A bridge too far


Music historian Anthony Heilbut calls the legendary James Cleveland — “they call me the Louis Armstrong of gospel” — the crown prince of gospel. He is an epochal figure in the history of the form, the father of the modern gospel sound, a man whose influence extends even to soul music through his tutelage of Aretha Franklin. In the video above, Rev. Cleveland performs “Can’t Nobody Do Me Like Jesus.”
In his invaluable book The Gospel Sound, Heilbut devotes an entire, entirely memorable chapter to Cleveland. He notes that Cleveland liked to refer to himself as “part Baptist, part sanctified.” Heilbut emphasizes the strange beauty of Cleveland’s voice: “The voice is loud and strong, and its very lack of conventional beauty makes it soulful.”
In one of the postscripts to his book, Heilbut tells a story that illuminates Cleveland’s authenticity. At what should have been an important gig in a music festival attended by industry agents and promoters, Cleveland was nowhere to be found at the time of his scheduled appearance. The festival director called Cleveland’s producer and complained of Cleveland’s outrageous lack of professionalism. “You don’t understand,” the producer explained, “James is not a professional, he’s a gospel singer.” If the spirit didn’t move him, he wasn’t moving.
Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, might be thought of as the unCleveland. In crossing the Edmund Pettis bridge to give her church performance in Selma yesterday, Senator Clinton served up some plastic dixie chicken (as did Senator Obama). Senator Clinton did so trying to channel one of Rev. Cleveland’s gospel songs, the lyrics of which she was reciting in the audio clip John posted below. According to TPM’s Greg Sargent, “th[e] clip makes it sound like Hillary is adopting not just th[e] drawl, but th[e] language and th[e] down-home grammar, as her own.”
Whereas, you see, she was just quoting the lyrics and trying to ape the style of someone she’d never heard and probably never heard of either (and who, coincidentally, was born and raised in Chicago). Sargent therefore instructs: “There was nothing phony about it at all.” If you’re not convinced, watch the video of Senator Clinton that Sargent has posted.
To comment on Hillary’s rendition of Cleveland, go here.

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