Music is an important aspect of everysociety.
Music can tell stories, release emotions, build bridges and break downbarriers, but above all music is entertaining. There are various forms of musicbut not many have as rich a history as gospel music. The importance of gospelmusic has been relevant in American music for more than a century and itsimportance to society is still relevant to this day. Gospel music helped slavesescape to freedom and paved the way for other styles of music.
It promotes aspirit of hope and provided an outlet to worship God. So how exactly has Gospelmusic impacted today’s society?Music has been relevant inChristianity since its beginnings. Some of the first music was written in Latinand they were called Hymns. “Hymn is a song of praise” (Van Camp) and were sungonly by catholic churches. When Martin Luther led the Protestant Reformationand helped create Protestant Christianity, he began translating hymns intoGerman. All around Europe people were translating hymns into differentlanguages. These translations were brought over by European settlers coming toAmerica 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 asthe “Negro Spirituals or African-American folk songs,” were religious songssung 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 proceed to freedom in theNorth.
The slave owners believed that the slaves were happy because they sangchurch songs and they praised God but little did they know, that the slaveswere secretly communicating. For instance, during the Underground Railroad,songs like “Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd,’ ‘Wade in the Water,’ and ‘Swing Low,Sweet Chariot,’ all directly refer to secret code about using the UndergroundRailroad.” As many as 100,000 slaves escaped by means of this method (Thompson9).When President Lincoln signed theEmancipation Proclamation in 1862, over twenty million Americans, both blackand white moved out of the southern United States.
This move as stated byWhitaker, “transformed religion, American popular culture, racial hierarchies,American conservative and the nature of American regions.” During thisrevolutionary movement, “Baptist and Pentecostal churches” and music, such asjazz, blues and gospel, spread. Spirituals were not known by anywhere else inthe country other than in the south until that time (570). Spirituals were used and recordedby producers and different artists. A group of college students called, “theJubilee Singers,” from Fisk University sang Spirituals to parts of the UnitedStates and even went over seas to Europe to perform in England and Germany. TheJubilee Singers became so renowned, that “other black schools followed theirexample.” The students sang to raise money for the school while also spreadinga unique style of music. The unique style and sound later became known asGospel.
There have been many famous composers of spirituals and a collection ofspirituals were published in 1867 (Van Camp).During the “Southern Diaspora,” andover 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” dispersed “religion, music and political practices.” Gospelmusic was now being heard across the nation. Westerners and Northerners alikewere introduced to a new music style (Gregory). In the 1920’s to 1930’s the”‘holiness’ evangelistic movement” began to see an integration of differentstyles of music –especially Rhythm & Blues (See appendix A).
Instrumentsand vocal harmonies were being used more in the transition. The blending ofGospel and Blues evolved into many other genres of music and shaped Americanmusic into what it is today (Perry A4). For instance, Jazz music traces itsorigins from gospel music during this time period and before.
Jazz, whichstarted late into the 1800’s, “grew from a combination of influences,” like”black American music, African rhythms, American band traditions andinstruments, and European harmonies and forms” (Tirro). Many upcoming black artists also started to useGospel 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 theway for the popularity of soul and for new talents to emerge. Motown Recordswas a famous record company in producing great R&B singers. Famous artistslike Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross and theSupremes, soul music became a big hit and the new sound for a generation. Thesound of Gospel music was relevant in the music, but the lyrics for soul musicwere 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 lyricsmostly dealt with sex and infidelity. The contrast was black and white. Somepeople in the Christian community were disgusted by the way artists wereadapting Gospel into a secular form of music (Miller). “Multiculturalism” was hugelyinfluenced by the entertainment and the arts.
Commonality was found betweenwhite and black Americans in movies, television, dance and song. Many AfricanAmerican entertainers emerged during the Southern Diaspora and brought Gospelwith them. The Gospel sound was relevant in the music, but the lyrics for soul musicwere 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 lyricsmostly dealt with sex and infidelity. The contrast was black and white.
Somepeople in the Christian community were disgusted by the way artists wereadapting Gospel into a secular form of music (Whitaker 570). Known as the “father of gospelmusic,” Thomas Dorsey grew up in church. The son of a preacher and the churchorganist, Dorsey was connected to church but a part of him wanted to branch outinto things outside of the church. According to Thomas, financial struggles,problems in school and his parents’ main focus no longer being on church butrather on survival, Dorsey’s “connection to organized religion waned.” AsDorsey’s beliefs suffered he began turning to a new alternative, playing Bluesmusic. He moved from his home in Atlanta, to Chicago where he found immediatesuccess playing with Ma Rainey, a blues artist.
After a couple serious nervousbreakdowns, Dorsey then turned to gospel music as his source of strength. Hisstyle was rejected by “mainstream churches” but he continued to playnonetheless. Times got worse for Dorsey when his wife, Nettie Harper, and hisson 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 mostfamous song.
He then led the way for the “Golden Age of Gospel Music” bycollaborating with Mahalia Jackson. Thomas Dorsey died in 1993 (This Far byFaith). Mahalia Jackson is regarded as the”mother of black gospel music.” Born on October 26, 1911, life was hard forMahalia growing up. She was conceived out of wedlock, her mother died whenMahalia was young, she had to live with her aunt who was more than strict, shedropped out of school and got a job as a washerwoman all before she passed theeighth grade.
Through her rough childhood, Mahalia always had a strongconnection to her church. She was drawn to the musical style of the church andit stuck with her. Mahalia dreamt of going to Chicago ever since and inDecember 1928, when she was seventeen years old, she “took her first train rideto and has headed to Chicago.” She was in the church choir and after a fewyears she began to sing solos as the other soloist in the choir left to pursuesinging careers.
She began to work with gospel music composer, Thomas Dorsey.Her work with him elevated her status of recognition around the country. Dorseyloved 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 inmore places. Despite the fact that she was a gospel singer, singing gospelsongs, her music became the talk of pop culture in the 1950’s. Mahalia becameoutspoken in the Civil rights movement knowing first-hand about discrimination,which seemed to follow her like a second shadow. Racism became so much a partof her life that no amount of fame or fortune could stop it. She sang songs fortwo presidents and also sang numerous times for Dr. Martin Luther King. Givenmany opportunities to turn “pop” and sing secular forms of music, Mahalia stuckto Gospel music refusing anything else. She sang Gospel music, touring theworld, until she died in January 1972 of “intestinal obstruction combined withheart failure” (Carpenter 206:211).
Kirk Franklin has been a drivingforce in the Gospel world for over a decade. He introduced a style that allages 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 thechurch. But as Kirk began to develop into a teenager, he began to “rebel andhang with a rough crowd” causing him to turn away from the church.
It was notuntil one of his friends were shot that he realized that he was going in thesame direction, death. He then turned back to the church and began to composesongs. Kirk’s songs are mostly directed to teens because of his own childhoodstruggles. Kirk formed a group called the Family. Kirk found success after awhile due to his “hard urban sound.
” His style of gospel music was unheard ofand many came to believe that it did not belong. Gospel music was just changingand Kirk helped in the molding process. Kirk became a huge hit in the 90’s andis 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