What Is Gospel Music

History of Gospel music is deeply rooted in the rich traditions of the African-American church. During the late 1800s, African-American churches in the southern United States started to fuse various styles of music into their worship services including African-American spirituals, hymns, and sacred songs. Such music was primarily sung at church and accompanied by hand clapping and foot stomping. Similarities between their chains of bondage and those of Moses’ people. The enslaved also linked the promise of an afterlife with earthly freedom. Since they were “allowed” to sing only about Christian ethics and ideals, they eventually turned the hymns they learned into their own form of religious folk music. These songs became known as Negro spirituals. Hidden in them was a secret code to give one another messages of hope and freedom. Canaan meant Canada, the land of freedom. Going up yonder meant going north. Moses was a name for Harriet Tubman, founder of the underground railroad. And Swing Low, Sweet Chariot was a song about taking that underground railroad north to freedom. (The swinging low of the sweet chariot is the rocking rhythm of a train.) In the midst of excruciatingly difficult lives, slaves used these songs to inspire inner strength and courage.

At the heart of the gospel music tradition was the use of a choir. The church choir consisted of a group of volunteer singers from the church congregation. Choir members could easily be distinguished from the rest of the congregation because they normally dressed in uniforms, which were choir robes. The type of feeling you may experience when listening to gospel music. By its very definition, the term gospel means good news. The types of music sang by the gospel choir followed the call and response format similar to that used in traditional hymns and sacred songs. The traditional structure of gospel music changed in the late 1930s when Thomas A. Dorsey began work for Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago, Illinois. Dorsey was a former jazz pianist and composer who had worked with famous players such as Ma Rainey and Hudson Tamp Red Whitaker. Dorsey infused his study of blues and jazz with traditional gospel music. This new style of music, known as gospel blues, was initially rejected. However, by the end of the 1930s, gospel blues won over acceptance as the new form of traditional gospel.

Thomas Dorsey, The Father of Gospel Music Gospel music continued to evolve throughout the late 1930s. There are four distinct styles of gospel music including, but not limited to, quartet style, traditional gospel, contemporary gospel, and praise and worship. The Gospel quartet style is one in which a small number of male vocalists sing music together with tight harmonies.The major difference between traditional and contemporary gospel styles is that contemporary gospel places more emphasis on the solo artists as opposed to the choir. Most contemporary artists rarely sing with a choir. Praise and worship is a combination of both contemporary and traditional gospel styles, in that a praise leader has a small group of singers to help lead the congregation into singing gospel music. In addition to Thomas Dorsey, there are many others who contributed to the development of gospel music including James Cleveland and Mahalia Jackson. James Cleveland was a member of Pilgrim Baptist Church and sang under the direction of Thomas Dorsey. Cleveland was the founder of the Gospel Music Workshop Association (GMWA), the first gospel artist to record a live gospel LP, and the first gospel artist to sell 50,000 albums. It is a living experience, always changing, always giving, and always becoming the foundation that gave moral, physical and spiritual support to a great and powerful people.Mahalia-Jackson-2a

The influence of Mahalia Jackson is evident in her style and references to the storms of life
and of the good that is produced through overcoming adversity. Her melodious voice
stirred listeners as they “Moved On Up A Little Bit Higher” and invited them to participate in
her songs. She developed a flair for composing songs that moved the heart and regenerated the soul of a people who looked to the hills from whence cometh their help. The songs were so exciting and popular that congregations automatically joined in the singing and shouting as they lifted up the name of Jesus. It is the Alpha and Omega of God’s spiritual principle that plays upon the keyboard of mans integrity. It is a resonance, an echoing sound throughout the ages that has surrendered the wonders of God’s Almighty creations. The roots of gospel music are not well documented. Early recordings were lost. Stories behind the songs weren’t written down. A new book recounts the history of the beloved American art form.

After thousands of years, the sound of Gospel Music is still enthralling and captivating because it stands against the social background as a shadow of today’s community problems and dilemmas. From the 1930’s to the 1960’s desperate circumstances controlled our lives; despair and hope, life and death; but Gospel Music mirrored our predicaments as a collective group of people, it reflected upon our social status, and eventually reverberated in our made up minds that God was indeed on our sides.

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