He got used to change years ago. But this time, it was hard to figure out.
For years, the Ray Daniels House of Music was the home of lessons in how to play and sing traditional gospel music, the soundtrack of black church services. But, over time, gospel music evolved, incorporating modern sounds as younger generations grew further away from the struggles that inspired the old-time songs, and as churches tried to replenish their aging flocks by appealing to young people through newer music. The change left Ray Daniels torn at first.
“Most of the young people want the contemporary gospel,” said the 80-year-old. “But the older people cannot relate to that. See, they like the traditional gospel, but the young people, this is a hip-hop generation. Everybody is ‘cool’ and everything, and that’s what they like, and if you don’t teach that they don’t want you to teach them nothing.”
So Daniels evolved too. He gave priority to the new sound, which came to dominate gospel radio, record sales and church services. He even started dressing more contemporary by wearing younger, flashier clothing, instead of the formal Sunday finery that might better match his mature, deliberate, old-school manner. His approach brought him hundreds of students over the years, who fanned out into the city’s churches to bring the new style to the services.
Through it all, he’d always maintained a small core of old-timers who came for his $20 lessons in the traditional works. That was expected.
But for the past few years, some of his younger students started asking to learn the old songs, the hymns and spirituals that were supposedly old-fashioned and stale. They said they were DJs and producers and music fans seeking the roots of the modern music they loved. OK, that was understandable.
But why on earth were these young white kids suddenly coming around, asking to learn the songs of that old-time religion?
Detroit music school keeps old-time gospel music alive
For years, a Detroit music school strove to teach contemporary gospel music. But students kept asking for the songs of that old-time religion.
Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press
The Ray Daniels House of Music is a ranch-style home on the corner of a west-side block in Detroit, a place of leather couches, tall houseplants, portraits of black Jesus and white Jesus on the walls, and aged sepia photos hung in frames that show the school’s many choirs of the past. There are drums in the basement and keyboards in every bedroom.
Gloria Benson sat on a bench in front of an organ in one of the bedrooms, trying to learn a song. Daniels stood next to her, directing her patiently. “No, the left foot, there you go, try it again, OK, now the lower D pedal.”
Benson had come here to learn how to play organ from scratch. And although she likes all forms of gospel, including contemporary, she’s one of those older students who wanted specifically to learn the traditional music she grew up with in the church.
“It speaks volumes, it gives you depth, it gives you a meaning,” said the retired florist. “It has a history and it has hope. So when I need hope, I grab a song, and usually it’s a hymn or traditional gospel that I can get something from.”
The roots of gospel music go back to the 1800s, historians say, to the call-and-response chants of slaves, which evolved into spirituals, which blended prayers to God, pleas for freedom and, in some cases, veiled messages, such as ways to escape north to freedom.
“Even when our ancestors were in slavery, it was a message given in the music,” Benson said. “Certain songs were sung to let you know what we’re doing, how we’re going to do it, and it’s important because these are things that are never going to die. These things are going to last.”
“But remember,” Daniels noted, “we do also teach contemporary!”
Forty years ago, the Ray Daniels House of Music was a retail music store in the city’s North End, offering gospel records, hymnals and formal lessons in applied music, such as reading music and understanding classical theory. Just as students began moving away from that approach.
“All of a sudden people began asking, ‘How can we play gospel and jazz?’ I never had any training in teaching gospel and jazz. I learned myself. So the Lord gave me a devised lesson plan and I’ve been doing it for 36 years. And it’s been very successful. We’re one of the first black schools in Detroit that taught gospel.”
Then the music began to change, too. While the lyrics kept a focus on religious themes, by the ‘70s the music began to incorporate the influences of jazz, soul, funk and even hip-hop. Daniels figured he had to change, too.
“Learn how to play the progressive modern style of gospel music,” his new flyers said. But fewer people wanted to learn the fundamentals of music theory. Most wanted a freewheeling approach, literally playing it by ear. A music store selling sheet music and offering formal lessons was suddenly old-fashioned.
“That stuff folded up,” he said. “Folks stopped buying it ‘cause people stopped reading music. A lot of people, they don’t want to learn with notes. Notes takes years and years and years. So that put me out of business.”
He bought the house on a corner, stocked every room with instruments and evolved again, advertising easy-to-understand lessons in contemporary gospel. He also brought in his son, a special needs public school teacher who, in his spare time, gives lessons in the modern sound.
“He teaches all this way-out, contemporary music that these young people like,” said Daniels, a devout churchgoer. “I don’t see what they like in it ‘cause there’s no deliverance in it. There’s no saving power in it. But that’s what they like now.”
Yet he accepted long ago that times had changed, and by default he came to emphasize his school’s focus on the future.
“We do specialize in contemporary, now remember that,” he added.
What’s old is new again
But even as contemporary became dominant, traditional gospel remained the foundation to which they always returned.
“It soothes me,” said Benson, 63, of Detroit. “There’s a lot of songs that make you just want to have that closer walk with God, and then there are those that are just a prayer, some of them to me are just prayers, just to say, ‘Savior, do not pass me by’ when I’m feeling like I got more bills than money. ‘I need you, Lord.’ So it’s just something that makes you feel hopeful. And I say that a lot because I’ve needed hope a lot of times when the situation didn’t look good.” Like being diagnosed with lupus a few years ago.
“But it’s OK,” she said. “It’s fine. Because I can make it. I can make it.”
Out in the living room sat John Harris, 67, who first came here at 22 to learn organ and piano, and wound up becoming a music teacher himself. “Contemporary is kind of like about the rhythm, the beat,” he said. “But the older music can reach inside you and grab your soul. It’s that gospel flavor. It consumes you, so to speak.”
Across the room, Ron Perkins, 64, was making his way from one houseplant to another with an old-fashioned watering can, tending to them while waiting for his lesson.
“We trying to bring it back, some of the churches are trying to bring that sound back the old gospel way. And I think he’s serving it very well, ‘cause he’s into the gospel sound,” he said of Daniels. “He’s pretty rare, ‘cause it ain’t too many more like him that teach. They got the schools, but he just got that old thing, you know what I’m saying? That old Baptist way and stuff. That’s what it is. It works.”
That’s how it was for the longest time — some of the older students preferred old-time gospel, while most of the younger musicians wanted to learn the modern version. It was a fairly predictable division.
Then something slowly shifted. Out of nowhere, the younger students began asking to learn traditional gospel, the kind of songs so old their authors are unknown. After all Daniels’ efforts to modernize, after all those years catering to the current preference for contemporary gospel music, there was a slow but obvious resurgence in appreciation and reverence for the very music that the pastors kept telling him was fading away.
“I was just interested in learning how to play piano when I first came,” said Hatieb East, a 35-year-old Detroiter. “I wasn’t interested in playing. I just wanted to have some knowledge of piano for beats. But once I came to the school and started taking lessons, I just fell in love with the gospel. It’s very essential in Detroit, a city that has a church on almost every corner. It’s very important out here. In instrumental music, hip-hop and R&B, it’s the music behind the artists.”
More students followed with the same requests. And some of those students were very different than the stereotypical gospel music fan.
One day here comes Tim Christiansen, gregarious and earnest, suburban and white, respectfully asking how to play old-time gospel music. He’s a community organizer who’d spent time in predominantly black churches in Detroit, where he became enthralled with the music.
“This is the root of all of it,” said the 26-year-old from Birmingham. “If you want to learn R&B, if you want to learn contemporary, if you want to make hip-hop music or any type of music, old-time Detroit gospel is the foundation. And within 30 seconds of hearing Ray play, I knew I was in the right place.”
Then came another white student, and another, each with the same request.
“All of a sudden I have a lot of white students,” Daniels said. “I got ‘em from Bloomfield, I got ‘em from Royal Oak, I got ‘em from Ypsilanti, a lot of college students. Most of them that come are impressed with the older gospel. They’re not like a lot of the black kids that want the contemporary. The white ones that do come are interested in the older traditional gospel. They want to play it for a black church. It’s very unusual.”
“I can see why people would think it’s unusual,” said Chris Barr, 25, of Birmingham, another new student. “But no one’s ever said anything about that to me. I think once the music gets going, everyone’s just kind of cool with it. Everyone’s been very accepting, and no one’s ever given me a hard time or made me feel weird about being white. I would say if I have to get a little flak for doing it, it’s OK, it’s worth it. If I have to prove myself a little more extra than anyone else would, that’s something that just comes with the territory.”
He started lessons a few months ago. On a recent weekday, he was learning “I Need Thee,” a song that’s 137 years old. “I’ve always liked soul music, gospel music, jazz and a lot of my favorite musicians — Sly Stone, Johnny “Guitar” Watson — they all started in the church. So I wanted to kind of get to the roots and stuff. This is, like, the way to do that.”
At first, Daniels couldn’t understand it.
“I got a girl that’s a white girl, she owns a fashion company downtown, and she wanted to learn black gospel, how to play it and sing it, and it struck me very strange,” he said. “She don’t even go to church, she wasn’t even raised in the church. I said, ‘Why would you want to get into something like that?’ She said ‘Because I just like to listen to it. I like it.’ And she started naming jazz artists like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday. I said, ‘These people are old, old enough to be your great grandparents. Why would you be interested in something like that?’ ”
But these students had a deep appreciation for the history of music, and they caught on quickly. Only a few weeks into her lessons, Lily Shafroth Forbes was on stage at the Ray Daniels House of Music’s annual recital, a big variety show held in a nearby church to showcase his latest students to a black congregation.
“You feel silly sometimes being … you feel a little conspicuous, right? Like I couldn’t be whiter, right? I’m super pale,” said the 26-year-old. “But the music is beautiful and everyone here, Mr. Daniels was encouraging me to learn this, so I see it as an honor that I get to learn this, that I’ve been invited to learn this.”
Although gospel music is usually associated with black history and black church services, the students say the underlying feeling, the soul of the songs, transcends those differences and speaks the same to everyone.
“Gospel music is about loving your neighbor and this sense of respect and love for everyone, and sharing in the reverence of God,” Forbes said. “Even if you didn’t grow up reading the Bible or the history of Jesus doesn’t necessarily resonate to you, ‘cause you didn’t grow up with it, there’s something that is very deep about the teachings.”
Daniels knows that some people might take issue with white millennials immersing themselves in music that was born from other people’s history and struggles. Too bad, he said.
“Years ago I would never dream this would ever happen, that everybody is trying to learn how to play gospel music,” Daniels said. “Years ago, when I was a kid, it was mostly a black thing. Now it’s spread. But gospel is for everybody. Music is universal. It doesn’t have no creed or color. And I open my doors to everybody, not just to blacks. Everybody that wants to learn. If you want to learn gospel and you want to come here where I’m at, I’m more than glad to teach you.”
A song and a prayer
For Carolynn Lofton, gospel wasn’t about music history, or heritage, or technique. It was a lifesaver.
“When you have that deep moment, the time when you don’t know if you want to live or not, gospel music, it takes me and lifts me up and lets me know, ‘It’s going to be OK, Carolynn,’ ” she said. “It soothes me, takes me to when I was as a child growing up in church. And when you’re a child, everything is OK. It’s just when you start to get old as an adult …”
Not long ago, she couldn’t have imagined herself here at this school, at 55, learning how to play music for the first time, driving 45 minutes each way from Belleville for this. But that was before she came home damaged from a war zone.
She stood in a back room next to Glenn Jordan, Daniels’ 55-year-old son, on a hot summer afternoon. There was one song she was trying to learn that day. “I’ve Got a Feeling,” a song so old its author is listed only as “traditional.” She’s a choir director at her church, and she wanted to learn each part of its harmonies to be able to teach it to the singers.
Jordan, the embodiment of gentle patience, sat at the keyboard and instructed her in a soothing voice. “OK Carolynn, let’s try the soprano,” he said softly, and he began to play.
Ten years ago, she was an engineer at Ford, but also an army reservist who suddenly got called up and sent to a combat zone in Afghanistan. “Our males cannot talk to the females in Afghanistan, so they needed a female,” she said. “They needed somebody that was diplomatic, but was able to run, shoot, kill. And that was me.”
Jordan played flawlessly, inserting jazzy fills into a very basic melody. Lofton stood up and began singing each word, one at a time, to get each of them just right. “I’ve … got … a … feeling…” she sang, and began from the start again and again, trying to perfect the notes.
Two years after her deployment, Lofton returned to the states a very different person. Maybe it was being designated a high-value target because she was a lieutenant colonel, requiring an armed cordon around her whenever she was outside, exposed. It could’ve been the Taliban lobbing mortars into their compound at Christmas, just because it was Christmas. Or when her close friend left one day and never came back; he was blown to pieces by an improvised explosive device along the side of the road. Maybe it was the slew of shoulder injuries that she left untreated until a doctor forced her off the battlefield and transferred her to Germany for six months, just a few days before she was to head home to Michigan. And maybe it was the ovarian cancer she brought home with her.
Glenn stopped playing for a moment to give her some advice. “Focus on the smoothness of it, how to do each note, how to sustain each note,” he said. He started playing, and she began to sing again.
Back home in Michigan, the war didn’t go away. She couldn’t go for a walk, because she was used to having an armed patrol surrounding her, and now she felt exposed to potential snipers and gunmen. She couldn’t go to a ballgame, because in her mind all those unfrisked people in one place meant someone could be armed and ready to attack. She couldn’t drive anywhere but the middle lane on big roads, because the shoulder is where they’d always hide the IEDs in the combat zone.
The one thing that calmed her were the gospel songs she grew up with as a child. When she couldn’t sleep, like when the pain from lingering shoulder injuries kept her awake, she’d get out of bed, walk to her keyboard and practice playing gospel music to herself in the middle of the night. Through its history, despite all its changes, the essence of gospel music has been to uplift, offer guidance and give hope to anyone who needed some kind of salvation. Just like her.
“It saved me,” she said. “I mean, who goes, fights a war, and kills, and see people — friends — die, how can you come back from that? It’s because of gospel music. It saved me.”
She stood in the small bedroom, a stage to herself, and her eyes were closed, and her arms swept gracefully through the air as she sang the words to the song, and Jordan’s voice joined in, and together they harmonized the simple verse again and again. “I’ve got a feeling,” they sang, “everything’s gonna be all right.”
This time, she had it just right.
“Good,” the teacher said softly to her. “That’s it.”
John Carlisle writes about people and places in Michigan. His stories can be found at freep.com/carlisle. Contact him: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @_johncarlisle, Facebook at johncarlisle.freep or on Instagram at johncarlislefreep