Some of you know that some years back I co-wrote with CeCe Winans her autobiography On A Positive Note. In writing the book I got to spend lots of time with CeCe and her musical family and learned a lot about the cruel business of making and selling music in America. I learned how much more cruel the business can be to black women performers. Because I’m a scholar I couldn’t just sit down and write about CeCe’s journey as a singer, as though she emerged ex nihilo without influence from other women singers. I had to learn everything I could about the history of the industry, the history of blacks in the business, and in particular the rise and fall of black women gospel singers. A whole shelf of books in my study is devoted to the many women in the gospel and pop musical industry I stayed up reading about while working on CeCe’s autobiography: from Bessie Smith, Aretha Franklin, and Whitney Houston on one end, to Clara Ward, Mahalia Jackson, and Tramaine Hawkins on the other end.
Having read young Keke Palmer’s letter to Gina over at What About Our Daughters about her battle with record labels who now insist that for young black girls like herself to get a record deal they must agree to sing sexually mature lyrics (a.k.a. urban music), I decided to close out this Friday with a video clip of a not so well known female gospel group from back in the day that my mother loved listening to, the Gospel Harmonettes. Here Dorothy Lovecoates and the Gospel Harmonettes are singing “I’m Holding On To My Faith” with nothing but a piano to accompany them. I get goosebumps watching Ms. Lovecoats and her Harmonettes do this song. It’s a long way from singers like MaryMary, Kiki Sheard, and other contemporary female gospel groups. This is old style gospel singing that relies solely on voice and conviction. Listening to the Harmonettes makes me wanna shout and throw my make-believe Sunday hat across the sanctuay. Ms. Lovecoats is not just singing, the woman is preaching and telling a story of what it takes to hold on to all that’s dear and precious to you in the midst of persecution and tempation.
Listening to Ms. Lovecoats sing “I’m Holding On” reminds me of Saturday mornings when my mother would make us all get up from the bed and help with the weekend chores of cleaning, washing, cooking. You can bet that some gospel song by Mahalia Jackson, Dororthy Lovecoats, or James Cleveland would be playing in the background on the record player. From time to time my mother would stop cleaning and get in a little shout. Here’s paying tribute to all those who know what it means to work, sing your heart out, inspire others, and hold on to your faith, all under nearly impossible circumstances.