Without the artistic and emotional contributions of gay people there would be no gospel music. Throughout the middle decades of the 20th century, a significant number of gay or “queer” artists left their mark on gospel music, a cultural form that many consider to be America’s most original. Indeed, the contribution of gays and lesbians to gospel music has been so large as to be absolutely “crucial and fundamental.” They have been the “unacknowledged arbiters” of the gospel music world and no one can truly understand this American cultural form without careful attention to their lives and experiences.
This is the provocative and convincing claim made by Anthony Heilbut in “The Children and their Secret Closet,” the lead essay in his majestic new book, “The Fan Who Knew Too Much.” Heilbut, a writer, record producer, and cultural critic has been immersed (on his own terms) in the gospel world for nearly 50 years. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of gospel and has been closely connected to all of the major performers of the previous generation. To put it simply, no one knows more about the history of gospel music or has done more to promote it than this Jewish atheist from Queens. It is fair to say that most of what we know about gospel music we learned from him, beginning with his now classic book, “The Gospel Sound,” published in 1971.