The Swan Silvertones & melisma
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Mary Don't You Weep
Perhaps their greatest hit was Oh Mary Don't You Weep, released in 1959 -- an incredible listening experience. It is in this song that Claude Jeter intones the phrase "I'll be a bridge over deep water, if you trust in my name" that inspired Paul Simon to compose Bridge Over Troubled Water some years later. The Swan Silvertones had a great effect on many rock (Al Kooper) and country (Gary Stewart) artists.
- Michael Erlewine in All Music Guide
The Swan Silvertones is one of the greatest vocal harmony groups of all time. I seem to have been making strong assertions about the CDs that I bought recently. After a long music purchasing drought I naturally looked for those musicians whose work has given me the highest delight.
Gospel the Swan Silvertones may be but their singing, for an atheist like myself, is a pure sensual treat. If you enjoy vocal harmony or vocal music in general and haven't listened to gospel you are missing some of the finest singing ever recorded. African-American gospel singers started singing as children. Their choirmasters could be exacting guides.
In the horrifying days before civil rights laws let at least a portion of Black Americans leave poverty Church was central. For many going to church and listening to the singing was the great relaxation and great joy of the week.
When a gospel group came to a church they often faced a demanding audience with early finely tuned by a lifetime of listening. Even the pacing of the performance was an art. By some accounts the Swan Silvertones often peaked too soon. Audiences expected to gradually be led to an ecstatic conclusion where some of the audience would 'fall out' – collapse in rapture: an art in itself.
I began my exploration of Black gospel music from the golden age with a Rhino Jubilee! anthology. There's a bar of Mary Don't You Weep - later used in Bone Thugs-n-Harmony's debut hit – with a moment that simply bent my spine.
I'd discovered melisma
The American Heritage Dictionary's impoverished definition:
A passage of several notes sung to one syllable of text, as in Gregorian chant.
Sweetwater's is a bit better:
In music, melisma is the process of singing more than one note while singing a single syllable of the lyrics of a song.
Neither captures the unique inflection of a note a gospel singer can give a syllable. Of the current group of pop singers Whitney Houston who gets near the neighborhood. A few others I won't name certainly would have the ability but not the finical musical judgment.
As with jazz singers gospel singers improvise. A syllable may be bent one way once, another the next time.
When I bought the few Swan Silvertones CDs available they were all on Specialty. Wonderful singing. None of them had the version of Mary Don't You Weep I'd first heard. There was a recension of the song but it didn't have didn't have that one moment that made me so happy.
While I wasn't buying the Collectibles label released several of their Vee-Jay LPs from the 1960s on two-for-one CDs. At least I have it.