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An Overview of Gospel Music

Author: Lena Santos

In the world of Christianity the Gospels refer to the first four books of the Bible’s New Testament. These four books were written by the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and thus were aptly named. The Gospels or Good News are writings that describe the birth, life, miracles, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Fast forward to the 16th century Reformation movement in Europe. The Reformation not only brought a departure from the teachings of Roman Catholicism but also brought about the creation of beautiful hymns in praise of God. These hymns became integral part of worship services of “Protestants”. These hymns were the basis of Gospel Music.

Roots of Gospel Music

When America was being populated by the English and other Europeans, they brought their religion, their culture and their hymns. In the 18th century these European “masters” had Negro slaves who worked for them. The Negro slaves came with their masters during Sunday worship services as they were forbidden to practice their “pagan” worship. The prohibition did not readily stop the African slaves into secretly meeting for “bush worship”. Here they were able to chant, dance and shout in praise of their god. Indoctrination eventually transpired and the first stirrings of Negro spirituals were heard as African slaves went about their work and during their own Christian worship services. The songs were repetitive, simple and had catchy tunes for the simple reason that during the pre and immediate post American Reconstruction period a large percentage of African slaves were illiterate. In a nutshell, Negro spiritual music was a mix of the African pagan music (beat and rhythm) and the lyrics (or essence) of their masters’ hymns. The Negro spirituals were the roots of Gospel music.

What is Gospel Music?

Simply put Gospel music is Christian music. However, Gospel music is primarily American music. It is a music genre that is greatly characterized by dominant and harmonious vocals. It is a form of music with a Christian inspirational inclination. The way Gospel music is created, performed and given meaning to may vary from one culture to another. However the heart of Gospel music being a profession of faith and belief in Evangelical teachings is not lost. Gospel music may have been composed and performed for religious purposes, or for personal pleasure, or as entertainment for the public translating to financial gains.

There is nothing horrifying about commercializing Gospel music as first, it is a means of spreading the Good News and second, listening to an inspirational song might actually “inspire” the listener to contemplate on the meaning of the song and relate it to himself. The common theme of Gospel songs is all about praise and thanksgiving to God or Christ.

Black and White Gospel Music

Gospel music played a key albeit unusual role in the relationship between the Whites and the Blacks before the Integration. Black gospel music sprung from the combination of African expressions and Christian hymns of their European masters. Negro spirituals of old were simple yet charismatic. Take for example the Negro spiritual titled “He’s got the whole world in His hand”. The title is the lyrics of the whole song. It has been sung in all possible combinations of voice and accompaniment. The end result was always the same. The listener ends up being carried away by the song as he inevitably joins in the final chorus. Gospel songs are tonal - meaning the listener has the inner “feeling” that the song will end within the same key that it started.

White Gospel music is Southern Gospel, with ‘’Southern” referring to the American Civil War “South”. The subgenre is also patterned after the traditional Black gospel music plus improvisations. While the two types of gospel music have different paths, the theme and emphasis of the music has always been geared towards the spiritual. As secular songs have the power to emotionally affect listeners, gospel songs have the inclination to inspire, comfort, boost faith, give hope and maybe even help troubled souls find God’s grace.

Subgenres of Gospel Music

Urban Gospel Music stemmed from the Negro spiritual songs sung by southern slaves in America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Thomas Dorsey (1899-1993) was called the ‘Father of Gospel Music’. The son of a pastor, Dorsey was a blues player and composer. It wasn’t until he heard the music of Charles Tindley that he was inspired to write religious music. Dorsey did not depart from his blues but integrated the style in his compositions. Thus black gospel music was defined and it encompassed a whole lot of range from rhythm and blues to rap Christian music. Mahalia Jackson was the ultimate urban gospel diva.

Southern Gospel is more commonly associated with an all-male quartet group. It dates back to 1910 when the first professional gospel quartet was launched to sell Christian songbooks. Early quartets were originally accompanied by either a banjo or a piano. The tenor-lead-baritone-bass group also sang a capella creating perfect harmony to the delight of listeners. Southern Gospel music is Gospel country music.

Bluegrass Gospel is the least popular subgenre of Gospel music. The music traditionally uses mountain instruments such as dulcimer or banjo. It is, simply put, Southern Gospel music played by a bluegrass band. Most bluegrass bands today still include one or two Gospel songs in their repertoire.

Modern Gospel is today’s praise and worship songs done in a slower tempo and rhythm. It is a type of current Christian music.

Contemporary Christian music is pop. It might even be rock. This type of music is a crossover music that a rock or pop station might play over the radio. The term was synonymous with the Nashville, Tennessee pop and rock groups that were into Christian music.

Gospel music continues to be a popular adaptation of sacred music. The music has evolved and continues to evolve without losing its spiritual and moral structure.

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