"If disenfranchisement is the father of rap," says one performer in the gospel musical revue Travelin' Shoes, "then meet its grandpappy -- gospel music." Certainly, you can find threads of black gospel in virtually every popular American musical form; rap and gospel are connected as part of the continuously evolving expression of the African-American experience. The late Curtis Mayfield, who put aside the yearning soul lilt of his early career for a rap-speak delivery in his angry '70s testimonies to inner-city sorrow, can be seen as a vital transitional artist between these forms; earlier, of course, that calling fell to Sam Cooke. But to the casual listener, there's also a big disconnect between the two.
Fair or not, the perception is there, and it may help to explain the wrinkled noses of distaste on the faces of several middle-aged, middle-class black patrons at Fort Worth's Jubilee Theatre when a raucous pre-recorded hip-hop song kicked off Travelin' Shoes, then segued into a snazzy four-part harmony. Those disgusted faces relaxed with pleasure, and the generation gap was overcome with a jump backward.
You can sense an educational mission underlying director Rudy Eastman and arranger-musician Joe Rogers' revue dedicated to the so-called Jubilee Quartets -- black male foursomes that sprang up in professional traveling guises in the 1890s, barely a generation after slavery had ended. They took Southern folk, blues, and gospel sung in the fields and the shacks and the kitchens; polished them to a fine, radiant shine; and turned them into SRO performances for blacks and whites in the early 20th century.
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Eastman and Rogers, one understands, want young black men and women to glean an appreciation for pre-civil rights-era African-American music, to at least appreciate where hip-hop fits into the grander scheme. But their sweet, rousing Travelin' Shoes illustrates that these two extremes may not be so easily reconciled. There was a sprinkling of young people (mostly girls, actually) at the Sunday matinee I attended, and if that meant a dearth of dewy ears present to drink up this melodic history lesson, the choir of black couples past 40 to which Eastman, Rogers, and their five stellar performers preached didn't quite take to the fleeting references about a gospel-rap link. I suspect it's not just the absence of rage in the former that makes the latter so bracing (or so off-putting to some of these patrons); it's the disenfranchised's hell-bent embrace of materialism, of status-conscious consumer culture, in some hip-hop that seems the antithesis of the spiritual.
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Gospel is about dropping your earthly burdens and rising up to meet the sky; rap (at least as proffered by the likes of Master P, Sean "Puffy" Combs, and their platinum-coated posses) and its urban culture often seem to be about weighing yourself down with as many pricey accoutrements as gravity will allow. Rudy Eastman, who wrote the book to Travelin' Shoes, was of course dead-on when he described disenfranchisement as the father of rap. An African-American generation that grew up watching conspicuous consumption on TV and could take for granted equal protection under the law doesn't have to be grateful that the chains of slavery no longer bind them; the division between the haves and the have-nots seems a lot more arbitrary, and they're pissed they've been born into a category handed the short stick.
During a pre-show introduction, Eastman jokingly described himself as being born "before the flood," but there is meaning to such a reference: Jubilee Theatre has a history of staging musical revues that stoke the tide of pre-hip-hop and urban-contemporary black song into a powerful wave that sweeps you away again. Travelin' Shoes fits gloriously into this tradition. For these 20 songs interspersed with playful banter, performed mostly a cappella but with occasional hand drum, guitar, and harmonica, Jubilee has called back two of its star performers -- Robert L. Rouse Jr. and Kevin Haliburton -- to headline a performance that also includes favorite Juan B. Fernandez and newcomers Aubrey S. Stephenson and Victor Dewberry. Many of these songs are so old, or have wound through so many permutations across the decades, they haven't retained their original authorship. It doesn't matter: The quintet on display on the Jubilee stage seem to be pulling this stuff out of themselves, fresh and ferocious, in a fit of divine inspiration.
There are as many moods in this show as can be found in a long, tumultuous human lifetime, and not all of them are spiritual. Since the church has been at the center of the black American community since slavery, you will often find secular (and even carnal) subjects introduced from the pews in a way you never would in a Protestant and Catholic context. Hence, "Let That Liar Alone" is a warning to young men about beautiful women who wiggle their hips while they're stabbing your back, picking your pocket, and pinching your best friend on the cheek. Kevin Haliburton begins this one in the plangent tones of a black preacher, then segues into some expert hip-shaking and eye-batting of his own to illustrate what the treacherous woman with "thighs of chocolate -- I mean, eyes! Eyes of chocolate!" looks like. The absence of women as nurturers and supporters is delivered with stark beauty by Robert L. Rouse Jr. alone in the spotlight to deliver "Motherless Child" with his songmates breathing gentle vocal percussion in the background. This is not the "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" Mahalia Jackson turned into a gospel anthem, but an earlier, more pared-down and haunting version: Rouse sings of children abandoned after their mother's death, "running from door to door" to find nobody home anywhere.
And, of course, there are expert deliveries of more recognizable black gospel fare such as "I Heard Zion Moan" and "Take Your Burdens to God" that an atheist with a heart and eyes clear enough to identify the universal human need for transcendence wouldn't be able to resist. Fronted by the absolutely indispensable comic, dramatic, and musical skills of Haliburton and Rouse, and aided and abetted by their three conspirators in song, Travelin' Shoes is about as perfect a demonstration of the human voice's potential as you could hope to find. In the end, I don't know how well it worked as a history lesson, because I never had to cast my mind back and try to imagine the era in which these tunes originated. Maybe that's the problem some younger audiences will run into -- assuming that these songs belong to other people from another time and place. But I don't know that the reasons for singing them will ever go away.