All Hymns Considered: The Music of Crowns

All Hymns Considered: The Music of Crowns

Posted by: Gabriela Jirasek at 06/11/2012 04:51 PM

In just a few short weeks Regina Taylor’s rollicking remount of her phenomenally successful gospel musical, Crowns, will take over the Albert auditorium in a jubilant celebration of music, dance, life and fashion. Crowns, which this year celebrates the tenth anniversary of its first production, was originally adapted by Regina from a beautiful book by Craig Marberry and Michael Cunningham titled Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats. Crowns (the book) featured photographs of real women in their Sunday best, alongside each woman’s anecdote about her relationship with her hats. It was from the stories of these real women that Regina found the inspiration to create her own Crowns story, and from the music of their churches that she found inspiration for the musical’s score.

In its 10-year history, Crowns has become the most produced American musical in the country, racking up more than 40 productions and counting. A major part of the popular appeal of Crowns is Regina’s seamless integration of several gospel standards into the musical, thereby creating a score that is moving, celebratory, familiar and fun. To get into the spirit of Crowns, we’ve compiled a “greatest hits” guide to some of the classic tunes you may hear in the production. It’s an introduction to the music of Crowns and a mini-history of some of gospel music’s pioneers and most enduring voices. Visit our YouTube channel for a complete Crowns playlist!


"Oh When the Saints Go Marching In"

“Oh When the Saints Go Marching In” is a traditional American folk hymn that became a favorite standard to play at jazz funerals in the early 1900s. Full of apocalyptic imagery from the Book of Revelations, the song is surprisingly upbeat and vibrant. Lois Armstrong created the version most commonly associated with the song in the 1930s, although artists as diverse as Elvis, Judy Garland and Bruce Springsteen have popularized their own takes on the hymn. The great Mahalia Jackson also popularized a much more traditional gospel infused version of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Listen to her version to compare styles.


"I'm On the Battlefield"

Gospel legend Albertina Walker was born in 1929 in Chicago and raised in the city’s Bronzeville neighborhood.  She grew up in the West Point Missionary Baptist Church at 3556 West Cottage Grove Avenue and started singing in the choir at a very young age. By the 1950s she was travelling nationally and performing in a group she dubbed the Caravans. Her work supporting young talent helped launch the careers of several future superstars including Shirley Caeser, Inez  Andrews and James Cleveland. Cleveland went on to become the visionary behind the contemporary gospel sound and pioneered more jazzy and soulful renditions of classic hymns. This recording reunites Albertina Walker and James Cleveland for “I’m on the Battle Field (for My Lord)” by Sylvana Bell and E.V. Banks.


"Touch the Hem of His Garment"

Formed in Texas in 1935, the Soul Stirrers played a vital role in the development of not just gospel music, but also pop and rhythm and blues. They reinterpreted many gospel standards and moved the art form from a more traditional sound into one infused with the basis of doo-wop and R&B. The Soul Stirrers also introduced the world to Sam Cooke, considered by many to be the preeminent soul singer. He joined in 1950 at the age of 15 and performed as its lead vocalist for six years. Cooke wrote “Touch the Hem of His Garment” and other gospel classics including “That’s Heaven to Me” before launching his secular career with the megahit “You Send Me.” Cooke’s life and music exemplifies the symbiotic relationship between gospel and contemporary pop music that continues today. 

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