Song of the Day: Rev. James Cleveland - Lord Help Me to Hold Out

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I had fully intended to cover something punk today, when I began listening to some old traditional Gospel for a project at work (I’m an associate pastor at a diverse, inner-city church). I was reminded of a Gospel song I first heard in the early 1990s when I was a member of a Gospel choir at my college. Yes, little ol’ white boy me, metalhead/punk rocker. In fact at one point in time I had a 4-inch mohawk while I was in this Gospel choir, but I digress.

One of the most memorable songs we did was “Lord Help Me to Hold Out” by the legendary Rev. James Cleveland. What does this have to do with independent music? Let me build my case.

Cleveland was born in 1931, in Chicago and learned to sing and play Gospel music from a very young age. It is believed that he strained his voice in his youth, which led to the gravelly vocal style he became know for later in life. His recorded output begins in 1955 with a number of singles, and his first album was released in 1959. In fact, by the time our featured song was released in 1973, Cleveland had already released over 50 full-length albums!

He was active in, during, and throughout the segregation era and the civil rights movement–you can’t get much more punk than that. What I’ve always appreciated about true Gospel music is how it empowered people to endure hardships. This was long before–and flew in the face of–the contemporary “prosperity gospel” of later years. The opening line to the song:

My way may not be easy
You never said that it would be
But when it gets dark, and I can’t find my way
You told me to put my trust in You

This kind of mentality–trusting God when circumstances seem grim–is what I’ve found to be true in the ethnically diverse, generationally poor communities I’ve been affiliated with. They are not unaccustomed to troubled times, and as such have built up an incredible amount of resilience.

Cleveland had a number of accolades throughout the years. He sang and/or recorded with Aretha Franklin on a number of occasions. He was the first Gospel singer to get his own Hollywood star. He was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1984, and died in 1991. Even that doesn’t tell the full story of his contributions to faith-based music. Cleveland’s work pushed a number of genre-boundaries at the time, interweaving traditional (at the time) Gospel music with rock and roll, soul, and jazz. He was known for using unusual and/or complex time signatures in his work. Cleveland eventually became known as “the King of Gospel Music.” You can certainly hear the rock and soul influences in “Lord Help Me to Hold Out.”

Although a number of controversies and/or mysteries surround the latter part of his life, and even continued after his death, it is not our task here to dig up dirt nor to investigate such claims. My only goal here is to shed light on an incredibly influential artist and worship leader whose work has influenced countless of others throughout multiple decades.

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