What is it about Gospel music that seems to draw people regardless of their religious or spiritual perspectives? There is just something in the rhythms and harmonies that connect with nearly everyone. Even within the Church, people who may disdain the theology of the songs have an emotional attachment that just will not let go of them.
Rejoice and Shout is a survey of African-American Gospel music that covers 200 years in a bit under two hours. Certainly much of that time period has no recorded music for us to hear, but there is still plenty to discover before the earliest recorded Gospel group, the Dinwiddie Colored Quartet in 1902. It follows the history of this music through Sister Rosetta Tharpe, The Dixie Hummingbirds, Mahalia Jackson, The Blind Boys of Alabama, The Staple Singers, Reverend James Cleveland, all the way down to The Edwin Hawkin Singers, Andraé Crouch, and Darrel Petties. There are other groups and singers we meet along the way.
It seems obvious that Gospel music should have a spiritual component, although it is easy to concentrate on the music without noting the source. The first section of the film deals explicitly with the basis of the music in the African-American religious experience with some reference to the Pentecostal and Holiness traditions. From time to time throughout the film the discussion winds back to the religious setting that continues to feed the tradition.
But more than anything else, this is a celebration of the music. The audio recoding and video clips that make up the bulk of the film show the range of the music and the artists. We also learn about some of those behind the music, such as Thomas A. Dorsey, who wrote many Gospel songs (most famously, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”) for church, but also wrote a good deal of bawdy blues numbers as well. That serves as a reminder of how closely Gospel music is linked to the rest of African-American music.
Gospel music is also the precursor to much other American music, but that link isn’t explored in the film. Certainly Gospel is a direct ancestor of rock and roll. In some ways Elvis Presley has to be seen as a Gospel singer and all the music that flows from his work (such as the Beatles) is a continuation of the tradition. Although the way Gospel has crossed over and evolved into other forms of music is beyond the scope of this film, this is still a wonderful overview of music that has touched many lives in many ways—and continues to touch us today.