Early Discussions of African American Religious Music African American religious music has been a topic of scholarly discussion for years. Long before Thomas Dorsey began writing gospel songs in Chicago, W. E. B. Du Bois was writing about African American spirituals. In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois maintained that spirituals were “the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side of the sea” and that this music was the greatest gift that African Americans could share with the wider American culture. 6 Du Bois also went on to write about gospel music, and though he held spirituals in high esteem, he felt different about gospel. He rejected the idea that conventional African American religious music should be discarded for classical music and Protestant hymns, but he did not embrace gospel, which he described as “flippant music and mediocre poetry” in his essay “The Problem of Amusement. ”17 St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton were also pioneers of the study of gospel music. Drake and Cayton’s work Black Metropolis was a massive volume that attempted to describe African American life in Chicago in the early twentieth century.
Though this study covered a host of topics, the authors took care to discuss religious music and how the Great Migration changed the musical culture of Chicago. For example, they discussed the connection between social class and musical preference. According to Drake and Cayton, lower class and older African Americans tended to prefer southern folk or gospel music in their religious services while upper-class churches and younger church-goers often favored more restrained, classical music or white Protestant hymns. 8 They also noted that between 1940 and 1945 gospel music became increasing popular and that by 1945 most large African American churches had gospel choruses, a “concession to lower-class taste. ” Du Bois, Drake, and Cayton were some of the first scholars to discuss the evolution of gospel music, but scholarly interest in the genre did not end with them. While these men were discussing gospel music as it was becoming popular, later scholars have also looked at the emergence and impact of gospel music and have done so from a variety of perspectives.
Expansive Histories of Gospel The literature on gospel has included a number of expansive histories. Though scholars have generally agreed that the twentieth century was an integral time for the development of gospel music, they have recognized that it did not develop in a social vacuum and therefore earlier musical forms undoubtedly influenced the genre. In order to better explain the music’s roots, many scholars have compiled long histories of gospel.
Lawrence Levine’s Black Culture and Black Consciousness, published in 1977, was an important work in the historiography of gospel music, even though gospel was only rarely mentioned in the text. In this book Levine set out to provide a history of African American culture, and he wanted to connect it to its African past. Levine was one of the first scholars to take seriously the idea that aspects of African culture survived slavery and impacted black culture in America, and this was a much more significant contribution to the study of gospel music than his explicit discussion of the genre.
Many later scholars used Levine’s insight about the influence of African traditions on America’s black culture in order to write histories of gospel, and this was his lasting impact on the study of gospel music. Robert Darden’s 2005 book, People Get Ready! , was an example of an expansive history of gospel music. Rather than focusing on a specific time or place, Darden attempted to trace the development of gospel music over hundreds of years, beginning with gospel’s African roots.
Darden, like Levine before him, maintained that American gospel and West African music were similar in performance and musical styling and that this proved a connection between African and African American musical cultures. He went on to discuss the development of slave spirituals and the importance of this music to African Americans suffering through the Civil War and Reconstruction. He then tied Reconstruction spirituals to the Great Migration and discussed the role that the migration played in the development of barbershop quartets, but he said very little about the impact that the migration had on African American church music. 1 Darden also discussed contemporary gospel music, as late as the 1990s, increasing the range of his book. The scope of this work was huge, and the author’s primary concern was tracing the entire history of gospel and connecting it to African roots. As a result, he was not particularly concerned with how gospel changed in twentieth century America or why it became popular in African American churches during the migration. Sacred Song in America, published in 2003 by Stephen Marini, also recognized African roots in gospel music.
In this work, Marini maintained that West African traditions impacted the development of African American music, but although African roots could be identified in African American gospel, evangelical Protestantism impacted and altered the tradition in important ways. While keeping in mind the influence of evangelical Protestant culture, Marini traced the development of African American religious music from slave songs to the rise of gospel music in the twentieth century, which he described as a fusion of gospel hymns and blues.
He also recognized the important role that Thomas Dorsey played in the history of gospel music, referring to him as the “father of gospel blues” and emphasizing his role in the careers of Roberta Martin and Mahalia Jackson, two of the most famous gospel singers of the twentieth century. Marini also recognized Dorsey as having a major impact on the development and popularity of gospel church choirs because Dorsey was the founder of the world’s first gospel chorus.
In his chapter “Gospel Music: Sacred Song and the Marketplace,” Marini also discussed contemporary gospel music and the Dove Awards, which rounded out his extensive history of the genre. Horace Clarence Boyer’s 2000 book, The Golden Age of Gospel, was yet another example of a broad overview, though he did not attempt to trace the history of gospel to Africa. The Golden Age of Gospel nonetheless covered over 200 years, and focused primarily on the mid-twentieth century.
Boyer attempted to connect the gospel sound with African American slave songs and maintained that “ring shouts,” which developed during the Second Great Awakening, were essential to the development of gospel music. In order to cover over 200 years, Boyer focused on a number of American cities and gospel composers and singers from these areas. He looked at Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, Tennessee, and New York and discussed the most influential gospel performers in these cities.
He also focused on a number of groups that traveled the country in the 1950s and ‘60s performing gospel songs. Though Boyer covered a variety of topics and spent a significant amount of time on the twentieth century, he included very little discussion of the Great Migration and how this shift in the population affected America’s musical culture. 23 Mellonee Burnim took a similar tack in her chapter, “Religious Music,” in the 2006 edited volume African American Music. She traced the history of gospel from spirituals to ontemporary gospel music and explained that although these genres developed more than 100 years apart, they served similar functions in African Americans’ religion and culture, and that function was to “articulate, embrace, and celebrate those beliefs, attitudes, and values that affirm and distinguish them as a people in the United States. ”24 She explained how slave songs developed into ring shout spirituals, and then arranged spirituals, which altered the ways African Americans created religious music and the ways they sang these songs.
According to Burnim, these arranged spirituals later gave way to the gospel songs of Charles Tindley in the first decades of the 1900s and then the songs of Thomas Dorsey in the 1930s and ‘40s. In addition to the above mentioned histories, which outlined the development of gospel music over hundreds of years, other scholars chose to focus on shorter time frames, limiting their discussions to the twentieth century.
For example, in 1990 Jon Michael Spencer wrote about the history of gospel music in terms of three distinct, twentieth century periods: the Transitional or Pre-Gospel period (1900-1930), the Traditional Period (1930-1969), and the Contemporary Period (1969-present). Although Spencer maintained that these were distinct periods in the development of gospel and that the music changed in important ways during each of these periods, he argued that the music composed during all three eras was similar in one way. According to Spencer all gospel songs were anticultural in their themes.
That is to say, the lyrics emphasized the conversion and salvation of the individual, not of society, and they called for the singer to turn away from the world and focus on heaven and God. Furthermore, because of the heavenly focus of these lyrics, Jesus became central and was “everything” in these songs. 26 Angela M. S. Nelson also divided the history of gospel music into these three time periods in her 2001 chapter “Why We Sing. ” Although she and Spencer had similar frameworks, Nelson had a different goal.
She focused on contemporary gospel music but first wanted to ground its appeal in a historical context. Therefore, she showed how gospel appealed to African Americans on a psychological level from its establishment to the present day, and in order to make this point she outlined the history of gospel music from pre-gospel, to classic, and then contemporary gospel. In so doing Nelson was able to illustrate that the genre was rooted in, and continued to be affected by, African Americans’ need to overcome adversity and deal with oppression.