African American religious music is the foundation of all contemporary forms of so called “black music. ” African American religious music has been a fundamental part of the black experience in this country. This common staple of the African American experience can be traced back to the cruel system of slavery. It then evolved into what we refer to today as gospel music. The goal of this paper is to answer three main questions. What are the origins of African American religious music? How did this musical expression develop into a secular form of music?
What is the future of African American religious music? These questions will be answered through factual research of African American traditions, artists, and various other sources. The origins of African American religious music are directly linked to the Negro spirituals of enslaved Africans. One cannot research religious music of blacks in this country without first exploring these spirituals. The spirituals were part of a religious expression that enslaved people used to transcend the narrow limits and dehumanizing effects of slavery.
It was through the performance of the spirituals that the individual and the community experienced their God, a God who affirmed their humanity in ways whites did not and a God who could set them free both spiritually and physically. These “sacred songs” were also used as secret communication. That is not to say that all spirituals functioned as coded protest songs or as some sort of secret language. The structure of the spirituals and the way in which they were created and performed allowed for flexibility in their function and meaning.
The primary function of the Negro spirituals was to serve as communal song in a religious gathering, performed in a call and response pattern reminiscent of West African traditional religious practices. During these ceremonies, one person would begin to create a song by singing about his or her own sorrow or joy. That individual experience was brought to the community and through the call and response structure of the singing, that individual’s sorrow or joy became the sorrow or joy of the community.
In this way, the spiritual became truly affirming, for it provided communal support for individual experiences. Slaves used the characters of the bible, particularly the Old Testament, to tell their stories. Jesus was called upon to help the individual find God, who would “set them free on the inside. ” The spirituals ultimately tell the story of a spiritual journey toward spiritual freedom. A spiritual journey dominates these songs, but the concern for physical freedom is there as well.
The most pervasive image in the spirituals is that of the chosen people for the slaves believed that they had been chosen by God just as the Israelites had. They also believed that they understood better than anyone what freedom truly meant in both a spiritual and physical sense. The Old Testament characters that the slaves referred to in their songs experienced deliverance by God. The slaves believed that the same God that had granted them spiritual freedom would someday loose the chains of slavery.
The wonderful flexibility of the spirituals allowed for that double meaning of freedom. For example, Frederick Douglass claimed that the line” I am bound for Canaan” in one of the songs he frequently sang meant that he was going North, not just that he would experience the freedom of the promised land in a spiritual sense. The flexibility and multiplicity of meanings also allowed for slaves to use these sacred songs as secret communication. Some songs, such as “Steal Away to Jesus,” were used to call a secret meeting where the people could worship without the supervision of the whites.
Other songs, such as “Wade in the Water” served as coded directions for runaway slaves. With the eventual emancipation of the slaves, religious music of African Americans became prominently found in churches throughout the South. The role of the church remained central to blacks in America once they were emancipated. The Black Church evolved from a religious sanctuary away from the eyes of the slave holders to a sanctuary where black culture and music could thrive. Gospel music was developed and inspired by the blues and jazz that was storming the country.
Many traveling, singing preachers began to accompany themselves with piano and guitar. An example of this can be found with a gentleman who many refer to as the “father of Gospel Music,” Thomas A Dorsey. The son of a minister, Thomas Dorsey was a consummate musician and as a young man, he accompanied some of the most famous blues singers of all time including Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. He also arranged and composed blues tunes. However, his penchant for bouncy tunes and bawdy lyrics did not keep him from attending the annual meeting of the National Baptist Convention.
It was at these conventions that Dorsey first heard compositions of Charles A Tindley. Tindley inspired him. Musical historian Arna Bontemps argues that it was at this point in Dorsey’s life when he began to write religious music. He abandoned his brash lyrics but not the jazz rhythms and blues flavor. Naturally, older conservatives considered this blending of sacred music, such as spirituals and hymns with secular music, such as blues and jazz, to be “devil’s music. ” They shunned it and declared Dorsey’s brand of gospel music unworthy of a hearing within sanctuaries of the day.
The traditional church failed to see the positive influence contemporary music could have. A 1994 Score magazine article entitled, “The Father of Gospel Music” quoted Dorsey as saying, “when I realized how hard some folks were fighting the Gospel idea, I was determined to carry the banner. ” Carry it he indeed did. “I borrowed five dollars and sent out 500 copies of my song, If Your See My Savior,’ to churches throughout the country,” Dorsey emphatically stated. “It was three years before I got a single order. I felt like going back to the blues. ” Fortunately for Gospel music, he didn’t.
With pioneer singers such as Sallie Martin and Mother Willie Mae Ford Smith propagating his music, he stayed the course long enough to write over 800 songs and hear his music ascend from the first row pews to the choir stand, where it previously had been banned. To ensure the continual survival of Gospel Music, Dorsey founded the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses in 1932, an organization that is still in existence today. Thomas A Dorsey was a planter. The fruits of the harvest were the exceptional singers who spread gospel music around the country and indeed, the world in the years that followed.
Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward and James Cleveland are a few of the most notable gospel singers of the time. Mahalia Jackson had been accepted as a major voice of Gospel Music. She was well renowned in the music world long before she signed a lucrative contract with Columbia Records in the 1950’s. Her star continued to rise, landing her on the “Ed Sullivan Show” and providing the opportunity for her to sing just before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington. Interestingly enough, Jackson also sang at Dr. King’s funeral in 1968. She performed Thomas Dorsey’s “Take my Hand, Precious Lord.
Mahalia Jackson’s rich alto voice affected all those who heard it and several of today’s singers either wanted to sing like her or with her. Clara Ward and the Ward Singers, on the other hand, took the opportunity in Clara’s words “to take God’s words to his people wherever they were, even if that meant in night clubs. ” Ward was one of those rare people who had both flash and substance. Clara Ward’s recording “Surely God is Able” was the first ever million-seller, post-war gospel record. This was astounding during this time period considering that only a handful of gospel recordings ever reached the status of gold, or 500,000 copies sold.
Ward had a direct effect on several future singing sensations. She influenced Little Richard and Aretha Franklin, who both noted Clara Ward as one of their idols. James Cleveland was considered by many gospel enthusiasts to be “The King of Gospel,” receiving four Grammy’s, the last of which was awarded posthumously for the album “Having Church. ” Cleveland was a charismatic singer who, to use a cliche, held the audience in the palm of his hand. This is ironic since his voice, rough and raspy, could not be considered one of great quality.
Nonetheless, he mesmerized his audience and brought a standard of excellence to gospel music in general through his organization in 1968 of the Gospel Music Workshop of America, the largest gospel convention in the world. James Cleveland was indeed a pioneer. Along with several golden individual gospel voices spreading the popular music, there were also gospel quartets that became very well known. In fact, it was these vocal groups that most affected American pop culture. One of the main gospel quartets was the Swan Silverstone’s Led by Claude Jeter. Jeter’s innovative style of using falsetto became the industry standard.
Another group that refused to be outdone by the Silverstones was the Sensational Nightingales led by Reverend Julius Cheeks who was known to leave the stage and “work” the audience. Had he been on the secular side, one might suspect he would have been considered a sex symbol. Other popular groups included the Dixie Hummingbirds, The Mighty Clouds of Joy, and the Fairfield Four, the latter of which still enjoys immense popularity today because of the vocal prowess they have amazingly retained. Though most gospel quartets were male, the Davis Sisters, Harmonetts, and the Caravans provided examples of excellent and popular female groups.
However, perhaps the most popular quartet of all was the Soul Stirrers, led by the great Rebert H. Harris. According to George W. Stewart of the American Quartet Gospel Convention, it was Harris who first developed that vocal ad lib using repetitious sounds that Sam Cooke made so famous. “Before that innovation, it was just straight quartet style, a variation of the barbershop quartet,” Stewart offered. “Harris started training Cooke when he was 10 years old. When Cooke was in his late teens, he joined the group and became the closest thing gospel had to a matinee idol (afgen. com/gospel).
When Cooke left the group and Harris’s tutelage for the rewards offered by secular music such as larger audiences and more money, Cooke became an icon in American popular music. He was the first notable gospel singer to successfully cross over into mainstream and become a star. Gospel singers following his move were both legion and legend. Aretha Franklin, Della Reese, and Lou Rawls are prime examples. This trend would continue all the way to the present. The gospel quartets influenced several rhythm and Blues musicians including Ashford and Simpson, Wilson Pickett and most recently, Jodeci.
In gospel music, the mass choirs and choruses eventually replaced the quartets in terms of overall popularity. Interestingly enough, the most popular choir in the 90’s was founded by a quartet member named Franklin Williams. Williams sang with the Southern Gospel Singers and the Jackson Southernaires. In 1979, he joined Malaco Records as executive producer and director of gospel promotions. He then organized and was lead singer for the Mississippi Mass Choir in 1988. The group’s first recording “Mississippi Mass Choir Live” was an immediate success with Billboard and Score Magazines naming it the number one spiritual album of the year.
The choir is still recording and still setting records in sales. There are far too many successful choirs to mention in this paper but John P. Kee and the New Life Community Choir and Hezekiah Walker and the Love Fellowship Choir are just a couple that continue to demonstrate standards of excellence for choirs. It seems very evident that African American music is here to stay. From its slave spiritual roots to the soul gospel tunes of today, it has transcended all limits to become a profound force in American music. So what is the future of the ever-growing musical form?
Fueled by major recording companies, it has leaped over its traditional religious walls and is now more than just church music. Reoccurring radio appearances by the music of Kirk Franklin and Donnie McClurkin attest to Gospel’s growing popularity. According to Gospel Today magazine, within the last 10 years, seven major recording companies have created and staffed gospel divisions. Independent gospel labels have increased by 50 percent, and total revenues for gospel music have nearly tripled in the past decade from $180 million to $500 million. “Gospel music is coming to the mainstream says gospel diva Yolanda Adams.
Singers are coming out of the church and introducing the gospel style to the world (Gospel Today, p. 44). Adams herself expanded gospel’s exposure when she appeared twice on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. ” Meanwhile, television producer Bobby Jones reaches four and a half million viewers each week with his BET program, “Gospel Explosion. ” However, the test for Gospel music reflects one that all Christian musicians must wrestle with: Can Gospel continue to increase its fortune in the mainstream marketplace while still maintaining its spiritual base?
Despite what you believe the answer to be, African American Religious music will continually evolve. Since Thomas Dorsey first stretched the boundaries to create gospel music, choirs, quartets, and power vocalists have been singing the same song, albeit in different styles and places. As African American religious music continues to grow beyond even Dorsey’s expectations, one can only hope that it will be embraced regardless of how it is labeled by everyone who needs to be reminded of the good news it represents.