Vancouver Folk Festival Gospel Sunday
by Flyn Ritchie
Many top blues musicians got their start with gospel music. For Lurrie Bell it was the other way round; he was the son of a noted blues harmonica player whose friends,Muddy Waters and Big Walter Horton among others, were regular visitors to the family home.
It was when he moved as a child of seven from Chicago to Mississippi and then to Alabama, where his grandfather was a preacher, that he got to know gospel first-hand.
So it is no surprise that while Bell is primarily known as a blues musician, one of his best-received albums, The Devil Ain’t Got No Music (2012), is at least equal parts gospel. Bell will take part in the Vancouver Folk Music Festival’s gospel music workshop Sunday morning. (The festival runs July 17 – 19 at Jericho Beach Park in Vancouver.)
The gospel workshop is often worth the price of admission alone. Christians love it, of course, but every year hundreds of people who would never darken the door of a church are out there in front of the stage with their hands in the air, clearly moved by straightforward gospel music.
The Devil Ain’t Got No Music got rave reviews. Bob Gottlieb of the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange, for example, said: “This is arguably the finest disc Lurrie Bell has released. It focuses on that point where the Blues and Gospel Music intersect. “
In spite of being forbidden to play the straight ahead blues songs he absorbed in Chicago [when he was young], Bell crafted his own personal blend of blues and gospel: “I was a bluesman so I would play blues lines off the guitar, in church, but I would sing those gospel lyrics.”
For Bell, blues and gospel do not meet at a crossroads down in the delta nor do they exist respectively in a church or a barroom, they are one continuous, glorious road stretching from Lisman, Alabama to the streets and churches of Chicago.
As of press time, only Lurrie Bell and Cecile Doo-Kingue, also a blues singer, are confirmed for Sunday morning. Born in New York to diplomat parents from Cameroon, and now a Montreal resident, she is said to be an impressive guitarist. Among the many artists she has performed with are the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir, of whom she says: “It’s one of my favourite acts to play with! There’s nothing like accompanying a choir. There is something purely magical about hearing that many voices in harmony; it gives me goose bumps and makes me smile for the duration of the experience.”
A couple of other possibilities for Sunday morning might be: I’m With Her. Organizers describe I’m With Her as “a thrilling new collaboration between three acclaimed [female] folk-roots artists.” One of the three, Sara Watkins, “is a singer-songwriter and fiddler from California. She debuted in 1989 as fiddler and founding member of the progressive bluegrass group Nickel Creek.”
Asked in a 2009 Christianity Today interview about the role of faith in her music, she said: “My musical life is just part of my life, so it plays the same role as it does in every other part,” she said. “I try to stay as aware of my faith when I’m touring as when I’m at home.“
* Taj Mahal. One of the biggest names coming to the Folk Fest this year; organizers describe him as “one of the most influential figures in late 20th-century blues and roots music.” I remember a very enjoyable show back in the early 70s at a club on Seymour Street; he’s been on the road for 50 years.
Though he’s not noted for gospel music, his latest CD was a Christmas CD with Blind Boys of Alabama. And he’s only in town for one day – Sunday.
Of course, there’s far more to the Vancouver Folk Music Festival than the gospel service Sunday morning. There will be a wide range of artists on several workshop stages from Friday afternoon through Sunday night; many are local, but they come from around North America and as far away as South Africa, Australia, Hungary, Angola, Mali, Brazil and Venezuela. Most of them are quite impressive musicians.