These gospel tunes from The Soul Stirrers are like a Bible study all on their own.
There are few musical groups that were as influential to a genre as The Soul Stirrers. From 1926 to their eventual breakup in the 1960s they were the premier recorders of gospel music. They were pioneers of the development of quartet-style vocal music, and their influence reaches deep into the genres of soul, doo-wop, and Motown.
The band enjoyed decades of success, but at no point were they bigger than when they were fronted by Sam Cooke. Cooke’s expressive, flexible vocals helped them create timeless recordings that are still in use today. This is a big deal when considering the low quality of the 1950s recording methods, but even on grainy records Cooke’s vocals rang clear and true.
Within The Soul Stirrers’ catalogue of gospel music, there were two pieces that stand out to us in particular. These songs were drawn straight from the scriptures to tell the Gospel narratives through song. This is, of course, the goal of many hymns, but there is something about the conversational tone of the lyrics that make the tunes feel like a Bible study all on their own.
“Touch the Hem of His Garment”
In “Touch the Hem of His Garment” Cooke sings about the healing of the bleeding woman, a miracle documented in Mark 5 and Luke 8. The passage records the miraculous healing of a hemorrhaging woman through her faith alone. The lyrics are not exact quotes from the Bible, but they present the biblical account in terms that anyone can understand.
Sam Cooke’s vocals are incredibly fitting to the song. When the woman cries out, Cooke takes on a desperate tone to his belting vocals. His flexible melisma makes the song so unique that it’s hard for a trained vocalist to recreate after multiple hearings.
The song ends before Jesus heals the woman, as he did in the Gospels, proclaiming, “Daughter, your faith has saved you. Go in peace and be cured of your affliction.” This may seem like an omission, but the song doesn’t seem to be about the miracle itself, but rather the instinctual faith that led the woman to seek Christ out for healing in the first place.
“Jesus Gave Me Water”
“Jesus Gave Me Water” was drawn right from John 4. In this Gospel tuneThe Soul Stirrerstook on Jesus’ talk with the Samaritan woman. It is a very condensed retelling of the Gospel narrative, but it follows the narrative from the meeting of Jesus to the woman bringing the whole town out to meet the saviour. It continues after the narrative ceases, with the woman finding strength in just the memory of her meeting Christ.
One of the greatest parts of this song is how he references the “Living Water” that Jesus refers to in the Gospel. Without using overt terms, the singers note that the water the woman received “was not in the well.”
The song is so quick in pace and timing that one might need to hear it twice to catch everything. The Soul Stirrers do a marvelous job backing up Cooke with a bouncing a cappella accompaniment, with the bass singing so low that he at times sounds like an upright bass plucking away.
There are tons of other Christian themes explored in the remaining body of The Soul Stirrers’discography. These two, however, stand apart from the rest as they are rooted so deeply in scripture. They stand as an educational exercise for Christians to become closer to biblical narratives through song.