Gospel music may refer either to the religious music that first came out of African-American churches in the 1930's or, more loosely, to both black gospel music and to the religious music composed and sung by white southern Christian artists. While the separation between the two styles was never absolute — both drew from the Methodist hymnal and artists in one tradition sometimes sang songs belonging to the other — the sharp division between black and white America, particularly black and white churches, kept the two apart. While those divisions have lessened slightly in the past fifty years, the two traditions are still distinct.
In both traditions, some performers, such as Mahalia Jackson have limited themselves to appearing in religious contexts only, while others, such as the Golden Gate Quartet and Clara Ward, have performed gospel music in secular settings, even night clubs. Many performers, such as the Jordanaires , Al Green, and Solomon Burke have performed both secular and religious music. It is common for such performers to include a gospel songs in otherwise secular performances, although the opposite almost never happens.
Precursor (18th Century)
Willie Ruff, an African-American professor of music at Yale University, claims that Gospel music shares the same structure as Scottish Presbyterian psalm-singing, known as 'lining-out'. This allowed one bible to be used by an entire church and consisted of a minister singing one line of a psalm to the congregation. The congregation then sang the line back imparting their own emotion to it. Ruff claims that this form of singing was heard by African-American slaves at slave-owners' churches and that they then developed it in to a style of their own. However Professor Anthony Pinn, of Rice University, has dismissed this claim as 'academic racism'.
Origins (1920s - 1940s)
What most people would identify today as "gospel music" — African-American religious music based on large church choirs, featuring virtuoso soloists — began very differently eighty years ago. The gospel music that Thomas A. Dorsey, Sallie Martin, Willie Mae Ford Smith and other pioneers popularized had its roots in the more freewheeling forms of religious devotion of "Sanctified" or "Holiness" churches — sometimes called "holy rollers" by other denominations — who encouraged individual church members to "testify," speaking or singing spontaneously about their faith, sometimes while dancing in celebration. In the 1920s Sanctified artists, such as Arizona Dranes, many of whom were also traveling preachers, started making records in a style that melded traditional religious themes with barrelhouse, blues and boogie woogie techniques and brought jazz instruments, such as drums and horns, into the church.
Dorsey, who, as Georgia Tom, had once composed for and played piano behind blues giants Tampa Red , Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, worked hard to develop this new music, organizing an annual convention for gospel artists, touring with Martin to sell sheet music and gradually overcoming the resistance of more conservative churches to what many of them considered sinful, worldly music. Combining the sixteen bar structure and blues modes and rhythms with religious lyrics, Dorsey's compositions opened up possibilities for innovative singers such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe to apply their very individual talents to his songs, while inspiring church members to "shout" — either to call out catch phrases or to add musical lines of their own in response to the singers.
This freer style affected other black religious musical styles as well. The most popular groups in the 1930s were male quartets or small groups such as The Golden Gate Quartet, who sang, usually unaccompanied, in jubilee style, mixing careful harmonies, melodious singing, playful syncopation and sophisticated arrangements to produce a fresh, experimental style far removed from the more somber hymn-singing. These groups also absorbed popular sounds from pop groups such as The Mills Brothers and produced songs that mixed conventional religious themes, humor and social and political commentary. They began to show more and more influence from gospel as they incorporated the new music into their repertoire.
Golden age (1940s - 1950s)
The new gospel music composed by Dorsey and others proved very popular among quartets, who began turning in a new direction. Groups such as the Dixie Hummingbirds, Pilgrim Travelers, Soul Stirrers, Swan Silvertones, Sensational Nightingales and Five Blind Boys of Mississippi introduced even more stylistic freedom to the close harmonies of jubilee style, adding ad libs and using repeated short phrases in the background to maintain a rhythmic base for the innovations of the lead singers. Individual singers also stood out more as jubilee turned to "hard gospel" and as soloists began to shout more and more, often in falsettos anchored by a prominent bass. Quartet singers combined both individual virtuoso performances and innovative harmonic and rhythmic invention — what Ira Tucker Sr. and Paul Owens of the Hummingbirds called "trickeration" — that amplified both the emotional and musical intensity of their songs.
At the same time that quartet groups were reaching their zenith in the 1940s and 1950s, a number of women singers were achieving stardom. Some, such as Mahalia Jackson and Bessie Griffin, were primarily soloists, while others, such as Clara Ward, The Caravans, The Davis Sisters and Dorothy Love Coates, sang in small groups. While some groups, such as The Ward Singers, employed the sort of theatrics and daring group dynamics that male quartet groups used, for the most part women gospel singers relied instead on overpowering technique and dramatic personal witness to establish themselves.
Roberta Martin in Chicago stood apart from other women gospel singers in many respects. She led groups that featured both men and women singers, employed an understated style that did not stress individual virtuosity, and sponsored a number of individual artists, such as James Cleveland, who went on to change the face of gospel in the decades that followed.
Choirs and individual stars (1960s - present)
Cleveland and Alex Bradford brought about a revolution in gospel by launching the era of mass choirs, large disciplined organizations who used complex arrangements to turn their massive vocal power to achieve the propulsive rhythms, intricate harmonies and individual virtuosity of the quartets of the Golden Age. Groups such as The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir and The Mississippi Mass Choir are two of the most popular out of hundreds of local church-based groups.
At the same time, more recent stars, such as Andrae Crouch, CeCe Winans and Take 6, have continued to draw on pop influences, just as Dorsey and other pioneers borrowed from the blues and jazz. Others, such as Kirk Franklin, have introduced elements of hip hop into gospel.
The slow death of Jim Crow changed gospel's focus as well. During the years of formal segregation and repression of blacks, gospel served, particularly for the apolitical and largely quietist Holiness churches, as a covert form of political protest. Lines such as "When I get to Heaven I'm going to sing and shout/'Cause nobody there's going to turn me out" and "I know my robe's going to fit me well/'Cause I tried it on at the gates of hell" had an obvious second meaning to many listeners who were not able to protest their position in the world in more direct ways. Gospel songs were therefore the logical choice for anthems for the Civil Rights Movement, which drew its leaders, much of its organization, and its vision from black churches.
With the end of the starkly simple color lines of fifty years ago, the old covert references to discrimination and slavery have, however, lost much of their emotive power. Gospel music has responded by focusing more on its alternative message, the necessity for individual salvation, while substituting the institution of the choir for the masked political commentary of older songs.
Gospel artists, who had been influenced by pop music trends for years, had a major influence on early rhythm and blues artists, particularly the "bird groups" such as the Orioles, the Ravens and the Flamingos, who applied gospel quartets' a cappella techniques to pop songs in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s. Individual gospel artists, such as Sam Cooke, and secular artists who borrowed heavily from gospel, such as Ray Charles and James Brown, had an even greater impact later in the 1950s, helping to create soul music by bringing even more gospel to rhythm and blues.
Many of the most prominent soul artists, such as Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and Al Green, had roots in the church and gospel music and brought with them much of the vocal styles of artists such as Clara Ward and Julius Cheeks . Secular songwriters often appropriated gospel songs, such as the Pilgrim Travelers' song "I've Got A New Home", which Ray Charles turned into "Lonely Avenue", or "Stand By Me", which Ben E. King and Lieber and Stoller adapted from a well-known gospel song, or Marvin Gaye's "Can I Get A Witness", which reworks traditional gospel catchphrases. In other cases secular musicians did the opposite, attaching phrases and titles from the gospel tradition to secular songs to create soul hits such as "Come See About Me" for The Supremes and "99 1/2 Won't Do" for Wilson Pickett.
Often called southern gospel or country gospel to distinguish it from black gospel, white gospel music has followed a different trajectory during the past eighty years. Some of its roots are found in the publishing work and "normal schools" of Aldine S. Kieffer and Ephraim Ruebush. It was promoted by traveling singing school teachers, southern gospel quartets, and shape note music publishing companies such as the A. J. Showalter Company (1879), the James D. Vaughan Publishing Company and the Stamps-Baxter Music and Printing Company.
Southern gospel also drew much of its creative energy from the Holiness churches that arose throughout the south in the first decades of the twentieth century and that created new music, in addition to the traditional hymns of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to accompany their new forms of worship.
Some early country gospel artists, such as The Carter Family, achieved wide popularity through their recordings and radio performances in the 1920s and 1930s. Others, such as Homer Rodeheaver , George Beverly Shea or Cliff Barrows , became well-known through their association with traveling evangelists such as Billy Sunday or Billy Graham.
Among the best known southern gospel performers are The Blackwood Brothers , the Jordanaires and the Oak Ridge Boys. As in the case of black gospel, the churchgoing audience for white gospel music has not always forgiven its stars, such as the Oak Ridge Boys, who have crossed over to pop music. Other traditional groups, such as The Imperials , helped lead the development of Contemporary Christian Music.
The Gospel Music Association is a major group of gospel artists who maintain a hall of fame covering all aspects of gospel music.
- Boyer, Horace Clarence,How Sweet the Sound: The Golden Age of Gospel Elliott and Clark, 1995, ISBN 0252068777.
- Heilbut, Tony, The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times Limelight Editions, 1997, ISBN 0879100346.
Last updated: 10-25-2005 12:12:07