Musichas been an important piece of everyday life since its creation. Music has toldstories, helped people express their emotions, re-build bridges and tear downbarriers, but most of all music has served as entertainment.
There are a plethoraforms or genres of music but not many have that luxuriant history that gospelmusic has. The significance of gospel music has been important in African-Americanmusic for over a century and its importance to society is still in existencetill this day. Gospel music has helped slaves escape to freedom back in the dayand created other styles of music to be formed. It fosters a nature of hope andprovides an outlet to worship God.
So how exactly has Gospel music impactedtoday’s society?Sincethe beginning music has always been important in Christianity. Some of thefirst music were called Hymns and were written in Latin. “Hymn is a song ofpraise” (Van Camp) and were sung only by catholic churches. When Martin Lutherled the Protestant Reformation and helped create Protestant Christianity, hebegan translating hymns into German. All around Europe people were translatinghymns into different languages. These translations were brought over byEuropean settlers coming to America and were used frequently in both Catholicand Protestant churches.Contemporary, as well asolder, Gospel music originated from the “Spirituals.” The spirituals, alsoknown as the “Negro Spirituals or African-American folk songs”, were religioussongs sung by the African Americans slaves in Southern America.
The spiritualsspawned from teachings of Christianity from slave owners, the church and evenhymns. The songs were usually about love, hope, peace, oppression, freedom andeven used as a secret code. The African American slaves would sing whileworking so much so that slave owners became fond of the music and some evenadopted in into their style of worship. The slaves actually used Spirituals astheir “liberation theology,” and also as subliminal messaging (Perry A4). Spiritualswere not only “sung to keep spirits up” (Thompson 9), but were used as codedmessages to give directions for where to go or how to find freedom which was inthe in the North. Many of the slave owners proceeded to think that the slaveswere happy because they would always sing church songs or spirituals and praiseGod but what they didn’t know was that the slaves were secretly communicating.
Forexample, during the time of the “Underground Railroad”, songs like “Follow theDrinkin’ Gourd”, “Wade in the Water”, and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” acted asa secret code about using the “Underground Railroad”. It has been documentedthat as many as 100,000 slaves were able to escape because of this method(Thompson 9).Whenthe Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1862, by President Lincoln, roughlytwenty million Americans, both black and white moved out of the south.
Thisevent “transformed religion, American popular culture, racial hierarchies,American conservative and the nature of American regions”, as told by Whitaker.During this progressive movement, Baptist and Pentecostal churches, music suchas jazz, blues and gospel, ended up spreading as well. Spirituals were notknown by that name anywhere else in the country other than in the south untilthat time also (570). Spiritualsstarted to be used and recorded by producers and other artists. A group ofcollege students called, “The Jubilee Singers”, from Fisk University sungSpirituals to different parts of the United States and even went over-seas toEurope and performed in England and Germany. The Jubilee Singers became sofamous, that other HBCUs’ followed them.
” The students would sing to help raisemoney for their school while also spreading their unique style of music. Theunique style and sound later became known as Gospel. There have been manyfamous composers of spirituals and a collection of spirituals were published in1867 (Van Camp).Duringthe “Southern Diaspora,” and over a sixty-year time period, twenty millionAmericans, both black and white, left their homes in the South and moved to theouter edges of the country. The “Southern Diaspora” expanded religion, musicand political practices. Gospel music was now being heard across the nation.Westerners and Northerners alike were introduced to a new music style(Gregory). In the 1920’s to 1930’s the “holiness evangelistic movement” beganto see an integration of different styles of music especially Rhythm (See appendix A).
Instruments and vocal harmonies were being used more inthe transition. The blending of Gospel and Blues evolved into many other genresof music and shaped American music into what it is today (Perry A4). Forinstance, Jazz music traces its origins from gospel music during this timeperiod and before. Jazz, which started late into the 1800’s, “grew from acombination of influences,” like “black American music, African rhythms,American band traditions and instruments, and European harmonies and forms”(Tirro).Manyupcoming black artists also started to use Gospel sound and combined it withRhythm and Blues, labeling it “soul music.” With a Gospel background, artistssuch as Ray Charles and Sam Cooke paved the way for the popularity of soul andfor new talents to emerge. Motown Records was a famous record company inproducing great R&B singers. Famous artists like Smokey Robinson, MarvinGaye, Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross and the Supremes, soul music became a bighit and the new sound for a generation.
The sound of Gospel music was relevantin the music, but the lyrics for soul music were completely different. In gospelmusic, the lyrics often talked about hope, love and peace but a lot of soulmusic, like in many Motown songs, the lyrics mostly dealt with sex andinfidelity. The contrast was black and white. Some people in the Christiancommunity were disgusted by the way artists were adapting Gospel into a secularform of music (Miller).
“Multiculturalism”was hugely influenced by the entertainment and the arts. Commonality was foundbetween white and black Americans in movies, television, dance and song. ManyAfrican American entertainers emerged during the Southern Diaspora and broughtGospel with them. The Gospel sound was relevant in the music, but the lyricsfor soul music were completely different. In gospel music, the lyrics oftentalked about hope, love and peace but a lot of soul music, like in many Motownsongs, the lyrics mostly dealt with sex and infidelity.
The contrast was blackand white. Some people in the Christian community were disgusted by the wayartists were adapting Gospel into a secular form of music (Whitaker 570).Knownas the “father of gospel music,” Thomas Dorsey grew up in church. The son of apreacher and the church organist, Dorsey was connected to church but a part ofhim wanted to branch out into things outside of the church.
According toThomas, financial struggles, problems in school and his parents’ main focus nolonger being on church but rather on survival, Dorsey’s “connection toorganized religion waned.” As Dorsey’s beliefs suffered he began turning to anew alternative, playing Blues music. He moved from his home in Atlanta, toChicago where he found immediate success playing with Ma Rainey, a bluesartist. After a couple serious nervous breakdowns, Dorsey then turned to gospelmusic as his source of strength. His style was rejected by “mainstreamchurches” but he continued to play nonetheless. Times got worse for Dorsey whenhis wife, Nettie Harper, and his son died in childbirth but Dorsey turned tohis music for solace. Dorsey made “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” during thiscrisis and it became Dorsey’s most famous song. He then led the way for the”Golden Age of Gospel Music” by collaborating with Mahalia Jackson.
ThomasDorsey died in 1993 (This Far by Faith).MahaliaJackson is regarded as the “mother of black gospel music.” Born on October 26,1911, life was hard for Mahalia growing up.
She was conceived out of wedlock,her mother died when Mahalia was young, she had to live with her aunt who wasmore than strict, she dropped out of school and got a job as a washerwoman allbefore she passed the eighth grade. Through her rough childhood, Mahalia alwayshad a strong connection to her church. She was drawn to the musical style ofthe church and it stuck with her. Mahalia dreamt of going to Chicago ever sinceand in December 1928, when she was seventeen years old, she “took her firsttrain ride to and has headed to Chicago.” She was in the church choir and aftera few years she began to sing solos as the other soloist in the choir left topursue singing careers.
She began to work with gospel music composer, ThomasDorsey. Her work with him elevated her status of recognition around thecountry. Dorsey loved Mahalia’s voice that he “even began writing songs withher in mind.” Mahalia rocketed to star status as she began singing for largeraudiences in more places. Despite the fact that she was a gospel singer,singing gospel songs, her music became the talk of pop culture in the 1950’s.
Mahalia became outspoken in the Civil rights movement knowing first-hand aboutdiscrimination, which seemed to follow her like a second shadow. Racism becameso much a part of her life that no amount of fame or fortune could stop it. Shesang songs for two presidents and also sang numerous times for Dr. MartinLuther King. Given many opportunities to turn “pop” and sing secular forms ofmusic, Mahalia stuck to Gospel music refusing anything else. She sang Gospelmusic, touring the world, until she died in January 1972 of “intestinalobstruction combined with heart failure” (Carpenter 206:211).
KirkFranklin has been a driving force in the Gospel world for over a decade. Heintroduced a style that all ages would enjoy, especially teens. Raised withouthis parent’s, he was “grounded in church.” As a result, he began to lead theadult choir at the church. But as Kirk began to develop into a teenager, hebegan to “rebel and hang with a rough crowd” causing him to turn away from thechurch. It was not until one of his friends were shot that he realized that hewas going in the same direction, death. He then turned back to the church andbegan to compose songs.
Kirk’s songs are mostly directed to teens because ofhis own childhood struggles. Kirk formed a group called the Family. Kirk foundsuccess after a while due to his “hard urban sound.” His style of gospel musicwas unheard of and many came to believe that it did not belong. Gospel musicwas just changing and Kirk helped in the molding process. Kirk became a hugehit in the 90’s and is still going strong today. (Carpenter 146:147)Gospel music has been a powerfulforce in American culture.
It has helped slaves escape to freedom, it enrichedAmerica’s diversity, it was a supporting backbone in the Civil Rights Movement,it paved the way for different genres of music but most of all it has empoweredpeople to be more than they can be. Gospel music started out as slave music butturned into a musical juggernaut and still impacts the lives of its listeners.Gospel music builds bridges in society and continues to help mold America intowhat it is today.