One often thinks of gospel music as purely an African-American type of music. But in fact its roots are biracial. White gospel hymns first appeared in the mid-19th century, and the first use of the term “gospel music” can be found in P.P. Bliss’ Gospel Songs (1874). Typically, as Grove’s Dictionary of Popular Music puts it, the texts of these hymns focus on subjects such as “conversion, atonement through Christ, the assurance of salvation, and the joys of heaven” in styles ranging from meditative to jubilant.
White gospel hymns started to become popular in the late 19th century through the rise of evangelistic singers such as Philip Phillips, who toured extensively around the world, and collections of hymns specially meant for use in Sunday Schools. But gospel became a major force in American music largely due to the efforts of evangelist Dwight L. Moody and his partner, singer Ira D. Sankey, who regularly featured it in their revivals, beginning around 1875. In fact, their meetings were often advertised by the slogan, “Mr. Moody will preach the gospel and Mr. Sankey will sing the gospel.” Their formula proved so successful that until about 1930 it was common for evangelists to have their own special professional musician to perform at their revivals. (Billy Graham continued this tradition to the present day.) Meanwhile, the music itself became more informal, incorporating various styles of popular music such as bluegrass and barbershop quartets.
In contrast, black gospel music’s roots come from slave spirituals, the highly emotional services of the Pentecostals, and ragtime and blues as well as hymns. The first hymnal published especially for black congregations appeared in 1801, and in the late 19th century a new type of black gospel hymn began to appear characterized by syncopated, jazz-like rhythms. By the 1930s, gospel songs had become an integral part of black church services, and it also became increasingly common for churches to have a special gospel choir. Unlike white gospel groups, black gospel singers and groups sung in a highly emotional style, frequently accompanying themselves by hand-clapping, swaying, and interpolated shouts, and using percussion instruments, especially the tambourine, was also common.
dorsey.jpg – 12141 BytesOne of the most important figures in early 20th century black gospel music was Thomas A. Dorsey, often called the “Father of Gospel Music.” Although he began his career accompanying blues singers like Bessie Smith under the name Georgia Tom, Dorsey turned to writing religious music after hearing the music of Charles A. Tindley at a National Baptist Convention meeting. His decision to incorporate elements of the music with which he started his career into his religious music, which more conservative types considered the devil’s music, didn’t make him particularly popular with the church’s old guard at first. But that didn’t discourage Dorsey. “When I realized how hard some folks were fighting the gospel idea,” he is quoted as saying in Score, “I was determined to carry the banner.” When his song “If You See My Savior” became a hit at the 1930 Baptist Jubilee, he turned to writing gospel songs full-time, eventually composing over 800. He also established the first publishing house specifically dedicated to black gospel music, the Thomas A. Dorsey Gospel Songs Music Publishing Company.
soul2.jpg – 25256 BytesMost of the early black gospel performers tended to be either male quartets or female soloists (many of whom, interestingly, were blind). It was Nazarene Church layman James D. Vaughan, founder of the first radio station in Tennessee to specialize in gospel music, who first specifically began training quartets to perform music from his publications around 1890. The most famous gospel quartets were black, such as the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Mighty Clouds of Joy or the Soul Stirrers, which launched the career of Sam Cooke. But the gospel quartet became so prevalent, particularly in the South, that two of rock music’s earliest stars from that area, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, performed regularly with gospel quartets backing them up early in their careers. The most famous female soloist, Mahalia Jackson, regarded by many as the “queen of gospel singers,” started her career in the 1930s but did not become well-known until two decades later, when she signed a very lucrative recording contract with Columbia and appeared on programs like The Ed Sullivan Show. Black gospel also had a king–James Cleveland, a singer/songwriter whose career began in the 1950s. Although his voice was unusually rough and raspy for a gospel performer, his ability and charisma helped him win four Grammys (one posthumous).
Starting in the late 1920s, mixed groups like the Pace Jubilee Singers began to appear, as well as all-female groups like the Ward Trio (later called the Ward Singers). And the tradition of the gospel choir began in 1931, when Thomas Dorsey formed a choir at Chicago’s Ebenezer Baptist Church and also organized the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses. At first these choirs sang mostly four-part music, but, starting with Cleveland’s Angelic Choir of the First Baptist Church (Nutley, NJ), the choir’s function changed to mostly providing accompaniment for a soloist. Gospel choirs performed at Radio City Music Hall and the 1939 Chicago World’s Fair, recordings began to proliferate beginning in the 1940s, and by the 1950s centers of gospel music had been established in many major cities including Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and New York. In 1968 Cleveland, along with a number of other directors, established the Gospel Music Workshop of America, which by the early 1980s had over 500,000 members, and starting in the early 1970s it became increasingly common to find gospel choirs in colleges and universities. It was also during this time that gospel-based musicals such as Black Nativity and Your Arms Too Short to Box with God premiered, and for the first known gospel gold record to be released: the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ “Oh Happy Day” in 1969.
Although no single has approached the commercial success of “Oh Happy Day” to date, gospel music is still enjoying a boom nowadays. According to Gospel Today, seven major recording companies have created and staffed gospel divisions in the past five years, independent labels have increased by 50 percent, total sales revenues have nearly tripled in the past decade, and, with the recent success of Kirk Franklin’s Why We Sing and appearances by artists like Yolanda Adams on TV programs like The Tonight Show, it seems that gospel is definitely here to stay.