a flash I was singing backup — badly —  to gospel music’s greatest on one of my favorite songs.

Check that one off the bucket list.

ANOTHER VIEW: Kim Lawton’s fellowship blog at Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly


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