Music used as a secret code. The African American

Music is an important aspect of every
society. Music can tell stories, release emotions, build bridges and break down
barriers, but above all music is entertaining. There are various forms of music
but not many have as rich a history as gospel music. The importance of gospel
music has been relevant in American music for more than a century and its
importance to society is still relevant to this day. Gospel music helped slaves
escape to freedom and paved the way for other styles of music. It promotes a
spirit of hope and provided an outlet to worship God. So how exactly has Gospel
music impacted today’s society?

Music has been relevant in
Christianity since its beginnings. Some of the first music was written in Latin
and they were called Hymns. “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. 

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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 proceed to freedom in the
North. The slave owners believed that the slaves were happy because they sang
church songs and they praised God but little did they know, that the slaves
were 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 Underground
Railroad.” As many as 100,000 slaves escaped by means of this method (Thompson

When President Lincoln signed the
Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, over twenty million Americans, both black
and white moved out of the southern United States. This move as stated by
Whitaker, “transformed religion, American popular culture, racial hierarchies,
American conservative and the nature of American regions.” During this
revolutionary movement, “Baptist and Pentecostal churches” and music, such as
jazz, blues and gospel, spread. Spirituals were not known by anywhere else in
the country other than in the south until that time (570). 

Spirituals were used and recorded
by producers and different artists. A group of college students called, “the
Jubilee Singers,” from Fisk University sang Spirituals to parts of the United
States and even went over seas to Europe to perform in England and Germany. The
Jubilee Singers became so renowned, that “other black schools followed their
example.” The students sang to raise money for the school while also spreading
a 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).

During 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” dispersed “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” (Tirro). 

Many 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).
       “Multiculturalism” 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).
       Known 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
       Mahalia 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). 
         Kirk 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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