Last week in this space I declared Andraé Crouch to be the best contemporary worship music (cwm) songwriter of all time. Today I look at five of his best songs for evidence to support my claim, songs that are found in most recent Protestant hymnals, a staggering accomplishment for an African-American composer given the surfeit of songs from writers of European and Caucasian-American descent in most hymnals. (If you didn’t have a chance to read that post, you can do so here while also taking a look at a couple of links to great resources for broadening your church’s congregational-singing experience utilizing contributions from African-American writers.)
“The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power” was Crouch’s first major contribution to the Protestant Christian canon of congregational song, written when he was in his teens and debuted with his group The Disciples in the mid-60’s. Even casual readers of this blog will recognize my number-one pet peeve re: current cwm songwriting is its stultifying reliance on four-chord (and the same four chords in the same progressions) power ballads at the expense of just about everything else. The current CCLI Top 10 contains nine such I-IV-vi-V (or any number of variations on the theme) power ballads and only one song that gets up and moves a bit, “This Is Amazing Grace” . . . and after you’ve been inundated with a tsunami of power ballads, any up-tempo tune feels like amazing grace, indeed. Though “The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power” is also a ballad, its grooves are more slow-jam rhythm & blues than close-dance rock and roll, and it uses a whopping 8-10 chords (depending on how you harmonize passing tones), including two separate instances of rarely-heard-in-cwm diminished chords.
If you only know one Andraé Crouch song, you probably know “My Tribute” (often known by its subtitle, “To God Be the Glory”). Another vintage Crouch harmonization, utilizing several interesting chords, “My Tribute” employs an ascending melody on the chorus, propelling the thrice-repeated main-point (à la “Feed My sheep” and other biblical exhortations found in threes) before providing, Psalm-like, and in triumphal fashion, the reason God is worthy of the glory. Also in the spirit of the Psalms, the verse and bridge use devotional language that celebrates intimacy with the Almighty while avoiding “Jesus is my boyfriend” sentimentality. Last week, I mentioned Crouch’s ground-breaking efforts promoting diversity (The Disciples, shown in the video, featured both white musicians and several women), and you can see and hear the results of those efforts here, including a feisty trumpet solo from Fletch Wiley.
In addition to “My Tribute,” the song of Crouch’s that has crossed over into universal appeal most significantly is “Through It All”–as can be seen in this Gaither Homecoming Video celebrating the ministry of Billy Graham. (That’s Cliff Barrows and George Beverly Shea Gaither acknowledges early on.) Again I want to point out the evidence of diversity, how readily the racially mixed group on hand joins in with Cece Winans’ vocals and Crouch’s piano on the chorus. There aren’t too many, unfortunately enough, African-American composers whose songs can be sung so familiarly by the stalwarts of southern gospel music Gaither assembled, including Hovie Lister, Howard and Vestal Goodman, and George Younce. As an added bonus, you get an encore performance of one of Crouch’s shake-a-leg classics, “Can’t Nobody Do Me Like Jesus.” (Unlike “Through It All,” this one is rarely sung in white churches, as evidenced by the stoic response of southern gospel legend James Blackwood, although his son Billy and nephew Terry are doing fine to his immediate right.)
Blackwood fares better (see him over soloist Jessy Dixon’s left shoulder) with another Gaither video featuring Crouch’s “Soon and Very Soon.” In the spirit of self-referential, home-in-heaven gospel songs like “When the Roll Is Called up Yonder,” “I’ll Fly Away,” and “When We All Get to Heaven,” “Soon and Very Soon” celebrates the eventual sweet bye and bye (“No more cryin’ there,” “No more dyin’ there”) while simultaneously providing hope for God’s sustenance during the “nasty now and now” (to quote, believe it or not, an atheist bible-as-literature professor I had at the University of Cincinnati): “Should there be any rivers we must cross, should there be any mountains we must climb, God will supply all the strength that we need [and] give us grace to reach the other side.”
We close with the most famous African-American version of the kind of Scripture song that catapulted the Jesus People onto the American congregational-song landscape in the early 70’s. Whereas Karen Lafferty gave us “Seek Ye First” (Matthew 6), Leonard Smith wrote “Our God Reigns” (Isaiah 52 and 53), and an unknown writer penned “Create in Me a Clean Heart” (Psalm 51, made popular by Keith Green), Crouch provided the beautiful setting of Psalm 103, “Bless His Holy Name.” Once again, like in “My Tribute,” Crouch uses an ascending melody of a thrice-repeated phrase (“He has done great things”) to prompt the proper response: “Bless His holy name!”
Crouch’s songs are eminently singable, with firm attention to structure tools like voice leading and the use of conjunct melodic lines. They are marvelously diverse harmonically, featuring chords almost never heard in cwm these days. And their lyrics are Davidic in their balancing of first-person devotion (personal-story) with universal-Church exhortation (cosmic-story; thanks, Lester Ruth, for the terms). Might more cwm songwriters aspire to Andraé Crouch’s creativity and industry!
The Lord be with you!