Gospel Travelers

Though they’ve been playing together only a short time, the Gospel Travelers are quickly gaining a reputation as one of the country’s most exciting and inspiring contemporary gospel groups. Formed in 2003 in San Jose by Deacon George Pierce and led by Reverend Milton “Bill” Johnson, the Gospel Travelers have toured extensively in the southern United States and played in churches and clubs all over the Bay Area as well as at the All Faiths Gospel Festival. The Spark episode “Ensembles” offers a glimpse into Northern California’s hardest-working gospel group as they celebrate their one-year anniversary.

Born to a poor family in rural Arkansas, Johnson has endured more than his share of hardships. He left school at the age of 11 to help support his family by picking cotton and didn’t learn to read until just recently, at the age of 61. As a young man, he toured the South as a gospel singer until two of his bandmates died tragically. He moved to California, where he raised six children, working as a mattress hauler to support them. Johnson credits gospel music with having been his one solace throughout, allowing him to maintain his faith and trust in a higher power.

Gospel music uses traditional slave-era spirituals and melds them with the driving rhythmic emphasis that is characteristic of blues and early jazz. Traditionally, when it was performed in churches, gospel music was sung by a choir with individual soloists occasionally taking the spotlight. Often performed in a “call and response” form, the choir or the soloist would repeat or respond to the lyrics sung by the other, with the soloist improvising embellishments of the melody for greater emphasis. As the music developed, these soloists became more and more virtuosic, performing with wild emotion to express the spiritual ecstasy the music was intended to evoke. In the 1950s and 1960s, gospel music had an enormous impact on the development of R&B and soul music, which channeled gospel’s spiritual intensity into nonreligious themes.

In the spirit of the community-based roots of the music they play, the Gospel Travelers have become more than a musical group: To one another, they are a makeshift family, helping each other out in any way possible in difficult times. Johnson has taken on the role of spiritual leader to the other musicians and often gets calls from group members looking for guidance and assistance.

Though performing primarily in churches, the Gospel Travelers have recently moved their act to more secular venues in an attempt to reach a wider audience. Spark follows the group as they play Biscuits and Blues, a blues club in downtown San Francisco. Their hard work is beginning to pay off: Thanks to recent recordings and a groundswell of support from local audiences — both religious and secular — the group not only has many upcoming church performances booked, but also has been invited to play at the internationally acclaimed Monterey Bay Blues Festival.

Gospel Travelers 19 January,2016Spark
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