The line between secular and spiritual sounds in America has always been blurry, a perfectly fine thing considering the rich, churchy DNA that to some extent informs all our music. The ’60s and ’70s, however, were particularly fruitful for gospel-pop fusions, partly because it was a golden era for gospel offsprings (funk, r&b, soul, rock’n’roll), and partly because church-based activism was energized, especially in the post-Civil Rights era black church.
The Time For Peace Is Now: Gospel Music About Us is a fantastic new collection of mostly-obscure spiritual soul music, almost all dating to the ‘70s; the set’s been released by Luaka Bop, the label started by David Byrne (it’s the second volume of their “World Spirituality Classics” series, following 2017’s The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda) and was curated by veteran DJ/soul-gospel cratedigger Greg Belson, with liner notes by journalist and gospel scholar Robert F. Darden. The whole thing is great, but the cut that might trigger the most rewinds in “Keep Your Faith To The Sky” by Willie Scott & The Birmingham Spirituals. Riding a sweet rhythm guitar line and what sounds like a deliciously rickety spinet with a long history of testifying accompaniment, it’s a little bit fire and brimstone (Jesus is angry at men “scaring [and] robbing people”), a little bit Curtis, a little bit Marvin, and a little bit Reverend Randy Wilson, who breaks in with an uplifting spoken word passage, urging listeners to “just keep looking up!/And just keeping your face towards the sky!” You can take that literally, in an animist or aetheistic sense; or metaphorically, in a Christian sense. It’s all good.
That sort of uplift, set against a theme of deeply troubled times, informs the whole LP. And at a moment when American Christianity feels in danger of being reduced to a red ballcap co-branded by the current administration and Liberty University, there’s something incredibly cleansing and inspiring about this music and its D.I.Y. spirit, which should translate whatever your faith, or lack thereof.