written by MMM teacher Canangela Boyd-Robertson
The Role of Gospel Music
At its core, gospel music reflects the passion and intensity of religious faith and a yearning for connection with God. This fervor is what has made gospel music one of our most beloved musical and cultural influences. A collage of suffering, struggle, victory, and unity, gospel music is indeed a cry from the soul—the very heart of humanity. For the Christian, it is a rope to cling to when the storms of life become too much to bear. A simple tune bellowed from the lungs of a weary soul can inspire both tears of sorrow and of joy, while reminding the believer to walk the path of righteousness and faith.
The tentacles of gospel have, however, stretched far beyond the confines of the church—becoming a source of encouragement to many, regardless of religious preference. Secular artists with religious roots such as Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Jimmy Lee Lewis, and Little Richard are just a few artists whose music was greatly influenced by the soul-stirring grip of gospel music. The powerful impact of gospel music brings to mind the questions: Where does this music have its roots? How did it begin? What does the word “gospel” mean?
The Birth of Gospel Music
The English word “gospel” is derived from the Anglo-Saxon term “god spell,” which means “good story.” In Greek, the word “gospel” derives from a Greek word, “evangelion,” which literally means “good news.” In Christianity, this “good news” refers to the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It also references the “good news” of Jesus’ death on the cross for the atonement of sin. Also, worthy to note, the first three books in the New Testament of the Bible are referred to as the Gospels because they focus on the story of Jesus Christ.
One way, Christians have shared the “good news” of salvation through Jesus Christ and the “good news” of God’s power and love is through songs. Gospel music finds its roots in the 17th century with an interesting connection to Scotland. Many Scottish churches at the time practiced a tradition of “lining out” when singing, meaning one person would lead the solo and others would follow. As Scottish immigrants migrated to the United States, they brought this tradition of lining out into the American churches. The tradition of lining out developed into what became known as “call and response” in many Southern churches. Enslaved Africans would hear these hymns also while working on plantations and modified them to a “call and response” format.
Gospel Music in the U.S.
The development of gospel music in the United States took a divided path, as many churches at the time were racially segregated. Musical expression and stylistic differences in white and Black gospel led to two different genres of gospel: Southern gospel and African-American gospel. Characterized largely by all-male trios and quartets, Southern gospel exploded with traveling preachers on the revival scene. With its standard, “four male singers and a piano,” presentation, Southern gospel is also known as quartet music. While remaining mainly white, the genre began to embrace the musical styling of African-American gospel in 1960.
African-American gospel, also known as urban contemporary gospel and Black gospel, emerged around 1920 from a cocktail of hymns, spirituals, shout songs, and Black jubilee songs, with a heavy reliance on the harmonic and rhythmic influences from jazz and blues. The influence of African music was already prevalent in the music of enslaved African people and impacted every musical style created in the African-American community, including classical music. The “call and response” method was easily adapted amongst African-American churches because it was already a part of their musical tradition.
Gospel Music: From the 1920s Until Now
African-American gospel music dominates the field of gospel music today as both a source of spiritual edification and entertainment. During the 1930s, three types of musical activity were the catalyst for the style of African-American gospel as we know it today. The first activity was the work of Charles Albert Tindley (1851-1933), a Philadelphia minister, whose unique hymn style started the language of modern-day gospel. The second musical activity was the emergence of “rural gospel” tunes that paralleled “rural blues.” And the final influence on the direction of Black gospel was the unrestricted, magnetic worship style of the Holiness-Pentecostal branch of the Christian church.
At the time of this musical shift, Thomas A. Dorsey rose as a prominent figure in the world of gospel music and was credited with coining the term “gospel music” in 1921 while in Chicago. He coined the term to differentiate his music from “gospel hymns.” Dorsey was a pioneer, blending jazz and swing with traditional worship music and spirituals. Dorsey teamed up with gospel artist, Theodore Frye, to organize the first gospel chorus at Ebenezer Baptist Church, making way for the official launch of the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses. This choir involved performers such as Mahalia Jackson, Roberta Martin, and Rosetta Tharpe. Dorsey’s leadership was a crucial part of gospel music’s evolution.
Today, gospel music has been fused with R&B, jazz, and even rap. Its influence is as varied as the music itself, providing a flavorful seasoning in any music playlist. If you are searching for both entertainment and encouragement, then gospel music is just what you need.