The Gospel According to Gospel Singers
‘How They Got Over,’ an unpretentious, song-filled documentary about the golden age of gospel quartets
Following a successful run on the festival circuit, the documentary rock and gospel film How They Got Over saw its public release this past October 29th. The movie is a deep dive into the exact origins of gospel music. The film takes extensive interviews with quartet members from the thirties and beyond to figure out their exact motivations, and see how the industry got from traveling church troupes to the spectacle of these groups on national television in the sixties. People who actually like to listen to the music in their music documentaries will appreciate that, whenever possible, director Robert Clem, lets us listen to almost an entire song. That as much as anything else identifies the clear culture shift, as gospel transitions into what we understand today to be more mainstream music.
As to the why of gospel music, well, it’s fairly incidental. With the advent of radio, and employment opportunities for black people especially being bad in the Great Depression, the idea of making money by singing was a logical one. There were actually multiple Blind Boys groups, from different states. And how do you know whether some stranger from a different town was trustworthy? If they also believed in Jesus, that was a good start. That churches themselves functioned as community centers with large potential audiences was likewise critical.
As Clem demonstrates, much of the evolution from that point was quite logical. The original gospel quartets (many of which had more than four members) literally thrived on competition. They saw each other not as rivals, but a means of generating hype. In one segment, we see it explained that if one quartet helped another quartet get to a new city or town, they could engage in a song battle, which were highly lucrative for both participating groups. As the quartets struggled to innovate, their music became less expressly religious in nature- a matter of some controversy at the time, although I doubt any of the people in question quite realized just how little of the religious undertones of the music would survive in public consciousness to the present day.
August saw the release of the Aretha Franklin biopic Respect. Given the sheer importance of Aretha Franklin to modern music as we know it, and the obvious woke undertones to finally having a biopic about a black woman for a change, one might have thought this would be a bigger deal. Bohemian Rhapsody was a huge fixture on the 2018 awards circuit, despite the movie’s mixed reception, as well as Bryan Singer’s poorly hidden reputation as a sexual assaulter. Respect isn’t helped by the fact that its distributor is still expecting people to pay full price for the privilege of streaming it.
Although ironically How They Got Over actually kind of made me like Respect less looking back, since Respect misleadingly implies that Aretha Franklin was a one-woman innovation. Aretha Franklin only briefly appears in How They Got Over on a playbill. And even there she appears underneath the name of her reverend father, a popular gospel circuit singer in his own right, though Respect doesn’t really clearly say that, despite the movie’s tremendous length. Above all else How They Got Over emphasizes just how communal the original gospel quartet circuit was, how it seeped into everyday life, and how all of these people were interacting in the same larger community.
There’s just a powerful friendly humanity to the interviews, where the old men who have been through a lot take so much in stride. Later on Clem presents some History Channel reenaction style footage to accompany an interview about racism on the road. This is no Green Book learning moment, necessitating the magical intervention of Bobby Kennedy. Despite the anecdote of an encounter with a cop presented as genuinely dangerous, the old guy’s just laughing the whole time he tells the story. The implication is that awkward humor defused a lot of standoffs, even if they had to make a point in general of knowing their place.
The old quartet singers have an oddly humorous relationship with extreme racism. It was just this thing they had to tolerate, the same way they tolerated poverty. Yet they still liked playing to white crowds, and expressing themselves to white people. There aren’t any cliches here about trying to change the world through music. The quartet singers just liked to express themselves. And it’s implied that even white audiences found they could identify a lot with that. Many endured poverty back then, particularly in rural areas, and relied on religion to get them through bad times.
How They Got Over is a simple, unpretentious documentary along these lines, possibly even the literal last of its kind. As the closing titles note, many of the interviewees have died since their interviews, some of which took place ten years ago. That’s quite a bit of research for a film that’s only ninety minutes long, yet an effective, powerful distillation of a movement decades in the making. The only real flaw is that the documentary is fairly light on interviews with female quartet singers, despite their appearing prominently in the archival footage. But even then, the archival footage alone is worth the price of admission.