The History of Gospel Music

Gospel Music History

There is a stereotypical image of gospel music that modern culture continues to paint. We are conditioned to think of the exuberant, positive services of African American churches. There is joy in the song, energy in the performance and a lot of audience participation from the congregation. It is seen as a wonderful alternative to the solemn approach of other churches – a chance to praise God with great feeling.

However, there is far more to this style of music than some passionate call-and-response and a like-minded choir. African American gospel has been with us for decades and evolved greatly during the 20th century. There are different styles and influences that we can see across contemporary music. It may be confined to church halls in popular culture but it is actually far more diverse and wide-reaching. Also, while we may hear positivity and joy in the songs, the origin of this music and the deeper meaning is more significant.

What is gospel music?

Gospel music is a genre of Christian music that usually has dominant vocals (often with strong use of harmony) with Christian or biblical lyrics.

What is traditional gospel music?

Traditional gospel music is written to express either personal or a communal belief regarding African American Christian life.

What is the purpose of gospel music?

The purpose of gospel music is to uplift and encourage Christian believers and preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ through music with the hope of bringing salvation to non-believers.

Gospel music plays a bigger role in the evolution of black music than we might imagine

When historians talk about the history of black music in America, they often follow a very similar timeline of styles and influences. There is the idea that modern music and popular culture was heavily influenced by the rise of rock ’n roll. These songs of the mid-twentieth century would not have come about without the influence of black rhythm and blues artists. The further back we go along this thread, the deeper we get into blues and ragtime music of the South. While this is an important musical timeline, it is not the only route in African American musical history.

Modern-day black artists from R&B and urban scenes can often trace their influences back to the soul singers and R&B artists of the mid-century. Some go deeper into the music of their churches and communities. This all leads back to a deep-rooted connection to gospel music.

The influence of the African American spiritual on gospel music

Gospel music as we know it began in the 1930s but the roots can be seen much earlier in the southern states. African American communities in the late 19th century would come together in their churches to give praise and sing poignant spirituals and hymns. The power of the message and rhythm of the music would often come out through the hand-clapping and foot-stomping still seen in churches to this day. Before that, those spirituals were an important part of slave culture. Groups of slaves would sing together as they worked on plantations, often choosing old songs connected to their faith. For some, this was little more than a way to feel closer to God during hardship. For others, the communal songs and harmonies would create bonds between workers. There was also the use of song as a means of covert communication.

The evolution of gospel music following emancipation and new northern United States communities

African American composers continued using biblical themes and stories of black history in the time of emancipation and beyond. The development of gospel music was an evolution of this style as African American communities moved into cities and more urban societies at the beginning of the 20th century. This was a continuation of their connection between music and faith. The gospel songs carried on into the new churches of these northern cities.

The diversification of black gospel music in this new golden age

There were four distinct styles of gospel music that developed in the golden age of gospel from the 1930s. Traditional gospel took the songs and hymns and gave them to a larger choir. It followed the more minimalist approach that was expected when the community came together in song.

Contemporary gospel changed this and allowed solo artists to come forward and tell their stories on their own. Quartet styles saw groups of vocalists sing these songs in tighter harmonies, something that would later emerge in other musical styles. Then there was the praise and worship style. This is the one that many outsiders immediately think of when they imagine gospel choirs. This blend of styles brings together the choir, soloist and the responses of the congregation.

Some historians also make note of the connection between the so-called “holy rollers” of Protestant Christian church and the black religious music of later-day gospel artists. There is no musical link here. However, there is that same sense of a need to vividly express a connection to God during a time of worship.

Gospel music continued to grow but never lost sight of its roots

The sound of black gospel music may have evolved greatly over this period but the fundamentals remained the same. A Philadelphia minister named Charles Albert Tindley was instrumental in this evolution in the early part of the 20th century. He composed hymns that would offer the same message and spiritual connection with a new style of musical accompaniment. These songs came from hymns, spirituals, and stories from times of inequality, hardship, and suffering in southern plantations and communities. All those decades later in the north, urban emancipated communities still faced inequality, hardship, and suffering in the fight for civil rights. In many ways, gospel music was a way of reconnecting with the past and strengthening their faith. It helped reinforce that feeling that God was with them through the best of times and the worst of times.

The influence of Thomas A. Dorsey and Mahalia Jackson on the evolution of gospel music

Thomas A. Dorsey was a blues and jazz composer and son of a Georgia Baptist preacher. He also helped to develop the voice of the African American community in modern music. His work took the ethos of classic gospel and church music and took it away from places of worship. Gospel went out to the streets and caught the ear of the everyday man living in these major cities. There was a feeling that black religious music needed to be heard more broadly; to not be confined.

Dorsey wouldn’t have succeeded without the voice of Mahalia Jackson to bring life and soul to the words. They would perform on street corners in Chicago and bring the sound to the people in a whole new way. Later, they would form a connection with the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses. Jackson became one of the most recognizable and passionate voices in gospel music of the era. She is often referred to as the Queen of Gospel because of her role in its early development, her influence on others and her talent. Listeners and peers would marvel at her energy and tone. Her work would soon inspire many others to take the genre further. At one point, she was also heralded as the most important black woman in America because of her work and her civil rights activism.

The musical styles and sounds also changed as the century continued – and not all ministers were pleased about it

A shift occurred from the traditional to the contemporary. To begin with, the sound of gospel music focused on the voices of the choir or soloist. Some churches would use a basic organ accompaniment and little else. Soon the guitar began to come into the performance, which paved the way for a more contemporary feel to the music. Bluesy sounds and steel slide guitars gave the music a new edge.

For many of us, this evolution of black gospel music seems wonderfully organic and positive. The growth of the genre and the increased creativity of its artists meant that mainstream success was sure to follow. It makes sense that composers and singers would reach out to a wider audience and spread their message. This is something we still see today with the blend of Christian messages in contemporary music. However, some church leaders weren’t on-board with this approach. Some ministers disliked this new form of black religious music because of its links to secular music. They felt it diminished the spirituality and meaning of the hymns.

This is part of the reason why there was such strong criticism of Andraé Crouch in the mid-20th century. Andraé Crouch took over from Dorsey as the leading composer of gospel songs in the mid-twentieth century. He helped to take the genre in a new direction and was also seen as an influence on the Jesus Music movement of the era. He was inspired to make gospel music relevant and continued to blend the traditional and secular. This led to a lot of criticism from church leaders that disliked the secular approach. Still, his work was revered by those in the industry and he would win many awards across his lifetime.

Gospel music finally went mainstream in the 1960s – largely thanks to Aretha Franklin.

By this point in time, many artists and musicians had caught on to the sound and style of black gospel music. Some of the most popular artists of the 1950s, 60s and beyond took inspiration due to their own connections to religion and the church. Gospel music didn’t really become mainstream until the 1960s. Aretha Franklin brought the style to her music and gospel was soon a hit with a wider audience. Even to this day, “Think” remains one of the most popular and well-recognized songs of the era. A year later, in 1969, composer Edwin Hawkins won a Grammy for his work on “O Happy Day,” a song that would go on to sell millions of copies.

Aretha Franklin is sure to go down in history as one of the most familiar and influential gospel singers of all time. She was an artist that could bring together the best elements of traditional gospel and contemporary music. In 1973, after national success as a secular singer, Aretha won a Grammy Award for Best Soul Gospel Performance for her rendition of “Amazing Grace.” Her work never toned down the strong influence of the church nor the message of her faith. Yet, she was also able to create music that engaged with a global audience. She became a star across the world and her death was a great loss to the musical world. It is no surprise that gospel songs would play such an important role in her music. She sang at her father’s Baptist church as a child and was open about her faith throughout her career. Her first album, “Songs of Faith” began an extraordinary 62-year career.

Modern black gospel music and urban contemporary styles

Modern gospel music has adapted further to cater to a young audience. Some of the vocal work and harmonies are more complex and the arrangements have diverted from the old traditions. Yet, there are plenty of these original signature elements. If we take a closer look at contemporary artists more generally and the influence of gospel on R&B and blues music, we see little hints of the African American tradition in all kinds of works across various genres.

When we consider the history of gospel music in America, we have to also look at urban contemporary gospel. It is not uncommon for artists with strong religious beliefs to turn to secular musical forms to express themselves. Christian rock bands are an important outlet for certain communities that don’t always feel they are represented in modern music. Urban contemporary gospel did just that for African American Christians of a younger demographic. This was chart-friendly, popular music with a blend of R&B styles and gospel messages. The genre reached a wider audience because it was so closely linked to urban contemporary music. Artists could use similar beats and melodies and adapt the lyrics to offer more religious themes.

The core of gospel music lives on through many artists and genres today.

The influence of black gospel music spread far and wide in the 20th century – from mainstream singers to urban acts – all while maintaining a strong connection to the church. Additionally, the 21st century is currently witnessing the growth of the gospel rap genre. But at its heart, the most traditional and heartfelt gospel music remains in the churches of the African American community. Communities across the United States can still meet every Sunday to come together in prayer and song. The lyrics of those old hymns and spirituals are still sung and enjoyed today.

The influence now transcends culture, race, and nationality. We can see elements of gospel and soul music in artists across the world. Many of the biggest stars in the world – whether black or white – owe their sound and success to the emergence of gospel music in some way.

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