Two New Compilations Celebrate Raw Gospel and the Music of Blaxploitation Movies

Various artists, Fire in My Bones: Raw, Rare and Otherworldly African-American Gospel (1944-2007) (Tompkins Square) and Can You Dig It?: The Music and Politics of Black Action Films 1968-75 (Soul Jazz)

Compiler Mike McGonigal has deliberately skipped over the best-known gospel styles—basically quartet and choral—in favor of street-corner evangelists, bluesy guitarists, and other less familiar paths on Fire in My Bones. There are a ton of classic older performances, from Elder Beck's hard-rocking sermon on the evils of rock 'n' roll to the Georgia Fife & Drum Band's positively primeval rendering of "Sorrow Done Passed Me Around." The real surprise for me, though, was the fact that these raw gospel traditions survived well past the '40s, '50s, and even the '60s and are still going strong today. Perhaps the most arresting track on the first disc is Isaiah Owens' "You Without Sin Cast the First Stone," which sounds like Hasil Adkins trying to claw his way to heaven after being fed through a meat-grinder. The electric guitar is so thoroughly distorted, the vocals so overdriven, that you figure at first it must have been recorded on a shoestring in a shack in, say, 1930. In fact, though, it's from 1998. Not to take anything away from the Winans or Mary Mary, but it's kind of inspiring to know that, even up to the present day, there are folks like Owens singing as if the world is about to end.

There have been a bunch of blaxploitation film music anthologies, but Soul Jazz's epochal two-CD, 34-track collection seems well-nigh definitive. There are plenty of familiar highpoints, from Curtis Mayfield's "Pusherman" to Booker T and the MG's film-theme-turned-hit-single "Time Is Tight." But there's also a passel of lesser-known tracks, like Joe Simon's menacing "Theme from Cleopatra Jones," where impressionist string washes and synth burps are splashed over a deadly strutting baseline; or Dennis Coffey's "Theme from Black Belt Jones," which, with the maniacally dopey scat vocal chorus, almost sounds cheesy enough to have been created by Europeans.

To top it all off, there's a 100-page book chock-full of photos, posters, and background detail chronicling the stew of black talent that made the blaxploitation films and their soundtracks possible. Marginalized by the film industry and by society, blacks looking for fame and fortune—from old-school actors like Sidney Poitier to sports icons to musicians to actual gang members—all ended up in one place. Soon, black-consciousness narratives were slugging it out with glorifications of pimp culture; soul composers were learning to score for whole orchestras; jazz musicians were loosening their arrangements; and everyone was heading for the multi-layered soul of funk. Like many great black cultural achievements, from gospel to blues to rap, the triumph is bittersweet; without oppression, this music simply wouldn't exist. Blaxploitation was undoubtedly a ghetto, but as this anthology demonstrates with spine-tingling precision, it was a community too.