has been an important piece of everyday life since its creation. Music has told
stories, helped people express their emotions, re-build bridges and tear down
barriers, but most of all music has served as entertainment. There are a plethora
forms or genres of music but not many have that luxuriant history that gospel
music has. The significance of gospel music has been important in African-American
music for over a century and its importance to society is still in existence
till this day. Gospel music has helped slaves escape to freedom back in the day
and created other styles of music to be formed. It fosters a nature of hope and
provides an outlet to worship God. So how exactly has Gospel music impacted
today’s society?

the beginning music has always been important in Christianity. Some of the
first music were called Hymns and were written in Latin. “Hymn is a song of
praise” (Van Camp) and were sung only by catholic churches. When Martin Luther
led the Protestant Reformation and helped create Protestant Christianity, he
began translating hymns into German. All around Europe people were translating
hymns into different languages. These translations were brought over by
European settlers coming to America and were used frequently in both Catholic
and Protestant churches.

Contemporary, as well as
older, Gospel music originated from the “Spirituals.” The spirituals, also
known as the “Negro Spirituals or African-American folk songs”, were religious
songs sung by the African Americans slaves in Southern America. The spirituals
spawned from teachings of Christianity from slave owners, the church and even
hymns. The songs were usually about love, hope, peace, oppression, freedom and
even used as a secret code. The African American slaves would sing while
working so much so that slave owners became fond of the music and some even
adopted in into their style of worship. The slaves actually used Spirituals as
their “liberation theology,” and also as subliminal messaging (Perry A4). Spirituals
were not only “sung to keep spirits up” (Thompson 9), but were used as coded
messages to give directions for where to go or how to find freedom which was in
the in the North. Many of the slave owners proceeded to think that the slaves
were happy because they would always sing church songs or spirituals and praise
God but what they didn’t know was that the slaves were secretly communicating. For
example, during the time of the “Underground Railroad”, songs like “Follow the
Drinkin’ Gourd”, “Wade in the Water”, and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” acted as
a secret code about using the “Underground Railroad”. It has been documented
that as many as 100,000 slaves were able to escape because of this method
(Thompson 9).

the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1862, by President Lincoln, roughly
twenty million Americans, both black and white moved out of the south. This
event “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 such
as jazz, blues and gospel, ended up spreading as well. Spirituals were not
known by that name anywhere else in the country other than in the south until
that time also (570). 

started to be used and recorded by producers and other artists. A group of
college students called, “The Jubilee Singers”, from Fisk University sung
Spirituals to different parts of the United States and even went over-seas to
Europe and performed in England and Germany. The Jubilee Singers became so
famous, that other HBCUs’ followed them.” The students would sing to help raise
money for their school while also spreading their unique style of music. The
unique style and sound later became known as Gospel. There have been many
famous composers of spirituals and a collection of spirituals were published in
1867 (Van Camp).

the “Southern Diaspora,” and over a sixty-year time period, twenty million
Americans, both black and white, left their homes in the South and moved to the
outer edges of the country. The “Southern Diaspora” expanded religion, music
and 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” began
to see an integration of different styles of music especially Rhythm &
Blues (See appendix A). Instruments and vocal harmonies were being used more in
the transition. The blending of Gospel and Blues evolved into many other genres
of music and shaped American music into what it is today (Perry A4). For
instance, Jazz music traces its origins from gospel music during this time
period and before. Jazz, which started late into the 1800’s, “grew from a
combination of influences,” like “black American music, African rhythms,
American band traditions and instruments, and European harmonies and forms”

upcoming black artists also started to use Gospel sound and combined it with
Rhythm and Blues, labeling it “soul music.” With a Gospel background, artists
such as Ray Charles and Sam Cooke paved the way for the popularity of soul and
for new talents to emerge. Motown Records was a famous record company in
producing great R&B singers. Famous artists like Smokey Robinson, Marvin
Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross and the Supremes, soul music became a big
hit and the new sound for a generation. The sound of Gospel music was relevant
in the music, but the lyrics for soul music were completely different. In gospel
music, the lyrics often talked about hope, love and peace but a lot of soul
music, like in many Motown songs, the lyrics mostly dealt with sex and
infidelity. The contrast was black and white. Some people in the Christian
community were disgusted by the way artists were adapting Gospel into a secular
form of music (Miller).

was hugely influenced by the entertainment and the arts. Commonality was found
between white and black Americans in movies, television, dance and song. Many
African American entertainers emerged during the Southern Diaspora and brought
Gospel with them. The Gospel sound was relevant in the music, but the lyrics
for soul music were completely different. In gospel music, the lyrics often
talked about hope, love and peace but a lot of soul music, like in many Motown
songs, the lyrics mostly dealt with sex and infidelity. The contrast was black
and white. Some people in the Christian community were disgusted by the way
artists were adapting Gospel into a secular form of music (Whitaker 570).

as the “father of gospel music,” Thomas Dorsey grew up in church. The son of a
preacher and the church organist, Dorsey was connected to church but a part of
him wanted to branch out into things outside of the church. According to
Thomas, financial struggles, problems in school and his parents’ main focus no
longer being on church but rather on survival, Dorsey’s “connection to
organized religion waned.” As Dorsey’s beliefs suffered he began turning to a
new alternative, playing Blues music. He moved from his home in Atlanta, to
Chicago where he found immediate success playing with Ma Rainey, a blues
artist. After a couple serious nervous breakdowns, Dorsey then turned to gospel
music as his source of strength. His style was rejected by “mainstream
churches” but he continued to play nonetheless. Times got worse for Dorsey when
his wife, Nettie Harper, and his son died in childbirth but Dorsey turned to
his music for solace. Dorsey made “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” during this
crisis 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. Thomas
Dorsey died in 1993 (This Far by Faith).

Jackson 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 was
more than strict, she dropped out of school and got a job as a washerwoman all
before she passed the eighth grade. Through her rough childhood, Mahalia always
had a strong connection to her church. She was drawn to the musical style of
the church and it stuck with her. Mahalia dreamt of going to Chicago ever since
and in December 1928, when she was seventeen years old, she “took her first
train ride to and has headed to Chicago.” She was in the church choir and after
a few years she began to sing solos as the other soloist in the choir left to
pursue singing careers. She began to work with gospel music composer, Thomas
Dorsey. Her work with him elevated her status of recognition around the
country. Dorsey loved Mahalia’s voice that he “even began writing songs with
her in mind.” Mahalia rocketed to star status as she began singing for larger
audiences 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 about
discrimination, which seemed to follow her like a second shadow. Racism became
so much a part of her life that no amount of fame or fortune could stop it. She
sang songs for two presidents and also sang numerous times for Dr. Martin
Luther King. Given many opportunities to turn “pop” and sing secular forms of
music, Mahalia stuck to Gospel music refusing anything else. She sang Gospel
music, touring the world, until she died in January 1972 of “intestinal
obstruction combined with heart failure” (Carpenter 206:211). 

Franklin has been a driving force in the Gospel world for over a decade. He
introduced a style that all ages would enjoy, especially teens. Raised without
his parent’s, he was “grounded in church.” As a result, he began to lead the
adult choir at the church. But as Kirk began to develop into a teenager, he
began to “rebel and hang with a rough crowd” causing him to turn away from the
church. It was not until one of his friends were shot that he realized that he
was going in the same direction, death. He then turned back to the church and
began to compose songs. Kirk’s songs are mostly directed to teens because of
his own childhood struggles. Kirk formed a group called the Family. Kirk found
success after a while due to his “hard urban sound.” His style of gospel music
was unheard of and many came to believe that it did not belong. Gospel music
was just changing and Kirk helped in the molding process. Kirk became a huge
hit in the 90’s and is still going strong today. (Carpenter 146:147)

Gospel music has been a powerful
force in American culture. It has helped slaves escape to freedom, it enriched
America’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 empowered
people to be more than they can be. Gospel music started out as slave music but
turned into a musical juggernaut and still impacts the lives of its listeners.
Gospel music builds bridges in society and continues to help mold America into
what it is today.


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