Personally, I prefer spirituals over gospel music for roughly the same reasons that I like traditional music over most singer-songwriter numbers. There is a kind of almost democratic populism in real old time folk songs - the best tend to survive and come down to us, and that "best" is determined largely by a kind of collective popular will, expressed over generations of time by the simple fact that people have sung and keep singing them, at least until the advent and then domination of electronic media converted music from something that people made - that virtually everybody made - to something that people consumed, like any other commodity hawked by marketing hucksters.
You could draw a parallel to the spiritual/gospel relationship. Real spirituals, several of which like "Good News" (profiled a year ago this week) and "My Lord, What A Mornin'" (with a longer discussion of spirituals in general) have appeared in these posts, arose from the suffering and longing engendered by slavery and express a collective dream of a brighter day, in this world or the next. Gospel music, which sometimes grew out of spirituals and is the proper category in which to place this week's song selection, "You Don't Knock," has a definitely commercial aspect to it. That of course in no way denigrates it - Bach to Bernstein and everyone in between also created sacred classical music for pay, too.
But I think that "Shenandoah", for example, is unsurpassable for its sheer, flat-out beauty, a beauty that has embedded within it a kind of truth that very, very few individual songwriter efforts have ever matched, a beauty refined and enhanced by the generations of ordinary folk who have sung it. Good spirituals share in the same nature, I think.
Gospel music, on the other hand, is largely performance music. It may invite participation from a congregation, but its power is derived from fine and professional performances of it. Gospel songs are the visions of individual writers; spirituals are the collective voice of the people.
All of this makes "You Don't Knock" an ideal song to consider, because evidence points to a derivation from a lost spiritual while its current form comes from the legendary Roebuck "Pops" Staples, the patriarch of the family singing group that he founded in 1948 with his children. The earliest copyright anyone seems to be able to find for "You Don't Knock" is 1949, assigned to Cedar Walton and Wesley Westbrooks, though the name R. Staples was added to it later in the '50s. Certainly one of the earliest recorded versions of the song belongs to Roebuck S. and his children - the Staples Singers:
Most subsequent recorded version seem to riff off of this one, and the near-identicality of lyrics in other artists' version certainly points to a single origin for the song.
The New Grass Revival (here from Austin City Limits) is certainly one of the highest-calibered assemblages of country/bluegrass musicians put together in recent decades , with Sam Bush, John Cowan, Pat Flynn, & Bela Fleck:
I love the fact that they have converted the basic African-American sound and rhythm of the number into their own idiom, a kind of old-timey mountain music sound that skirts the edges of rockabilly.
The Kingston Trio translates the song into another idiom entirely - just a whisker on the folk side of rock:
It's hard to believe that this is from Dave Guard's last album with the group. He sounds like he is having a heck of a good time, whaling away as he is on his still-new jumbo Gibson 12 string guitar and vocally going Elvis-on-steroids in his treatment.
The Gaither Vocal Band, which includes the famous brothers, does a fine country-gospel rendition:
One of the better and more interesting pop collaborations in recent years has been Led Zeppelin rocker Robert Plant with roots music superstar Allison Krause:
Who would ever have thought that Dave Guard would out-rock Robert Plant? Clearly, though, Plant and Krause are going back to rock's deep roots in blues - interesting to compare this to the Staples.
The Detroit Cobras are a covers band that nonetheless brings an original approach to the song - almost country-rock, I'd say, sort of the Staples Singers as imagined by the Joe Walsh-era Eagles:
And two final versions for fun. First, home videos from a group only known as Anthony, Isaiah, and Dallas:
Regular readers of this blog know how much I love videos of folk music well-performed at home by amateurs who love what they are doing - as with these young guys.
Finally, what may be the weirdest version of a song I have ever posted in 132 articles - the young ladies of Alpha Xi Delta at the University of North Carolina Wilmington:
Here's what they are chanting:
Dont knock dont knock
just walk right in
the door the door
to the alpha xi den
there's love theres love
theres joy for you
to share to share
your whole life through
i know i know
my friends are there
the golden quill we'll always wear
the gold the quill
the double blue
the doors wide open just waitin for you
just walk right in
just walk right in
I'd say that that removes all the spiritual/gospel elements from the song most effectively. Guess that's just part of the folk process.