The Gospel According to Brother
(A Brief History of Anthem, Spiritual, and Gospel Music
from Early Slavery to the Mid Twentieth Century)
By Michael Tanner
"There can be little doubt that
shouting is a survival of the African
"possession" by the gods... it is a sign of special favor from the
spirit that it chooses to drive out the individual consciousness
temporarily and use the body for its express..."
-Zora Neal Hurston,
The Sanctified Church
"Of all the bodies of folk song
that have survived in America to the
present century spirituals are probably the most extensive; they are
certainly, in on form or another, the best known. As 'negro
spirituals' they have entered church and concert hall, have
influenced composers from Dvorak to Virgil Thompson and have been
sung in schools and by choirs throughout the English-speaking world.
Yet, in spite of their widespread popularity through publication and
performance, their origins are obscure and the ways in which they
were first sung ar probably unknown. Even the term 'spirituals' was
not widely used by Blacks (though it was common in Sea Islands), the
word 'Anthem' being much more widespread and surviving to the 1950s
in rural areas."
-Oliver, Harrison, and Bolcom
Gospel, Blues, and Jazz
music, later called 'spirituals', and much later
'gospel' music, while having a direct and vital link to Africa is
distinctly American music. A music so much a part of the fabric of
the sum of American music that much of the popular idioms of today
can be traced, with little effort, to gospel music (for brevity,
herein I will use the term 'gospel' to refer to anthem and spiritual
forms of religious Afro-American music).
For a link to a graphic overview of this article, please click here.
African music of four hundred years ago differed from
European and white American music in one major regard: secular music
did not exist in African traditions. Besides sacred music, Europeans
sang about love, war, and drinking, as well as the recent historical
events of nearby villages, or far off countries. While many of these
songs mentioned God in some manner, many still remained secular and
popular among the village and country folk.
All African music was naturally sacred and the concept of
singing secular music was alien to them. Their music can be seen to
satisfy four main functions in the fabric daily life, they are:
religious, agricultural and sexual fertility, hunting, and war. In
this regard African music has more in common with Native American
music than European music since song was used as a means of being in
harmony with nature and the cosmos.
One predominant style of music that is still retained and was brought
to America during the slavery period of the early 1600s to 1865, is
the call and response pattern in which a leader sings a line and the
entire group answers. Typical styles also included drums and other
percussion instruments played a complex rhythmic accompaniment.
(Sound familiar? A good example of this call and response style with
syncopated rhythms can be heard by Ray Charles who used this to great
advantage on his hit "What'd I Say").
the need to subjugate, or from fear, many American slave
owners did not allow blacks to use traditional African instruments,
nor could they play or sing their native music. Gradually much of
the words and melodies were forgotten and disappeared in North
America. It is because of this ban on their musical ancestral link,
that a new African American style of music was created. New songs
were created using the African traditions of harmony, call and
response, behind a strong rhythmic meter mixed with European
traditions of harmony and musical instruments. Gospel songs created
by blacks used Christian subjects with African vocal and rhythmic
influences. The church became a sanctuary for black slave
expression. It was the only place that groups of slaves could
congregate without fear of white supervision. Though not all slave
holders allowed religious instruction or permission to worship and
had to meet secretly.
The enslavement of blacks in the American Colonies began
during the 1600's. Slavery flourished in the South, where large
plantations grew cotton, tobacco, and other crops. The plantations
required many laborers. Work songs and "field hollers" were used to
ease the drudgery of hard labor in the fields, later they were sung
while laying railroad track, or while working in places such as the
many turpentine camps in the mid 1800s.
Slavery was less profitable in the North, where economic activity
centered on small farms and industries. By 1860, the slave states
had about 4 million slaves. The slaves made up nearly a third of the
South's population. Since demographically, more blacks lived in the
South, the birth of gospel music became endemic first in the South
before it was finally spread to the rest of white America. First,
through traveling minstrel shows in the late 1800s, then through
vaudeville and sheet music in the early 1900s, and finally through
records in the early 1920s. Many of the songs and melodies were
embraced by whites and began to greatly influence white religious and
popular American music.
By the early 1800s it was common for slaves to perform for
their masters, and later in front of polite white society in larger
musical ensembles, but it wasn't until the end of the Civil War that
European musical instruments were abundantly available to former
slaves. Instruments were literally left on battlefields that were
befriended by new black owners. Instruments were cheap and freed
blacks used what little new income they had to purchase or barter for
them. Although some blues forms existed in the early 1800s, as the
end of the 1800s drew near the first black secular music, the "blues"
began to evolve almost instantly and simultaneously all over the
states and territories, where ever large groups of blacks lived.
Technically the field holler was the first musical style to
move away from religious themes and concerned its self with work only
(and much can be said about the double meanings of many gospel songs,
such as Swing Low, Sweet Chariot which on the surface is about life
in the hereafter, but any slave knew it was about the promise of life
in the here and now devoid of slavery. "home" wasn't necessarily
heaven, but of freedom instead. Some historians argue that all early
gospel songs were codified songs of protest). However, blues was the
first solely secular form of African American based music with the
birth of ragtime and jazz following closely behind
role of the church remained central to blacks in America
once they were emancipated. With emancipation, a just and equal
freedom was elusive and largely nonexistent. Jim Crow laws remained
as a given in the South and a huge exodus of blacks migrated to the
industrialized North (and continued until the 1970s), which promised
jobs and more freedom. To a very limited degree jobs were found, but
only jobs that whites did not want. More freedom was granted to them
only, as some historians argue, because the North lacked the
tradition of a fully organized and functioning racist tradition, and
because virtually the entire organized abolitionist tradition existed
in the North. The former abolitionists switched from advocating
emancipation to advocating fair treatment for recently freed blacks.
With this political and social backdrop, the church evolved as a
religious sanctuary from the eyes of slave holders to a sanctuary
where black culture and music could thrive. In this atmosphere
churches were used as meeting places for black town forums with, at
times, more of political than religious agendas.
Gospel music was changing rapidly. As once rural blacks
migrated to large cities in the North and South, and with the advent
of a growing black economy an emerging urban sophistication, gospel
music turned it's back on some of the cruder forms of harmony,
melody. and structure. Whites portraying blacks nationwide in
minstrel shows whetted the appetite for white audiences who desired
to hear the real thing. Beginning in 1871 the black Fisk Jubilee
Singers, who were students of the all black Fisk University in
Nashville, Tennessee, traveled widely in America internationally with
great success singing spirituals. Also, the late 1800s Ragtime was
developing into what later a 1917 San Francisco newspaper music
critic called "jazz" (alternately spelled "jass").
Gospel music had influenced blues and jazz, and now, by the early
1900s, blues and jazz were in turn, influencing gospel music. for
instance, the syncopated rhythms of ragtime firmly entered many of
church performers approach to existing and newer songs. Many
traveling singing preachers began to accompany themselves with piano
and guitar. The guitar became a popular form of accompaniment due to
the practicality of ease of mobility. Since blues pianists and
guitarists were common nationwide, the singing preachers began to
adopt the chordal and melodic styles of many of bluesmen and women.
Blues and jazz was the popular rage, and served as the spice for
black musical palates, while gospel was the religious staple.
The more theatrical and prosperous traveling preachers and performers
sang in revival tents and as guests in churches and missions for the
homeless. Many of them traveled with an entourage of musicians and
White music publishers recognized that the antebellum style
of black jubilee and spirituals were rapidly fading and began to
widely publish a huge amount nineteenth century sheet music. This
brought a potentially dying form of gospel music into the white
parlors and churches which were loved either for the beauty of the
music or or baser nostalgia of the good old days of antebellum South.
After the Civil War, it had become the norm for black
churches to factionalize into various denominations according to the
region and predominant white denominational influence. The more
conservative black Methodist and Separatist Baptist churches from
their inception preferred the sedate hymns of English composer Isaac
Watts (1674-1748). Blacks embraced Methodism early on since white
Methodists readily adopted some of the black camp meeting songs, and
repetitive choruses. In addition these white Methodists mimicked the
black style of disjointed affirmations, prayers, and pledges. Still,
both black and white Methodists and black Separatist Baptists
services were musically tame in comparison to the emerging black
Holiness and Four Square churches. These churches retained the
unrestrained "country" element found in lesser sophisticated
congregations, and relates more directly in musical form, intensity,
and attitude found in various blues forms of the day and later in
rhythm and blues, rockabilly, and rock and roll.
The invention of recorded cylinders and records overshadowed
sheet music sales of gospel music and much more rapidly spread gospel
music into white and black homes (who could afford them), and even
more so in the early 1920s on the radio, but the concept of singers
attaining a "Star" status hadn't yet developed until post W.W.II.
The Seminal Influence of T.A. Dorsey:
a brief history is the aim of this article, it is
impossible for me to cover the subject of musical idioms that evolved
from gospel music even with a modicum of success. For this reason,
click here to view graphically a flow chart showing what I feel is
too large of a subject to cover here.
The term "Gospel" existed before W.W.II, but other terms such
as "anthems", "spirituals", and "jubilees" were more common. After
W.W.II a former blues musician and son of a preacher (who used to
accompany the widely popular blues singer Bessie Smith), Thomas A.
Dorsey, converted back to the church and turned his considerable
talents to writing religious music. T.A. Dorsey, best known for
"Precious Lord, Take My Hand", is of a pivotal post W.W.II importance
when we consider the three elements of his business acumen:
He is the first black man to start a black owned music publishing
company in America. Although he published his own music and others,
he had the acumen to include singer Sallie Martin as a partner. He
wrote the songs and secured the rights to other songs. Sallie Martin
then became a glorified sales rep. She traveled from coast to coast
performing and selling music sheets to black churches. It is
Dorsey's distinctive style of writing that the majority of choirs use
today. A combination of the old hymnody of Watts, and of the African
"call and response" sung in country churches.
This distinctive style of religious music he insisted should
be called "Gospel". He wanted to disassociate what he felt was a
modern style of black religious music from the days of slavery and
the distasteful nostalgia of antebellum South. Surprisingly the
gospel term stuck retiring "anthems", "spirituals", and "jubilees"
as an anachronism of past black religious music.
Secondly, he was the first black promoter on a large scale to
promote the better choirs, quartets, and solo singers in and, more
importantly, out of the church. With much controversy among the
faithful, he was the first to advertise the religious concerts, and
charge money to see them. (The first on record were the Fisk Jubilee
Singers. It is also interesting to note that black Historian W.E.B.
DuBois sang with and promoted the Fisk group one summer in the late
1800s). By doing this, T.A. Dorsey had helped create a star system.
Four Main Branches of Modern Gospel Music:
that gospel music has added the element entertainment not
seen prior to T.A. Dorsey's promotion, solely religious music
stations had already began to appear nationwide, but principally in
the South in the 1940s. By the 1950s radio began including gospel
music as part of its regular programming along with popular secular
music, and so four main styles or "branches" of gospel music emerged.
Each branch, although directly related, can be easily identified for
* Choirs- When the term "gospel" music is mentioned, perhaps
the first thing that a novice congers in the mind is a rousing choir.
Even today in the 21st century the style of gospel choirs remains
fixed in the Dorsey template. For this reason among the four
branches this is the most modern form. Choirs today range from
"traditional" musical accompaniment, typically piano and or organ,
bass, drums (tambourine), and possibly guitar. Bigger studio
productions rarely include strings and more commonly a horn section
might be added. Since the 1980s synthesizers have been the only
noticeable addition. Vocally, choirs have remained stable in
approach. A soloist or two is accompanied by the traditional call
and response that harkens back to the field hollers and African roots
music. Some choirs are crossing over to a black urban pop style, or
a more white oriented "Christian Music" style, and becomes less
recognizable as true gospel choir music. "Oh, Happy Day" recorded
in 1968 by the Edwin Hawkins Singers to this day remains the only
million seller in gospel music history, and has added to the notion
by the novice that this is the only extant form of gospel.
* A capella Quartets- Another very popular form of gospel,
the quartets has two distinct periods. Prior to W.W.II the a capella
quartets emerged. This style of singing is directly related to white
barbershop quartet harmonization. What is known as "Southern Gospel"
is really a "sanctified" barbershop quartet style of singing by white
singers. Where black quartet singing differs from barbershop and
Southern Gospel style singing is the addition of a lead singer with
three part harmony. It is common for black quartets to have five six
or seven members, but since they adhere to the barbershop harmonic
template they are still considered and called a quartet group. Black
quartet singers are predominantly the purview of male singers. Few
women a capella quartet singers can be found on record. Choirs and
solo singers by tradition are still today preferred by women. The
best known of the a capella quartets were the Golden Gate Jubilee
Singers, later known as the Golden Gate Quartet. With the advent of
electrical instruments, many of the a capella quartets jumped on the
bandwagon, so to speak.
* Progressive Quartets- While still singing in the quartet
tradition, this electrification of a capella was eventually called
"progressive quartets" and are separate enough in style to form a
fourth branch. Similar in motivation to country singers, the a
capella quartets turned to electrified instruments after the war in
order to be heard by larger audiences. The addition of electric
guitar, bass, piano and drums became the standard instrumentation for
what was later called "progressive gospel". Groups like the Five
Blind Boys of Alabama, the Dixie Hummingbirds and the Soul Stirrers
gained almost instant success once they switched to electrified
instrumentation. The late 1950s and early 1960s is considered the
"Golden Era of Gospel" especially for the progressive quartets. For
good reason the Soul Stirrers have been inducted into the Rock n'
Roll Hall of Fame as being an essential influence on the shape of
Rock n' Roll. Many of the groups in the 50s and 60s copied the
rhythmic intensity, the chordal and harmonic style of the group. Sam
Cooke, a later member of the group later became the first black pop
star and first black man to own his own recording company. Ira
Tucker of the Dixie Hummingbirds told me in a 1993 interview that
"Mick Jagger said he has over twenty of our albums."
* Solo Singers- A good choir may have three or four really
good solo singers. These singers eventually gained a following and
typically formed a separate career fronting their own band. The the
majority of the soul music performers of the 60s and 70s were former
members of choirs. Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Al
Green, Roberta Flack, Solomon Burke, James Brown, and many more, all
stood in front of congregations, dressed in robes, learning the ropes
of one of the most demanding and intense vocal forms of music. Not
all of the best talent left these choirs and turned secular. Mahalia
Jackson, Shirley Caesar, and Albertina Walker to name a few, became
highly popular soloists. Some of these soloists employ back up
singers, or perform as guests with better choirs, but typically the
soloist carries the song by her or himself.
you would like recommendations of examples of gospel
performers of these four styles or branches, click here.
can listen to Afro-American gospel on the world wide web
the first Sunday of every month from 5-7 A.M. Pacific Standard Time
by clicking here.
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