The seminal gospel quartet Mighty Clouds of Joy performs two concerts in the Hayti Heritage Center this weekend, and on Tuesday, we spoke with founding member and lead singer Joe Ligon about the group’s sterling half-century history of blurring the lines between gospel and pop. But we wanted to know more about the historical context in which the group and the form developed, so we reached out to Mark Anthony Neal, a Professor of African & African-American Studies at Duke who hosts the weekly Left of Black webcast and has written extensively about gospel quartets. Among other things, Neal discussed how gospel music became an industry, shaped by opposing forces of spirituality and secularism, and how Mighty Clouds of Joy helped transform it.
The Thread: Four singers with a single electric guitar—how did that form develop?
MARK ANTHONY NEAL: You see it begin to flourish in the 1930s. There’s an interesting split in gospel music at this point in time, in the sense that there really isn’t any gospel music yet. There’s a spiritual tradition and, because of Thomas Dorsey, we start to see the emergence of “gospel” music in the 1930s. By the late 1930s, we see this quartet formation as well as large choirs and other groupings of singers, coming from Dorsey pushing this sheet music culture, traveling around the country and selling these gospel arrangements, and everybody picking up on it and doing it in their own unique way.
So this singing was already happening in communities, but got more formalized through Dorsey’s sheet music?
Absolutely. When you think about the quartet tradition in general, particularly around harmony, that’s something we would have seen on plantations in the Deep South during slavery, in the antebellum period.
Why four-part harmonies?
I have no doubt that it’s a long influence of work song and field song traditions, and this idea of pursuing aesthetic beauty even within the context of what folks might have viewed as drudgery. Robin Kelley, in his book Race Rebels, talks about a gospel quintet who sang these kinds of harmonies in support of labor strikes in the South in the 1930s and ‘40s. So in some ways, the form travels in many different contexts, some of them secular and some more explicitly sacred.
Were there factors other than sheet music that helped create the gospel music industry?
Just in general, the Great Migration, beginning before World War I and flourishing between the two wars, allowed people to travel in certain ways; this demographic transportation of the Southern style to Northern cities. Dorsey sets up camp in Chicago, and Chicago becomes this place where gospel music explodes.
This is where groups like the Dixie Hummingbirds and the Sensational Nightingales come into the picture—what did Mighty Clouds of Joy do differently than them?
In the 1950s, these quartets and quintets become incredibly popular. They also become kind of a proving ground for artists making the transition from the gospel world to the secular world. Even James Brown gets his start, early on, in a gospel quartet. So forming in the mid-‘50s, Mighty Clouds of Joy are kind of looking at all this as the younger generation. What they bring is a kind of showmanship that wasn’t just about the sacred message of the music. They’re really competing for the attention of young audiences. In some ways, Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers paved the way for that, bringing sexuality into the mix. By the time Mighty Clouds come along, they’re looking not just at gospel music, but also at what’s happening in rhythm ‘n’ blues and rock ‘n’ roll. When you see them begin to reach their peak in the mid-‘60s, the thing you hear over and over is that folks heard them as a gospel version of the Temptations. Apparently, at one point, both groups used the same tailor. And of course, they had this lead singer in Joe Ligon who was clearly someone, if he had made the choice, who could have crossed over into rock and soul.
They also added more instrumentation, an electric R&B combo, right?
In terms of their production techniques, the quality begins to mirror what we’re hearing in soul music. But also some of the arrangements—it’s an interesting moment because you have both gospel artists and soul artists going back and forth in interesting ways. You have Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions deliberately singing gospel songs with secular contexts, but you also have gospel groups taking very secular songs and flipping the lyrics to have a gospel context. James Cleveland did that early in his career, and the Mighty Clouds of Joy were very successful doing it. The whole point was to get young black audiences to hear, in gospel music, the kinds of things they were attracted to in soul music. That reaches an apex during the 1970s, when the Mighty Clouds of Joy are at the top of the R&B charts with a track like “Mighty High.”
What cultural challenges faced the black gospel quartets of the ‘50s and ‘60s?
You’re still dealing with the basic issues that all black performers are dealing with, living in a deeply segregated society, particularly in the Deep South. Traveling was always a challenge, and if you’re the Mighty Clouds of Joy, you don’t have the option not to tour in the South—that’s where your bread and butter is. There’s also a tension in the split between gospel music and secular music. Ray Charles was heavily criticized for essentially churching R&B music. And the tragedies that befell Sam Cooke—the death of a son, the car accident, even his own shooting—many folks, I’ll call them true believers, felt that this was the price he paid for giving up his career in the sacred world for the secular world. Part of what the Mighty Clouds are doing is trying to blur these boundaries, but there’s still pushback from both sides. But we’ve slowly seen a shift where black gospel music has a bigger presence in the mainstream than it did before.
Out of all the gospel quartets out there, what sets apart the Mighty Clouds of Joy?
It’s Joe Ligon. Many of these groups have had incredible longevity, but to be able to have the same lead singer for more than fifty years means that kind of tradition can get passed down over and over again. That’s irreplaceable. So for me, it really does come down to Joe.
At the end of our interview, Mr. Ligon mentioned Motown trying to make him play R&B, and I didn’t have time to follow up—do you know anything about that?
I don’t know all the details; I’ve read little bits and pieces. I know, because they had that sound, that it would have been real easy for them to come off almost as Temptations knockoffs. But like a lot of groups at that time—Shirley Caesar is another great example; a lot of people wanted to sign her to sing secular music, but she resisted for a long time—the Mighty Clouds of Joy wanted to be different.