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Black Gospel Music

Author: Lena Santos

Black Gospel music is also known as Urban Contemporary Gospel music. Its roots were the Negro spiritual songs that were sang by the African slaves while tilling the rich cotton fields of their white Southern masters in the early 18th century. The spirituals were rural and simplistic and from it sprung jubilee and sorrows songs of the late 18th and 19th centuries.

Before the turn of the 20th century, gospel songs referred to the congregational Methodist hymns sang in churches. The hymns were composed by no less than John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Ira D. Sankey, Charles Tindell and Mason Lowry were gospel songs composers too. Looking at it from this angle, it can be surmised that Black Gospel music was rooted on hymns, Negro spirituals and other Protestant gospel songs.

Before the emancipation of the Black slaves in 1865, it was said that Negro spirituals were coded and that they were sang not just to alleviate their hardships from working and in praise of God but as a means to pass on messages to fellow slaves. The UGGR (Underground Railroad) was an organization that helped “free” slaves and that songs such as Wade in the Water, Swing Low Sweet Chariot and the Gospel Train were all about the UGGR directing slaves on how to break free from their bondage.

After 1865, the slaves were freed when slavery was abolished. It was right after the emancipation that the Fisk Jubilee Singers was formed in one of the first universities for African-Americans. The singers sang mostly jubilee songs (Negro Spirituals) that were sang in traditional and restrained European techniques. The liberated Blacks were not so proud of their hard days of slavery and the singing of simplistic and repetitive Negro spirituals was a constant reminder of their bondage. They, the newly emancipated African-Americans, wanted a more “educated” form of singing. Jubilee singing spread out to Black churches and it was here where quartets absorbed some of the energy and “freedom” of gospel music. The evolution of the jubilee and sorrow songs coincided with the great spiritual revival of the 1890s. A frenzied evangelization and revival of faith was spreading all over the United States. The rise of the Holiness and Sanctified churches brought about a new form of praise and worship songs. The songs have the “spirit” of the old Negro spirituals – shouting for joy, stomping the feet, clapping of hands – all for the glory of God. The glaring differences were the turnabout in lyrics and harmonization. The lyrics were patterned after European hymns and the harmonization were at least four-part arrangements. At the dawn of the 20th century, African-American music was slowly but surely being integrated into mainstream American culture as more freed slaves went migrated to other parts of the United States. They brought their religion and their music.

The Black Gospel Music that is known today could be pinned down to have had its beginnings in the 1920s. At about this time, African-American blues and jazz music were becoming popular. Blues is a term used to describe the type of progression heard in a composition. A tune in a major key sound regal and triumphant. A tune with a minor progression will have a slightly melancholic sound or sad (blue) sound. Jazz music is more about improvisations, blues notes, 12 bar progression (or boogie-woogie), syncopation, swung note and polyrhythms. As sanctified singers went on with their harmonized singing all the while clapping, shouting and stomping, blues and jazz Black singers were making their presence felt in the American music scene.

One black blues accompanist was Thomas A. Dorsey. He was a preacher’s son but he earned his keep by composing and playing blues music. It was not until Dorsey heard the music of Charles Tindley that he was moved and inspired to write “gospel” songs. Dorsey, however, did not depart from his blues inclination but merged jubilee, gospel and sanctified music into one big sub genre of Black Gospel Music.

Dorsey worked doubly hard to develop this sub genre. He inspired known sanctified singers to sing his songs. He organized tours and conventions for gospel singers. The formal and laid back jubilee singers from universities adopted the new gospel songs and in the process slowly changed their style of singing. Segregation was alive and well in America that in the 1930s, the gospel music associated with the civil rights movement in America was called the Black Gospel Music.

The 1940s could well be the golden age of Black Gospel Music. The music hit mainstream America that there were plenty of black gospel singers who came to be full time touring musicians. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a pioneering spirit in solo gospel singing. Quartet singing was becoming passé back then. A great gospel singer diva of the 1950s was Mahalia Jackson. She had a contralto voice that captivated many. She was the queen of gospel songs in as much as James Cleveland was the king of gospel songs.

The heyday of Black Gospel music might have come but not really gone. The gospel song genre continues to evolve and in its evolution new singers and more sub-genres surfaced. I guess that you will be quite surprised that ‘rock and roll’ Elvis Presley was a gospel singer or that Dionne Warwick started out as a member of a gospel quartet too. If you look closely on the background of past and present African-American singers, most started out as choir singers and soloists in their home church.

Black Gospel music had a heavy influence on the music of Ray Charles, James Brooke and James Brown because they “borrowed” a lot from gospel music. A new genre of a sub genre resulted when gospel songs were heavily integrated with rhythm and blues. Soul music was born! Some of the more prominent soul singers were Aretha Franklin, Al Greene and Marvin Gaye.

Soul music paved the way to what was endearingly known as Motown music. Name a popular song artist of the 60s and 70s and chances are they were Motown recording artists. The term Motown became synonymous with the music of great soul artists who bridged the gap to pop music. Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Jackson 5 are just some of the great Motown artists then.

Black Gospel Music was instrumental in the evolution of American music. I have always had the impression that though the early Negro spiritual songs were deeply rooted to the pagan rituals in terms of chanting and dancing of the Africans slaves, it should be noted that the other half was purely New World America. Thus in a sense, American music genre is purely “American”.

Suggested Pdf Resources

Black Gospel Music - B.B. King Museum
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Suggested Web Resources

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