“like a ship” – pastor t. l. barrett & the youth for christ choir (1971)


Like most people, I have a smartphone.  Most of the time, I’m using my smartphone to stream music.  It could be on apps like Pandora or even a curated playlist in my iTunes.  Sometimes, I’ll listen to what I know because it is familiar and I already enjoy it.  Other times, I’ll branch out.  Either way, I’m listening to something.

Experiencing music on a device or through a streaming music site can grow tiresome sometimes.  There is too much control in the listening process.  While it is great I can sift through things and find whatever I want to match whatever mood I have wherever I am at, there is something missing from the experience.  That control gives way to experiencing music in a way that is closed-minded.  I’m approaching the content with something in mind already and crafting it to my needs.  That is important, but it can be exhausting.  No amount of control or unlimited access in how I manipulate music to my needs will ever match the experience of hearing the right song at the right time and without the listener’s interference.  The feeling you get when you’re driving down the road listening you favorite FM station not knowing what is next and then getting blown away when it happens.  That spontaneity is everything.

I had an experience like that a few weeks ago.  The Chicago Critics Film Festival was being held at the Music Box Theatre.  The festival was showing more than two dozen movies and I had won pairs of tickets to five movies.  These movies were scheduled over the course of 6 days.  The problem was that if I didn’t pick up the tickets, I would be banned from future contests by the film blog that awarded me the tickets.  I didn’t expect to win a single pair let alone five.  So, I wasn’t excited about seeing the movies because now it felt like an obligation; a chore even.  I even entertained the idea of just picking up the tickets, but not going into the theater just so I wouldn’t get banned.  The idea of being in a theater 5 times in a week was a little much for me.

I did stick through the movies and I’m glad I did.  Of all five movies, one stuck out with me the most.  Starring Thomas Middleditch and Nick Kroll, Joshy was an emotional viewing.  Within the first five minutes, the girlfriend of Middleditch’s character commits suicide on his birthday.  They were engaged and scheduled to be married four months later.  Middleditch’s character had a cabin in the words where he was going to host a big bachelor party.  Considering the recent change in his relationship status, there wasn’t going to be a bachelor party.  However, the space was already paid for and he was determined to use it.  While most people cancelled after the death, a few friends joined him.  The weekend was going to be a bonding experience where a group of guys would have fun and enjoy their lives together.  Amidst all the drinking and partying, there was still a fog of sadness and depression hanging in the air.  The movie was incredibly tense at times and awkward.  Of course it was.  That is a situation that isn’t taken lightly no matter how hard you try to drown it with drugs and alcohol.

I went with a friend and the movie evoked a powerful reaction from both of us.  We were both anxious at what we just saw because of the reality of the situation.  It was all very uncomfortable and emotionally taxing.  Shortly before the end credits played, a few bars of an organ start playing.  And as the text appeared on the screen, the song came in at full volume.  Music used in movies can certainly elevate a scene or another part of the cinematic experience.  When it works, it works well.  However, it can be very hard to enjoy a song outside of the context of a movie.  Sometimes, you cannot separate the two and when you do, both suffer.  The song that played at the end of Joshy was a huge release after 90 plus minutes of awkwardness and depression.  But, even beyond the movie, the song has stuck with me since and has become one of the most powerful songs I have heard in recent years.

Pastor T. L. Barrett has been a significant figure in Chicago for more than four decades.  Residing on the South Side of the city, Barrett has lead social and activist campaigns to improve the lives of his community and it’s inhabitants.  His programs and message to promote social welfare amongst the black community have been extremely influential and far-reaching.  Barrett is also well-known as a radio host and a skilled musician.  Working with various church choirs in New York and Chicago, Barret established himself as a cultural and spiritual force promoting his message of peace through music.

I had some interaction with Barrett a few years ago through an old job, but I wasn’t aware of his music at the time.  If I was, I would’ve loved to have talked with him about it.  When I heard “Like a Ship” play in that theater, it was a life-changing experience.  I had felt something powerful in that song.

Self-published in 1971, “Like a Ship” is the opening track on Barrett’s debut album.  Backed by the Youth For Christ Choir of the Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Chicago, the entire album is a collection of raw gospel soul.  Full of charisma and bravado, Barrett turns his legendary preaching into a spiritual hymn that is uplifting and musically funky.  The backing track has a gritty production and is arranged by Gene Barge, most notable for being a session musician for Chess Records.  The choir of children sound heavenly and it is so hard to not be moved by their energy that to not be meant you were made of stone.  Barrett’s vocals sound improvisational as if the Holy Spirit is moving right through at that moment and directing him where to go.  He sounds like he is giving a sermon right in front of you.

In the last few weeks, I have listened to this song dozens of times.  Simply put, I just feel better when I hear it.  It is one of the most powerful songs I have ever heard.  While I am a big fan of independent and obscure soul music, I had never heard it before.  And if I didn’t hear it in the movie, I’m not sure if I ever would.  Gospel music gets a bad rap because of the perceptions of those who are fundamentally religious.  I won’t validate that sentiment, but a lot of gospel and Christian music is fairly hokey; when the message is laid so thick and the music takes a back seat or if it is done to maximize profit while exploiting it’s listener base.  However, there is a lot of great gospel music out there.  I learned that I should be a bit more open-minded when I actively seek music because a label can be misleading.