Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers: Peace in the Valley

Written by Joseph Li

Pianist and Coach

In category: Song of the Day

Published May 17, 2018

Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers is a bit of a misnomer for this first song on the album, which should probably fall under the heading of “Paul Foster and the Soul Stirrers.” It’s not that Sam Cooke doesn’t bring his trademark irreplaceable quality to the song, it’s just that Paul Foster’s unvarnished sound wrenches your soul into glorious hope in a way no one could except for Paul Foster.

I fell in love with gospel music playing services for All Angels’ Church in New York City. I remember being asked to play the evening gospel worship service and realizing I knew nothing about it. Nothing. And so, on the recommendations of sage singers, I started my listening journey with Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers.

Probably the most important lesson I’ve taken away from that journey is that there is only one unforgivable sin when singing or playing gospel music: not meaning it. Baritone Reginald Smith, Jr. reinforced this point to me making it crystal clear one summer at Wolf Trap. He often sent me into hysterics telling stories about he and his mom going to various gospel worship services and her various insights into not just gospel music but life. On one particular occasion, after they had finished listening to someone’s virtuosic, vocally impressive performance in church, she turned to him and said, “Honey, the Lord ain’t in that.”

Reggie – if you’re reading this, please publish a book of your mom’s wisdom. I feel like that alone would make the world a vastly better place.

You’ll hear both Foster’s voice and Cooke’s voice crack multiple times in this song, and you won’t care in the slightest. What they mean is far beyond the power of vocal sheen to express.

author: Joseph Li

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Seattle native Joseph Li has played and coached for Houston Grand Opera, Wolf Trap Opera Company, Minnesota Opera, The Shepherd School of Music at Rice University, Opera Lyra Ottawa, Arizona Opera, Opera Birmingham, and the Aspen Opera Theater Center. Last summer at Wolf Trap Opera he conducted Philip Glass’ chamber opera The Fall of the House of Usher in collaboration with the Halcyon Stage in Washington, D.C.; and performed in a two-piano recital alongside Steven Blier, Artistic Director of the New York Festival of Song. Mr. Li joined the faculty of Baylor University’s School of Music in 2016. Recent collaborations include appearances with Minnesota Opera, Arizona Opera, Lone Star Lyric, MATCH Theater, and the Dallas Museum of Art.

1 Comment

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    Joseph, what a perfect presentation of this song and thank heavens the great Sam Cooke has made it to this blog. Your offer of your own entry into gospel and your understanding of your *lack* of understanding at the beginning is a remarkable reminder of the humility with which we are called to approach music important to cultures not our own. All good music has spirit. All songs must be enlivened by acknowledgement of layers of meaning. Yours is a great summary.


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