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Healing for the Soul

Richard Smallwood, the Vamp, and the Gospel Imagination   

Braxton D. Shelley   

Oxford University Press, 2021 (ISBN: 9780197566466, 320pp, £35.99)

Braxton D. Shelley is not only a Yale (Harvard at the time of writing the book) professor of music whose interests extend to media studies, sound studies, phenomenology, homiletics and theology, he is an ordained minister, an itinerant preacher and a practising musician. His background is reflected in this multifaceted and passionate study. One of the reviews on the back cover described it as “beyond any doubt, the best book written on gospel music.”

Certainly there is something for most readers here, although as the fact that it is part of the series AMS Studies in Music suggests, there are significant portions that will be opaque for those without a profounder knowledge of music theory than this reviewer.

For the unaware, the vamp is a term for repetitive musical cycles that intensify many gospel songs. Richard Smallwood dominates the book less than his inclusion in the title might suggest although he is the artist that Shelley refers to most often. 

Over a third of the book’s pages contained excerpts of musical scores; I found this excessive given the book’s website on OUP contains the audio/video examples for easy reference (although not without the odd error) and covered much of the same ground. Incidentally listening to the examples should be regarded as an integral part of reading this book.

I found the book’s structure a weakness. It was not clear how some of the chapters interrelated, Shelley’s points can be as repetitive as his subject matter and he multiplied examples to make a point.

Gospel music is not often analysed in this much detail and for readers outside of particular cultural backgrounds this is an illuminating work. Shelley movingly describes how this musical genre creates and maintains community, inculcates the priesthood of all believers and links time and eternity, among other things. Gospel seems to give a greater weight to the use of the very words of Scripture in worship than most of the rest of the contemporary Christian world.

Readers who are not bought into a highly experiential view of worship will have points of theological disagreement at times. Shelley does not address possible objections at length; in one short passage he suggests that there may be a false dichotomy between form and content, between ritual and belief, and participating in these forms of worship are a key means by which congregations of this tradition are maintained in their faith.

Preachers may also benefit from Shelley’s analysis of several sermons which morph into music. This includes rhetorical flourishes which invite congregants to place themselves in the biblical scenes.

Perhaps Shelley could have drawn more comparisons between gospel and other musical traditions, although there are passing references to Bach.

Christopher Longden, Hither Green.  Christopher is a Chartered Account and attends St Ebbe’s.