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Divine Inspiration Sparks 'Fire' And 'Funk'

Fire in My Bones: Raw, Rare and Otherworldly African-American Gospel is a new three-CD set that explores the diversity of postwar gospel music. Across 80 songs spanning six decades, the collection ranges from scratchy field recordings to intricate vocal harmonies to snappy adaptations of rock 'n' roll rhythms. The different styles of gospel are also at the heart of Born Again Funk, the latest installment in the Good God! series which highlights gospel's collision with funk music of the '60s and '70s.

I'm as secular as they come but you don't have to be a true believer to appreciate the idea of an inspirational Holy Ghost, living through music. Communing with some greater force, regardless of theological bent, is something music lovers seek every day. Gospel, in particular, can convey the emotional weight of its passions with a naked rawness.

Fire in My Bones is a sprawling attempt to touch on black gospel's myriad forms from 1944 through 2007. Clocking in at nearly four hours, the set has no obvious chronological, geographical or topical structure. It can go from Oakland's Sister Mathews, backed only by a blues guitar, belting out "Stand By Me" in 1948; and then advance to 1973 and Brooklyn's Nathaniel Rivers, singing "The Wicked Shall Cease From Troubling" over a warbling organ; then slide down to South Carolina in 1963 with an a cappella rendition of "That's Alright" by Laura Rivers. Fire in My Bones is a sampler, not a primer, so perhaps it misses an opportunity to better educate the gospel neophytes. That said, even as the compilation jumps eras, cities and sensibilities, gospel's core elements become illuminated — especially the power of repetition.

I hope I'm not being sacrilegious in suggesting that, just as with secular pop music, gospel loves a good hook. It's a point made amply clear on both Fire in My Bones and another new anthology, Born Again Funk.

Born Again Funk hones in on small, independent-label gospel records, most of them recorded around Chicago during the 1970s. Compared to the vast scope of time, space and style covered by Fire in My Bones, Born Again Funk works in the opposite direction: It highlights both a regional scene and a cultural era in which the meld of gospel and secular music traditions seemed to hold no conflicts for those praising Sunday-morning psalms with rhythms designed to raise Saturday-night sweat.

For those unfamiliar with the gospel funk tradition, this blend may seem like a novelty. But if you think about your favorite nights out dancing, it's easy to appreciate how the sultry, sensual, sacred and spiritual can easily coexist in any given moment. If one thing that both Born Again Funk and Fire In My Bones suggest is that at its most transcendent, the music isn't merely appealing; it's humbling.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Oliver Wang is an culture writer, scholar, and DJ based in Los Angeles. He's the author of Legions of Boom: Filipino American Mobile DJ Crews of the San Francisco Bay Area and a professor of sociology at CSU-Long Beach. He's the creator of the audioblog soul-sides.com and co-host of the album appreciation podcast, Heat Rocks.