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Collection The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America

African American Gospel

African American Gospel music is a form of euphoric, rhythmic, spiritual music rooted in the solo and responsive church singing of the African American South. Its development coincided with -- and is germane to -- the development of rhythm and blues.

The precursor to black Gospel music is the African American spiritual, which had already been around for well over a century before Gospel music began its rise to popularity starting in the 1930s. Songs written by African American composers in the decades following emancipation that focused on biblical themes and often drew from spirituals were the source for the development of Gospel. An example is "De Gospel Cars," by the popular composer Sam Lucas.

When many African American communities migrated from rural to urban life during the first half of the twentieth century, they brought their worship culture with them. Echoing the ways of the single-room churches of the agrarian South, the storefront churches of the northern cities became the key setting for the development of Gospel.

Gospel artist Mahalia Jackson. Carl Van Vechten, Photographer. 1962. Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-120855

During the 1930s, Gospel music emerged from the coalescing of three types of musical activity: a) the hymn style of Charles Albert Tindley (1851-1933) a Philadelphia minister who composed hymns based on negro spirituals, adding instrumental accompaniments, improvisation and "bluesified" third and seventh intervals; b) the minimalist, solo-sung "rural Gospel" tunes that appeared as a counterpart to the rural blues; and c) the uninhibited, exuberant worship style of the Holiness-Pentecostal branch of the Christian church.

The shift from spirituals to Gospel is evident in the recordings of African American religious songs recorded in the 1930s and 1940s. The Holloway High School Quartet of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, recorded by John W. Work, III in 1941, provides an example of a traditional spiritual arranged for four-part harmony in "Old ship of Zion,"  The same group in the same recording session demonstrated the sound of Gospel, as they sang an updated version of an old spiritual, "Daniel saw the stone." 

A key figure in the development of Gospel was Thomas A. Dorsey (1899 -1993). Referred to today as the father of Gospel Music, Dorsey pioneered the form in Chicago. Before devoting his career to the development of Gospel, Dorsey, the son of a Georgia Baptist preacher, was a prolific blues and jazz composer and pianist. The energetic rhythms and primal growls of secular music heavily influenced Dorsey's sacred composing style.

From its beginnings, Gospel music challenged the existing church establishment. Black religious leaders originally rejected Dorsey's approach because of its associations with the widely frowned-upon secular music styles of the era such as ragtime, blues, and jazz.

"I know I've got religion," sung by the Golden Jubilee Quartet in 1943, is an example of an old spiritual arranged for Gospel quartet. The use of a rocking beat in Gospel began in the 1940s, as the secular form of what came to be called rhythm and blues was also catching on. An example is  "Death comes a knocking," performed by the Four Brothers, also recorded by Willis James in 1943.

Thomas Dorsey teamed up with vocalist Mahalia Jackson (1912 - 1972) who, like him, had been exposed during her formative years to the Baptist church and the sounds of blues artists like Bessie Smith (through an aunt's record collection). Together, Dorsey and Jackson bypassed the establishment and took their new Christian sound to the street corners of Chicago and elsewhere around the country. Jackson sang Dorsey's songs while the composer hawked copies of his sheet music.

Eventually, Dorsey and Jackson's vision spread through their alliance with a few likeminded musical pioneers to form of the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, which is still thriving today.

During its early development, Gospel music featured simple piano and organ accompaniment. Male vocal quartets were popular, having emerged under the auspices of African American universities like Fisk and Hampton. Originally these groups sang a cappella  spirituals, but started switching to the Gospel repertoire in the 1930s. In the 1940s, the quartets often added a fifth singer and guitar accompaniment.

The sound of slide guitar sound from Hawaii began to influence many genres of American music shortly after Hawaii became a US territory in 1898. A style of Gospel music, called "sacred steel," emerged. View the concert starring Aubrey Ghent playing the sacred steel lap guitar.

Although singers like Aretha Franklin had introduced Gospel style songs to the pop charts with songs like "Think" in 1968, church-centric Gospel music began to cross over into the mainstream following the release in 1969 of the recording of "O Happy Day" by the Edwin Hawkins Singers, a mixed-gender Gospel chorus based in the San Francisco Bay area. The song, which was based on a mid-eighteenth century English hymn sold more than a million copies in two months (well above average for a Gospel recording) and earned its composer, Edwin Hawkins (born 1943) his first of four Grammy Awards.

Since Hawkins, other artists have emerged, taking Gospel music well beyond the black church. Today's Gospel songs are more harmonically complex than their traditional counterparts. Prominent names in the contemporary Gospel field include Andrae Crouch, Take 6, The New York Community Choir and the Cultural Heritage Choir.

These days, Gospel songs are performed as solos or by small or large ensembles, and by men and women of all ages. Both blacks and whites sing the repertoire and the instrumentation possibilities are limitless, ranging from synthesizers and drums to full symphony orchestras. Hear, for example, Marion Williams's 1992 recording of "Amazing Grace,"

The genre continues to make an impact on the popular music today. Its influence can be heard in the work of many secular performers, from the folk stylings of Simon and Garfunkel to the soul outpourings of Adele.

Resources

  • The African American Civil Rights Movement (Songs of America)
  • African American Song (Songs of America)
  • Blues (Songs of America)
  • Blues as Protest (Songs of America)
  • Now What a Time: Blues, Gospel, and the Fort Valley Music Festivals, 1938-1943.  Consists of approximately one hundred sound recordings, primarily blues and Gospel songs, and related documentation from the folk festival at Fort Valley State College (now Fort Valley State University), Fort Valley, Georgia. The documentation was created by John Wesley Work III in 1941 and by Lewis Jones and Willis Laurence James in March, June, and July 1943. These recording projects were supported by the Library of Congress's Archive of American Folk Song (now the Archive of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center).
  • Darden, Robert. People Get Ready: A New History of Black Gospel Music. Copyright (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004)
  • Hitchcock, H. Wiley and Stanley Sadie. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. (London: Macmillan, 1986) pp 254-261
  • Koskoff, Ellen, Ed. The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Volume 3: The United States and Canada. (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 2001) pp 629-636
  • Songs Related to the Abolition of Slavery (Songs of America)
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