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date: 18 August 2019

Gospel Music, African American.

The Oxford Companion to United States History

Georgiary Bledsoe McElveen

Gospel Music, African American. 

Since its initial flowering in the late 1920s and 1930s, black gospel music has played a prominent role within the religious, artistic, and political spheres of American culture.

The genre developed in tandem with the large-scale rural-to-urban and southern-to-northern migration of the early twentieth century and the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Chicago-based Thomas Andrew Dorsey (1899–1993), inspired by the improvisational blues-inflected singing of W.M. Nix, successfully championed the gospel style as an evangelistic tool, a career path for talented performers, and an avenue for African American advancement. Dorsey himself composed one of the best-loved gospel songs of all time, Take My Hand, Precious Lord, upon the death of his wife and newborn son in 1932. That same year, with Sallie Martin, Theodore Frye, Willie Mae Ford Smith, and Magnolia Lewis Butts, Dorsey cofounded the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses (NCGCC). A model for the Gospel Music Workshop of America (GMWA), founded by James Cleveland in 1968, the NCGCC fostered an elaborate apprenticeship and networking system for performers that linked together practitioners from Chicago, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Detroit, Memphis, Los Angeles, and smaller urban gospel centers across the country. At first, the gospel music of the 1920s and 1930s conflicted with the genteel sensibilities of old-line northern urban African American churches whose musical programs were oriented around a politics of respectability that sought to command the esteem of the white mainstream. While these churches initially viewed gospel music as retrogressive, they were gradually won over. By the early 1940s gospel music was thoroughly entrenched in black churches.

In her career-establishing 1947 hit recording of W.H. Brewster's Move on up a Little Higher, Mahalia Jackson (1911–1972) combined Pentecostal shouting style, the deep resonance of blues singers like Bessie Smith, and Baptist moaning. That same year the Ward Singers recorded Brewster's Surely God Is Able. Both songs helped to make standard the use of “wandering couplets,” pithy lines distilled from Negro spirituals, sermons, and biblical texts. An everyday part of African American vernacular English, couplets such as “Sometimes I'm up, sometimes I'm down. Sometimes I'm almost level to the ground” transport the salience of myriad cultural contexts into the performance event. Reverend Cleophus Robinson, a St. Louis pastor and gospel powerhouse who recorded the 1969 hit Wrapped up, Tied up, Tangled up, reinforced the interconnectedness of black religion, culture, and politics by singing gospel songs to raise funds for the civil rights movement.

Edwin Hawkins's 1969 rhythm-and-blues-arranged Baptist hymn O Happy Day ushered in a period of stylistic innovation and unprecedented commercial success, as musicians fused elements of traditional gospel with rhythm and blues, soul, pop, jazz, funk, and hip-hop. A showcase for rising talent, “Bobby Jones Gospel” became the first nationally syndicated black gospel television show upon its debut on the Black Entertainment Network in 1980. Kirk Franklin, the first gospel artist to sell more than a million copies of a debut CD album, saw his 1997 single Stomp, featuring the rap group Salt-N-Pepa and importing a bass line from Parliament-Funkadelic, rise to the number-one spot on Billboard magazines’ rhythm-and-blues and gospel charts.

As the twentieth century ended, the African American gospel tradition remained vital, merging the sacred cosmos, musical dialects, and sociopolitical discourses of African Americans in the United States. Traditional styles (Richard Smallwood, Shirley Caesar, The Canton Spirituals) continued alongside contemporary (CeCe Winans, Fred Hammond & Radical for Christ, Helen Baylor) and urban styles (Trin-i-tee 5:7, Gospel Gangstaz, Yolanda Adams) as performers sought to package and deliver the gospel message in stylistically cogent ways relevant to the lives and times of their audience.

See also African American Religion; Baptists; Bible, The; Music: Traditional Music; Music: Popular Music; Pentecostalism; Religion; Revivalism.


Michael Harris, The Rise of Gospel Blues: The Music of Thomas Andrew Dorsey in the Urban Church, 1992.Find this resource:

Horace Clarence Boyer, How Sweet the Sound: The Golden Age of Gospel, 1995.Find this resource:

Georgiary Bledsoe McElveen