Listen to JUST A CLOSER WALK WITH THEE by Little Richard.
Listen to JUST A CLOSER WALK WITH THEE by James Rivers.
Closer Walk has been recorded so many times, it's no surprise that it's an important song. But what I didn't know is that it is so important to so many different American traditions. Ray Price is a country singer, obviously, and along with Patsy Cline's version and Loretta Lynn's version from yesterday, there have been hundreds of recordings by country musicians over the years. In fact, from what I can tell, pretty much every country musician of any longevity from about 1950 on has a version of the song on wax somewhere. No one is sure where the song came from, but there's no doubt most of its success in American charts have come from country musicians.
Most people agree, however, that the song was born, or at least entered its modern incarnation, with the birth of gospel music in the thirties. One of the things I love about the history of gospel music is how radical it was. One thinks of "gospel" as ultra-traditional, ultra-conservative, when in fact Georgia Tom was kind of a scandalous figure, bringing the sounds of the fields and the saloons into the churchhouse. Just A Closer Walk With Thee was either written or adapted around the same time Dorsey was doing his thing, so I like to think there's something just a little bit loose about the song you might miss if you didn't know the story. Mahalia Jackson is the quintessential gospel performer (as well as a child of New Orleans, see below), so have a listen to her track yesterday to get a basic sense of the style. But by all means have a listen to Little Richard's version posted today. This is by far my favorite performance of the song. It is thrilling! It's from 1959, hard on his run of rock & roll classics, before all of a sudden he quit the biz and enrolled in bible school. In my opinion, this cut has all (well, how about nearly all) of the energy, verve, and charisma of Long Tall Sally, Tutti Frutti, etc. It's pretty wild.
Moving on. Leaving aside the country & gospel traditions, Just A Closer Walk With Thee is just about THE essential song for a New Orleans-style "jazz funeral." (Scare quotes because folks who live in New Orleans don't like to refer to their funerals that way.)
The way it works is the musicians follow the body from the church to the grave site, playing traditional music relatively straight. Sometimes the only song played will be Closer Walk. Then, once the body is interred, the second line begins, with the twirling parasols and all of the trappings associated with jazz funerals. Today's second selection from James Rivers is a New Orleans-style rendition of Closer Walk. I know next to nothing about Rivers--everything I know I learned from one of my favorites, "Home Of The Groove," where they know everything about New Orleans music, and even he doesn't know much about Rivers. It's a nice swinging instrumental.
Photo: Most Holy Redeemer Church (2).