When Jim Byrnes began working on his 2006 album, House of Refuge, he knew that he wanted to add some gospel music into the mix. He’d performed live with gospel groups over the years, but hadn’t recorded an album with one until he mentioned the idea to his producer, Steve Dawson, and the two of them agreed to make it happen.
For the requisite voices, Byrnes turned first to Marcus Mosely, one of the directors of the Good Noise Vancouver Gospel Choir. Mosely then brought in a couple of the choir’s members, Will Sanders and Ron Small, and the singers began something that has now taken on a life of its own beyond Byrnes’s album.
“We had so much fun singing together and doing this, and we were laughing it up,” Byrnes explains. “So at the end of the thing I said, ‘Listen, man, you guys need to stay together. This has got to be a real thing, and I’m going to give you a name.’ And I named them the Sojourners.”
“When he said, ‘I’m gonna call you guys the Sojourners,’ it was just perfect,” Mosely elaborates. “In fact, the complete name, if you want to say it, is the Original Sojourners of Vancouver, which is sort of an homage to a lot of those quartet and quintet groups in the South—they always have names like that: the Original Five Blind Boys of Alabama or Mississippi. Plus I understood what [Byrnes’s] sentiment was. Number one, the name comes from the idea of people ... who aren’t in their homeland but they are passing through on their way to another land, so that has real strong significance in African-American history and also with the whole idea of the gospel music, the idea that we are just travellers here on this planet on our way to a better place.
“And also, there was a woman who was formerly a slave,” he continues, “who gained her freedom and then became quite a strong abolitionist and outspoken person for women’s rights, back at the turn of the century—her name was Sojourner Truth. So the name is just packed with meaning and significance.”
That Byrnes would come up with a name that is rich in history and powerful metaphors is not surprising considering that his own background is one with tendrils reaching all the way back to his youth in St Louis, where he says that he grew up listening to radio stations that played the blues on Saturday nights and nothing but gospel music on Sundays.
The three singers in the Sojourners know their way around gospel music, too, although their own approaches to the style have been tailored by the geography of their pasts, something which came into play when the trio recorded its own album, Hold On, last year.
“The three guys got together—Will, Ron and myself—and we started just making lists of songs that we could potentially do and then we narrowed them down to the few that we chose,” Mosely recalls. “It was a fun process, because Will comes from Louisiana, Ron originally comes from Chicago and I was born in Texas, so although we all grew up with various exposures to gospel music, regionally we come from different places, so the songs have their own character depending on what region you come from. So in our rehearsals when we were working on the music it was a fun process, too, just sort of to synchronize all those, to bring all those different regional idiosyncrasies together to create each song.
“With Will, he comes from Louisiana ... so he grew up around Cajuns, people who speak that sort of French patois,” he continues, explaining the combination of regional gospel sounds that came together in the Sojourners. “With Ron, coming from Chicago it’s more industrialized, so the music has that sort of Chicago blues, Chicago jazz sort of sound, and me being a Texan, I grew up actually with a lot of country and western influences, and cowboy music and of course gospel—but the gospel had more guitar sounds to it and so on—so we brought all of those together.”