Revisiting Bob Dylan's gospel music

Jeff Gaskill (standing, arms folded) listening to playback of recording by Shirley Caesar (seated, center) of remake of "Gotta Serve Somebody"

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., April 24, 2003) – One of Jeffrey Gaskill’s favorite pastimes is making mix tapes. Gaskill’s latest mix tape, however, is on a whole other level than your average, homemade cassette mix.

Gaskill always liked the overlooked, underrated gospel songs that Bob Dylan wrote and recorded between 1979 and 1981. But he wasn’t particularly interested in compiling a tape of Dylan’s versions. What Gaskill wanted to hear was Dylan’s songs interpreted by gospel artists, in the very context in which they were perhaps always destined to be heard -- as pure, unadulterated gospel music.

So Gaskill went about making the “mix tape” himself, hiring the stars of modern and contemporary gospel -- people like Shirley Caesar, Aaron Neville, the Sounds of Blackness, Mighty Clouds of Joy, the Chicago Mass Choir, Lee Williams and the Spiritual QCs, Rance Allen, Helen Baylor, and the Fairfield Four -- to record songs from Dylan’s “Slow Train Coming” and “Saved” albums.

The carefully curated result, representing the broad variety of gospel styles – including soloists, traditional a cappella quartets, modern ensembles and mass choirs -- is now available on CD in record stores all over the nation. Columbia Records, a division of Sony Music Entertainment – and, coincidentally, Bob Dylan’s record label – licensed Gaskill’s professionally-made “mix tape” and released it as “Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan,” earlier this month.

The Williamstown native’s name is listed prominently as “Executive Producer” on the back of the handsome, cardboard CD case, fashioned to resemble an old prayer hymnal. And inside, the liner notes reflect the hometown nature of the project, with thanks given to a list of Williamstown friends who initially provided the financial backing to make Gaskill’s dream a reality. [Full disclosure: I am also thanked in the liner notes, but not for any financial connection to the project.]

Dylan himself gave his stamp of approval to the project when he volunteered to re-record a revved-up, duet version of the song, “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” with Mavis Staples and his touring band. Dylan also seems to have acknowledged Gaskill’s efforts by reintroducing several of his gospel-era songs to recent performance playlists.

The recording also reunited members of Dylan’s touring band from his gospel period, including guitarist Fred Tackett, pianist Terry Young, and drummer Jim Keltner. Keyboardists Billy Preston and Spooner Oldham also appear on the album, which was produced by Joel Moss, best known for his Grammy Award-winning work with gospel singer Cissy Houston.

The finished product, while only out since early April, is already garnering rave reviews across the country. “If you buy one gospel record in 2003, let this be it,” said the All Music Guide in its 4½ star review. “A whole new way to hear Dylan,” wrote a reviewer in the New York Post, and “not only entertaining but also fascinating,” chimed in the Associated Press. It’s the kind of high-profile project that could take top honors during the next Grammy Award cycle.

In a recent phone interview from his Brooklyn apartment, Gaskill, 41, said he was “gratified” by the early response.

“I wanted it to be a critically-sound recording that would give the songs themselves new life in a sense, separate from their composer -- to allow the songs to be recognized on their own merits,” said Gaskill, a graduate of Mount Greylock Regional High School, whose mother, Virginia Gaskill, lives in Williamstown.

“I think that’s definitely happening,” said Gaskill. “People are giving it good critical reviews, and revisiting, reassessing and reevaluating that period of Dylan’s career.”

The experience of shepherding an album from conception through recording and release has also given Gaskill the opportunity to assess his own career working in the performing arts for the last two decades.

“The making of the album was very challenging,” he said, “but there were similarities to what I had done in the past. It’s not that different from a musical presentation or a live performance. And there’s a deep sense of satisfaction now.

“But this project provided me with a real sense of purpose for a long period of time. And now there’s the sense of what’s next? There’s a certain amount of loss involved here. Everyone talks about the achievement of the finished product, but at the same time it’s a little bittersweet. I’m reluctant to say goodbye to it.”

Gaskill isn’t sure what’s next. He is exploring several opportunities -- some in the same vein as what came before, and some completely different.

For much of the past 20 years, Gaskill has worked in various capacities in the concert business, doing corporate marketing on tours by the Rolling Stones, Tina Turner and Santana, and overseeing production at Central Park’s SummerStage, a festival of performing arts in which he worked with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane dance company, the New York Grand Opera, the Nuyorican Poets, world-music artists King Sunny Ade and the New African Beats, and LilithFair founder Sarah McLachlan, among many others.

Gaskill got his start in show business right here in the Berkshires, where shortly after college he set up shop as a concert promoter at the Mahaiwe Theatre, presenting the much-beloved and long-lamented Burning Rose Concert Series, which brought artists including Bonnie Raitt, Nanci Griffith, Chick Corea and the Roches, among others, to downtown Great Barrington on a regular basis. He also promoted shows at Albany’s Palace Theatre and in Burlington, Vt.

Gaskill is excited to see the long dormant Mahaiwe showing new signs of life recently, with a series of concerts recently staged by Helsinki Presents and with plans to turn the theater into a year-round performing arts center moving forward.

“I’ve always thought the Mahaiwe would be best served by presenting and celebrating the best of all of the performing arts in the Berkshires,” said Gaskill. “And that seems to be happening. I’ve been in a lot of venues around the country, and none are as sweet as the Mahaiwe. It’s a very fine theater.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on April 24, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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