Traditional black gospel is music that is written to express either personal or a communal belief regarding African American Christian life, as well as (in terms of the varying music styles) to give a Christian alternative to mainstream secular music. It is a form of Christian music and a subgenre of gospel music.
Like other forms of music the creation, performance, significance, and even the definition of gospel music varies according to culture and social context. It is composed and performed for many purposes, ranging from aesthetic pleasure, religious or ceremonial purposes, or as an entertainment product for the marketplace. However, a common theme as with most Christian music is praise, worship or thanks to God and Christ.
Traditional gospel music was popular in the mid-20th century. It is the primary source for urban contemporary gospel and Christian hip hop, which rose in popularity during the very late 20th century and early 21st century.
The origins of gospel music are during American slavery, when enslaved Africans were introduced to the Christian religion and converted in large numbers. Remnants of different African cultures were combined with Western Christianity, with one result being the emergence of the spiritual. Jubilee songs and sorrow songs were two type of spirituals that emerged during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Some spirituals were also used to pass on hidden messages; for example, when Harriet Tubman was nearby, slaves would sing “Go Down, Moses” to signify that a ‘deliverer’ was nearby. At this time, the term “gospel songs” referred to evangelical hymns sung by Protestant (Congregational and Methodist) Christians, especially those with a missionary theme. Gospel composers included writers like Ira D. Sankey and Mason Lowry, and Charles B. Tindell. Hymns, Protestant gospel songs, and spirituals make up the basic source of modern black gospel.
What most African Americans would identify today as “gospel” began in the early 20th century. The gospel music that Thomas A. Dorsey, Sallie Martin, Willie Mae Ford Smith and other pioneers popularized had its roots in the blues as well as in the more freewheeling forms of religious devotion of “Sanctified” or “Holiness” churches — sometimes called “holy rollers” by other denominations — who encouraged individual church members to “testify,” speaking or singing spontaneously about their faith and experience of the Holy Ghost and “Getting Happy,” sometimes while dancing in celebration. In the 1920s Sanctified artists, such as Arizona Dranes, many of whom were also traveling preachers, started making records in a style that melded traditional religious themes with barrelhouse, blues and boogie-woogie techniques and brought jazz instruments, such as drums and horns, into the church.
Thomas Dorsey stretched the boundaries in his day to create great gospel music, choirs, and quartets. Talented vocalists have been singing these songs far beyond Dorsey’s expectations. The method, dynamics and power behind the songs are different, but God’s message is delivered each and every time.
Dorsey, who had once composed for and played piano behind blues giants Tampa Red, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, worked hard to develop this new music, organizing an annual convention for gospel artists, touring with Martin to sell sheet music and gradually overcoming the resistance of more conservative churches to what many of them considered sinful, worldly music. Combining the sixteen bar structure and blues modes and rhythms with religious lyrics, Dorsey’s compositions opened up possibilities for innovative singers such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe to apply their very individual talents to his songs, while inspiring church members to “shout” — either to call out catch phrases or to add musical lines of their own in response to the singers.
This looser style affected other black religious musical styles as well. The most popular groups in the 1930s were male quartets or small groups such as The Golden Gate Quartet, who sang, usually unaccompanied, in jubilee style, mixing careful harmonies, melodious singing, playful syncopation and sophisticated arrangements to produce a fresh, experimental style far removed from the more somber hymn-singing. These groups also absorbed popular sounds from pop groups such as The Mills Brothers and produced songs that mixed conventional religious themes, humor and social and political commentary. They began to show more and more influence from gospel as they incorporated the new music into their repertoire.
In the 1930s gospel music of the civil rights movement was referred to as the black gospel period because this was the most prosperous era for gospel music. The message of many of the civil rights activist was supported by the message gospel music was putting forth.
To be CONTINUED….