Gospel According To . . .

The ever-evolving soundtrack of black America.

By Wallace Best

One can hardly think of an important event in American life over the last 40 years that did not include the singing of gospel music. Think of Mahalia Jackson’s rousing rendition of “How I Got Over” at the 1963 March on Washington and then five years later of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” at the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr. Since the 1960s, politicians, presidents, and other officials have routinely requested this music even at state- or government-sponsored functions. The music has become so central to the popular American imagination that no solemn or celebratory event seems complete without a song from this tradition. Nearly all major artists during this period, from Elvis Presley to Aretha Franklin, credited roots in gospel both for their sound and their success.

Indeed, gospel music is the foundation for most contemporary music, particularly soul, rock, rhythm and blues, and hip-hop. Having been tremendously influenced by the gospel he heard at the East Trigg Street Baptist Church in Memphis, Elvis Presley ended up winning his only Grammy Awards for his several gospel recordings. And despite what anyone says, Aretha Franklin never really stopped singing gospel—at least never stopped singing in the gospel style. Listen again to any of her recordings and this will become clear.

This emotionally evocative music, which is fundamentally expressive of the black experience, has entered the popular American consciousness, having been embraced by people across the vast spectrum of race, religion, and class. It has long been recognized and appreciated internationally and now has become a significant factor in the music industry, outselling jazz, blues, and classical. But when the producer-turned-rapper Kanye West sang his popular hit “Jesus Walks” at the 2005 Grammy Awards, both traditionalists and nontraditionalists cried foul. The song, which went on to win “best rap song” that night, was unrecognizable as gospel in any traditional sense and came from an artist who neither professed faith nor had any ties to the church. As a hip-hop artist, West works in a genre of music known for its abject vulgarities and gross materialism. Ironically, the lyrics of the song, which were in part a critique of hip-hop culture, only fanned the flames: “I ain’t here to argue about his facial features / Or here to convert atheists into believers / I’m just tryin’ to say the way school need teachers / The way Kathy Lee needed Regis that’s the way I need Jesus / So here go my single dawg radio needs this / They said you can rap about anything except for Jesus / That means guns, sex, lies, video tape / But if I talk about God my record won’t get played huh.”

Although gospel music has fragmented over the years, spawning enough “subgenres” so as to beg the question of what exactly constitutes it, West’s song had transcended (or ignored) all boundaries. It seemingly existed in a category all its own, representing a new frontier, and not an entirely welcome one. But while it is certainly the case that “Jesus Walks” should be considered a watershed moment and a turning point in the history of black sacred music, the fears that it somehow represents the demise of gospel, or the wresting of the “sacred” from the faithful, are ill-founded and ahistorical.

If the origins of gospel are clear about one thing, it is that this music is a dynamic form; it is ever-evolving, always moving forward, and defiant of easy classification. Gospel has always been found in unexpected places and has never been limited to the institution of the church. Indeed, in its early history, the music was found primarily outside mainstream black churches and was initially not fully embraced within them. So, Kanye West and the reaction to his song are fully in keeping with the history of a music form that has always sparked controversy, elicited debate, and pushed the boundaries of the black sacred music tradition. The multiple and varied origins of gospel contributed to the dynamism of this music, assuring that it would always be a music in motion. Ironically, the content of its explicitly Christian message, so steeped in the black experience, explains its wide cultural appeal and accessibility. Along with jazz and the blues, gospel comprises what can be called the soundtrack of black America and, like jazz and the blues, represents a truly American music.

The Origins of a Musical Tradition

There is something seemingly timeless about gospel music. Even many gospel aficionados often discuss and write about the tradition in ways that suggest it exists outside of time, removed from history. But gospel emerged within a specific historical moment, reflecting a cultural climate characterized by uncertainty, instability, and loss. It is not inconsequential that modern gospel music arose during the 1930s, a time of deep crisis in the United States—and still, the closest anyone has come to a satisfactory definition of it is “good news in bad times.” By the time the term “gospel” was employed to describe the new music, it was clear that an ideology of its meaning had developed. It was also clear that there were several key musical influences upon it, namely, West African music, evangelical hymns, “shout songs,” Negro spirituals, Pentecostalism, and the blues.

Through the intricately complex process of cultural memory and transmission, the music of West Africa laid the foundation for gospel. In West Africa, the region from which most slaves originated during the Atlantic slave trade, music is the center of all aspects of life, particularly religious life. Aspects of this rich musical tradition make up the core features of gospel. In fact, descriptions of West African music apply equally as well for gospel. “Call and response,” for example, serves as the centerpiece or root element of most West African music. This dialogical participation necessitates a relationship between singer and audience because music is a conversation, demanding a response from the listener. West African music is also characterized by unique vocalizations, including falsetto, chant, humming, moans, ecstatic exclamation, groans, and guttural tones. Repetition of words or short phrases for effect and emphasis often represent the bulk of the song lyric. Both the melody and rhythm are designed for embellishment and improvisation. Perhaps most important, West African music is performance-focused, requiring the use of the body.

Evangelical Protestant hymns are also closely linked to the origins of gospel music. Many of the hymns most closely associated with the black sacred music tradition were composed by English and Scottish clerics writing for the worship services of the Church of England and the Methodist Church. John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” has long been inducted into the black sacred music canon and Charles Wesley’s numerous hymns from the late eighteenth century have also been thoroughly “gospelized.”

Isaac Watts is the English hymnist who has had the most influence on gospel. Known as the father of English hymnody, Watts wrote hundreds of hymns, including “Am I a Soldier of the Cross,” and introduced them to the Christian churches in England and America during the eighteenth century. These hymns were immensely popular among slaves, so much so that missionaries’ requests to their sponsoring organizations for Watts’s hymnals were second only to their requests for the Bible. The use of vernacular speech, a theology of triumph and contrition, and a common meter explain their appeal. Watts believed that composers should couple biblical phrases with common language, or “modern” English. In effect, he was the first hymn writer to use the language of the people in his songs. Theologically, the hymns expressed sorrow for one’s sins and a sense of unworthiness in comparison to Christ’s sacrifice, but also the joy of the Christian life.

Watts became so important to blacks that a style of singing came to bear his name. The “Dr. Watts” singing style involved the “lining out” of hymns that were sung in long meter, a cappella, and incredibly slowly. The lining out of hymns, where a song leader would speak or sing a line that the congregation would then repeat, accommodated those who could not read. The slow tempo accentuated emotion and allowed for improvisation and embellishment. Some of Mahalia Jackson’s most moving gospel songs were sung in the “Dr. Watts” style.

“Shout songs” and Negro spirituals also had a tremendous impact on the development of gospel. Shout songs emerged among slaves during the evangelical revivals of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as a product of what Albert Raboteau has called “the invisible institution.” This “frenzied” manner of singing facilitated the “ring shouts” or “holy dances” that were usually done in private—out of the sight of whites—and in the open air. We get the terms “bush meeting” and “brush arbor” from shout songs and the ring shout, which the ethnomusicologist Eileen Southern considered “the most obvious example of the influence of African traditions on the early black church.”

Negro spirituals developed among blacks during the same era, but held a different meaning and purpose. They spoke of the pain of black existence, the daily suffering of black people, and thus were, as W. E. B. Du Bois called them, “sorrow songs.” The music itself contained several features, including repetitive melodies that lent themselves to ornamentation and the sliding of notes, specifically designed to express the precariousness of the black experience. The lyrical texts reflected a sensitivity to a range of human emotions and were often drawn directly from biblical stories. Scholars agree that the biblical narratives used in Negro spirituals often contained “double meanings,” but it is also true that this musical form introduced a level of subjectivity into the African American sacred music tradition. This subjectivity—the emphasis on one’s personal experience and relationship to God—became accentuated in gospel.

By the first decade of the twentieth century, the Pentecostal movement had begun to play its part in the development of gospel, influencing both its lyrical content and performance. Called “Jubilee songs” by many African Americans, Pentecostal music spoke primarily of the primacy of holy living and spiritual gifts, and of the imminent return of Jesus. Sister Calley Fancy’s “Going on to Heaven in the Sanctified Way” serves as a prime example: “No liar can walk this highway / no backsliders can board the train / Everybody rides in Jesus name / Get your ticket for the land of Beulah / Baggage coach will be left behind / now is the time to get rid of your luggage / Have no baggage on the heavenly line / Don’t have to let what the world say threaten me / I’m going on to heaven in the sanctified way.” Fancy, a “guitar evangelist,” was among a number of itinerant African American songsters who traveled the country spreading the Pentecostal message. And, as the song suggests, she belonged to the Sanctified Church, the term used to indicate black churches that were a part of the Holiness and Pentecostal traditions. Often performed as much outside of church contexts as within them, Jubilee songs were characterized by their spirited rhythms and eclectic instrumentation, features that would become typical of gospel.

The Blues and Gospel

Gospel music scholars are near unanimous in their assertion that “the blues” constituted the most significant influence on gospel’s development. Indeed, all the other musical influences culminated in the blues, so that there is an interlocking historical relationship between the blues and the African American sacred music tradition. Although the blues emerged as a separate musical form, it was clearly influenced by the “shout songs” and Negro spirituals of the nineteenth century and the Jubilee songs of the early twentieth century. Spirituals and the blues have often been seen in contrast, even opposition to each other in a secular-sacred binary. The two, however, are organically linked in their origins and perform similar cultural work. Both reveal the African American consciousness regarding a range of topics, and both are born from and respond to the black experience in America. They can also both be described as “sorrow songs,” as they speak primarily of loss, longing, and despair. Like the spirituals, the blues are steeped in biblical imagery, often making use of biblical narratives to describe the plight of all blacks, as well as the plight of the individual.

Religion was a prominent theme in the blues, but typically in the form of a theology of complaint.

No one is sure of the exact origin of the blues. Cultural historian Lawrence Levine has claimed that “the manner and emergence of the blues are lost in the irrecoverable past.” Others contend that they have always existed. What is certain is that by the early twentieth century the blues emerged from various places in the United States, performed most often by wanderers and outcasts on the streets, and in train stations and other public places. W. C. Handy, the first to transcribe and popularize the blues, claimed he first heard this “weird music” at a Mississippi train station, performed by a drifter clothed in rags.

The themes contained in the blues are what captivated Americans and generated the most controversy in the early days of the form’s history. Blues lyrics almost invariably dealt with the classic tensions between flesh and spirit, God and the Devil, sinners and saints, good and evil. Religion was a prominent theme, but typically in the form of a theology of complaint. Blues singers bemoaned the hypocrisy of some Christians and the seeming impossibility of holy living. They also lamented the general hardship of life, as in Bessie Smith’s “Downhearted Blues,” where she wails, “Trouble, trouble, I’ve had them all my days.” In a sense, however, sex is the most common theme of the blues. Most early blues lyrics employed creative language to speak of sex in coded ways. Songs such as “It’s Tight Like That” represented the typical sexual innuendo of the blues.

Thomas Andrew Dorsey, the composer of that song, is also often called the “father of black gospel music.” Before his conversion to Christianity, Dorsey was a songwriter and pianist for the blues artist Ma Rainey. Born in Georgia in 1899, Georgia Tom, as he came to be known, migrated to Chicago in 1916 and developed a reputation for expert blues musicianship. In addition to playing in Ma Rainey’s band, he composed dozens of blues songs, earning acclaim and modest wealth. In the early 1930s, however, Dorsey became uncomfortable with the life of a blues musician; it had taken him far from his Baptist roots. So, after much contemplation, he ended his blues career and joined one of Chicago’s largest Baptist churches.

Dorsey, however, did not entirely abandon the blues. In one of the most strikingly innovative moves in the history of American music, Dorsey began to write Christian lyrics to blues tunes, and modern gospel was born. The music was so closely associated with the blues that it was dubbed “gospel blues,” and was not initially welcomed in mainstream black churches. Church musician Edward Boatman echoed the thoughts of many when he asked, “How can something jazzy give a religious feeling?” Although later in his career Dorsey conceded that gospel had existed in a nascent form in the Holiness-Pentecostal churches, he was the first to compose and arrange it. He is responsible for establishing the music’s style and ideological structure to which gospel artists still adhere.

Despite the disquiet that gospel initially generated among some African Americans, Dorsey saw no conflict in attaching Christian themes to blues music. He, in fact, believed that for several reasons the blues were well suited to express religious sentiment. Blues music allowed for a great deal of improvisation, the shaping and swelling of notes and clauses. The slow tempo of the music facilitated this improvisation, which served as a better means to communicate the message of the song. The blues also placed primacy on subjective experience. The blues allowed individuals to talk about themselves, their lives and loves, in very personal terms. Ultimately, as historian Michael Harris has stated, the blues were a “conduit for feeling.” Dorsey recognized the blues’ potential for expressing and manipulating emotions, and thought that songs performed in sacred or secular contexts must elicit an emotional response to be effective. He employed that understanding in the construction of gospel, viewing gospel, like the blues, to be essentially about feeling, and often, as he said, “the same feeling.”

Dorsey wrote his most emotionally evocative gospel song, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” after the death of his wife and child in 1932. On tour, he got word of the death of his wife (the child died a few days later), and shortly after his return penned the song out of his despair and loss. The song remains the pre-eminent gospel song, containing all the features that typify the genre. It clearly shows the influence of the blues in the way that it is infinitely improvisational and places primary emphasis on personal experience. It is essentially a plea for God’s help in a time of crisis: “Precious Lord, take my hand / Lead me on, let me stand / I am tired, I am weak, I am worn / Through the storm, through the night / Lead me on to the light / Take my hand, Precious Lord / Lead me home.”

Chicago and the 1930s as the context of the emergence of gospel are as important as Dorsey himself. By the time Dorsey began to compose the new music, Chicago had become “the Mecca of the migrant mob,” as African Americans relocated to the city by the hundreds of thousands. Long celebrated as a “city of refuge,” Chicago, during the first years of the Great Migration, also became known as “the promised land” for blacks wishing to escape Southern oppression and to take advantage of Northern job opportunities. This great influx of humanity generated one of the most important waves of African American cultural production in the nation’s history. Chicago became the cultural capital of black America in the way New York’s Harlem had been a decade earlier. It became home to numerous African American writers, scholars, and artists of different mediums. Gospel music was a small yet significant part of the cultural production of this period.

The economic depression of the 1930s gave gospel its powerful resonance. Much like the blues, gospel created a space to speak of the troubles faced by black Americans who were suffering inordinately. Throughout the decade the unemployment rate hovered around 50 percent for African Americans nationally. But the music also gave emotional release and encouragement for a brighter tomorrow. Dorsey often referred to the Depression as the context in which his music should be understood. “I wrote to give them something to lift them out of that Depression,” he once said. For Dorsey, gospel music was intended to lift the downtrodden. It was a music designed to bring people “out of the muck and mire of poverty and loneliness, of being broke, and [give] them some kind of hope anyway.” It was “good news in bad times,” and Dorsey used the musical styling of the blues to spread that good news, continuing a pattern of dynamism and change that has always characterized the African American sacred music tradition.

America’s Music

Ralph Ellison once wrote that “the history of the American Negro is the most intimate part of American history.” His meaning was clear: What it means to be black is fundamentally what it means to be an American. Gospel’s musical origins root it deeply in the African American experience, yet because of that it is also deeply indicative of the American experience. Born from what it means to be black in the United States, gospel music tells the story of the nation, its fears, longings, despair, and triumphs. Indeed, the universal appeal of gospel must be attributed in part to the universality of its themes. All Americans seem equally moved by Mahalia Jackson’s “How I Got Over,” because all can seemingly relate to it. We recognize that she is singing for us and about us as a people.

Gospel music is a genre with a specific history and cultural context, but that history and context by no means restrict it to a specific group or institution. Gospel is American music in the same way that jazz and the blues are, and trends within the industry would seem to indicate that more are recognizing this. In addition to the high public profile gospel has enjoyed, interracial gospel choirs have been forming across the country for the last two decades. Recently, Martha Munizzi, a white singer from Florida, became the first non–African American to win a Stellar Award—the Stellar Awards are “the premier gospel event that recognizes and honors African American artists.” In response to her victory Munizzi stated, “my desire has always been to unify all people through the music God has given me.” The awards committee did not consider her race as a disqualifying factor; nor did it suggest that her sound was in any way inauthentic.

These recent trends are indication of gospel’s “Americanness” as well as its dynamism. As even a brief sketch of its origins reveals, gospel music is a forward-moving, living tradition, and each phase along its development has met with detractors. Dorsey initially met resistance for his “bluesy” piano playing and singing. Now he is the undisputed father of gospel. Mahalia Jackson was initially turned out of churches for the way she sang and used her body during performances. Now she is universally recognized as the queen of gospel. The Edwin Hawkins Singers were vilified for topping the charts in the 1960s with their song “Oh Happy Day,” and the Winans were criticized for their “crossover” sound. “Oh Happy Day” has become a gospel classic, and the Winans are praised as the first family of gospel.

The origins and the dynamic nature of gospel show that it is a particularly American musical form. One can even say that the heated responses to the changes in the tradition are also particularly American. So to Kanye West and his song “Jesus Walks,” the message is this: Sing on, Mr. West. Sing on.

Wallace Best is Assistant Professor of African American Religious Studies at Harvard Divinity School. His book Passionately Human, No Less Divine: Religion and Culture in Black Chicago, 1915-1952 was published recently by Princeton University Press.

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