Gospel Legend: Walter Hawkins, 1949 - 2010.

Walter Hawkins’ pioneering music always reflected the heart of a man who was looking forward to leaving this world for a better one, and his songs still offer a blueprint for what authentic gospel music is all about. A tribute to the late legend.

Monday night, I found myself shuffling boxes around, looking for a particular CD.

I moved a couple of weeks ago, and my place is in a worse-before-it-gets-better stage, with half-opened boxes and unassembled furniture piled against the walls. Right now determination, a couple of narrow goat paths, and my utility scissors are the only things keeping me from being lost beneath an avalanche of my own possessions.

Still, I felt compelled to rummage through several boxes until I found my copy of one of those “Best of Gospel” compilation CDs. When I received this one a couple of years ago, I was not at all surprised to find that 3 of the 12 songs on the CD were by Walter Hawkins and the Love Center Choir. The Hawkins family’s imprint on gospel in general — and Walter Hawkins’ imprint in particular — is just that significant.

Walter’s brother, Edwin, is known for his arrangement of “Oh Happy Day,” among other songs. Walter Hawkins, his sister, Lynette, his former wife Tramaine Hawkins, and The Love Center Choir gave us gospel classics like “Goin’ Up Yonder,” “I’m Going Away,” “Be Grateful,” “When the Battle is Over,” and others.

When I learned that Walter Hawkins had passed away last Sunday at 61, I knew that, no matter what else I did, I’d have to listen to “I’m Going Away.” That song, in particular, is one of the reasons I believe in gospel music.

There are at least five things I value in traditional, choir-driven gospel music above all else:

  1. Clarity of the gospel message.
  2. Accessibility to the local church choir and musicians.
  3. An aspirational quality — that is, songs a choir can sing next Sunday, and continue to sing better through the years.
  4. Singability for the choir, and saaaangability for the lead vocalist.
  5. Demanding music that doesn’t scrub out the spontaneity or experiential nature of gospel.

Additionally, I believe strongly that good gospel for the church setting stays on the side of congregational song rather than concert performance. If the congregation can’t sing a song without getting ensnared in a labyrinthine thicket of vamps, key changes, and vocal acrobatics, that song positions the congregation as an audience, rather than as a body of people participating together in worship.

A lot of these ideas are shaped by the fact that I grew up listening to the Hawkinses and the groups that followed them. While it’s hard to define what makes a song “classic” or a sound “authentic,” these are the qualities that come to my mind.

If you listen to “I’m Going Away,” (recorded on Hawkins’ second album, 1978’s Love Alive II) you hear a song that is at once personally and collectively testimonial, in form as well as in lyric. It begins with light flourishes from the piano, and that suspenseful pause before the tenors sing the first “I’m going away.” As other instruments join in, Hawkins expands on this thematic foundation to answer the questions: Where is “away”? How long will you be there? Why does it matter?

“To a place/ I’ll live eternally/ a special place/ prepared just for me.”

Bits of the song’s lyrics appear in songs in other genres, particularly blues and spirituals. And tributaries of black history flow into Hawkins’ stream of relentlessly Christian testimony. These ideas they represent about travel and movement both drive and permeate the African American experience. In “I’m Going Away,” lyrics like “One of these mornings/won’t be very long/You’re gonna look for me and I’ll be gone” give voice to the hope of the enslaved freedom-seeker, recount the Great Migration narrative, and speak for traveling bluesmen who let no grass grow under their feet — bluesmen like Georgia Tom, also known as Thomas Andrew Dorsey, a key originator of gospel music.

Later, we hear the echoes of a struggle outside of church walls by people fighting to cash the promissory note of democracy in courtrooms, on buses, at lunch counters: “There’ll be nobody there to put me out.”

There’s a promise for anyone who’s ever wept over the newspaper or fought the battles of everyday life. That Jesus, our Savior who suffered, wipes away tears. That sorrows end, that trouble don’t last always. The song connects “today” and “that by-and-by” with a relevance that I believe is a hallmark of a song that becomes a classic. It embodies the tension that historian Craig Werner identifies in his book Higher Ground as “the ongoing call and response between the gospel vision and what novelist Ralph Ellison called ‘the blues impulse.’… Where the blues men and women focus on the immediate problem of finding the strength to face another blues-torn day, the gospel vision holds out the hope that, if we stick together and keep faith with the spirit, a change is gonna come.”

And, oh, that call and response.

As the song builds, you hear members of the congregation affirming Hawkins’ testimony, assenting to shared experience and hope. From the sprinkling of applause after Hawkins’ first line, to the throaty “Yeah! Come on, now” from the tenor section in the second verse, to the soprano who ad-libs behind him through the bridge. As the song goes on, the choir’s role expands.

By 3 minutes and 16 seconds in, it’s all over, and it’s just begun. Here you hear the narrative poly-vocality that creates one song out of two, and contextualizes the individual experience within that of a community. As the choir rocks steadily into the repeated “I’m going away,” Hawkins sings over them, giving specificity to that general vision. If you’ve ever sung lead over a song like this, you know that the interchange between your voice and the collective voice of the choir is the difference between having a perfunctory rehearsal and having church. The community girds you from beneath, lifts you up and over a cloud of witnesses, empowers you to speak your piece, as long as you’re willing to speak for everybody.

To me, this conjugated litany is what church, as in “my church home,” and Church, as in “the communion of saints,” — sounds like, looks like, feels like: I’m going away. You’re going away. We’re going away. And the present progressive tense — “We’re going — describes the rhythm of the Christian life. We’re standing on promises, even as we’re marching to Zion. We’re living as victors, longing for victory.

As the song ends, portions of Andraé Crouch’s “Soon and Very Soon” and “It Won’t Be Long” are sung in rounds. This intertextual reference sounds both like a gracious acknowledgement of a fellow artist and a clever bricolage that, like the other references in the song, avoids parody.

Hawkins’ ability to create these kinds of songs is why his music will last. It’s why it continues to inspire other artists, and why I’m pretty sure no one will need to rehearse before someone in some church this Sunday sings “I’m Going Away,” “When the Battle is Over,” “Be Grateful,” “Goin’ Up Yonder,” or one of a host of others.

And it’s why a few of days ago I sat crouched among a host of boxes in my disorganized home, ear buds in my ears, heartbroken to have lost such a pioneer so soon, yet satisfied that he’d finally made the trip he’d spent his life singing about.

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