Then & Now: Gospel

Continuing our fearless dive into sometimes obscure, sometimes puzzling, and sometimes downright maddening musical genres, this time we turn our attention to Gospel. If it’s a style that never found great acceptance among white, secular audiences, Gospel is one of this country’s true musical taproots. 

Hypnotic, driving and impassioned, Gospel music—make that Black Gospel music—traces its roots back many centuries, at least to the arrival of African slaves in North America. In African-American communities, Gospel became a music of resistance, of resilience and of forbearance. 

But if Black Gospel is probably the style we’re most familiar with, it’s not the only form the genre took. Southern Gospel is more or less an explicitly white genre, drawing more from a fascinating musical genre called Sacred Harp than the call-and-response format of Black Gospel. We’ll return to the topic of southern gospel later in this article. If it’s a lesser-known genre than Black Gospel, its story and its musical roots are no less fascinating.   

At the dawn of the 20th century, black gospel was still largely confined to African-American churches, where it served as an integral part of the Christian liturgy. But the upswelling of public religiosity that erupted after World War II brought the sound of Gospel—black and white—to the masses. But while white, Southern Gospel would became more or less a niche genre, Black Gospel—some 350 years after it first began to take shape—would serve as the musical backdrop to the civil rights movement. 

After this high-water mark, Gospel would largely fade from public consciousness—at least the consciousness of white, secular audiences. But the seed had already been planted; soon Black Gospel’s godchild—Soul music—and everything it begat, including Funk and even elements of Hip Hop and Country, would be embedded in this country’s musical firmament. 

Where did Gospel—or should we say Gospels?—come from, and how did they become so entwined in this nation’s musical DNA? For that we have to travel some 400 years back in time. 

Black Gospel Music: African Roots, Forcibly Transplanted 

The birth of Black Gospel is generally traced to the arrival of the first African slaves in Colonial Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. Of course, it’s more than slightly ironic that many of the white settlers engaged in the slave trade had themselves been driven to the New World by religious and ethnic persecution.

Of course, those first caucasian settlers in North America had brought their own musical traditions with them, and now these began to intermingle with African musical motifs. Often taking the hymns of white writers such as Isaac Watts as a starting point, African transplants adapted them to their particular predicament: Enslaved, largely illiterate and limited to the most rudimentary musical instruments and tools. 

What emerged from this hybridization was a unique, largely vocal style stripped of the embellishments and trappings of European 17th- and 18th-century tastes. Using a characteristically African call-and-response format and often engendering a trance-like state, these songs were both a reminder of what had been lost to the slave trade and a call towards greater communal bonds, faith and perseverance. In a very real sense, Black Gospel in its early days was a lifeline for a community pushed to the very brink.

Gospel persisted over the course of the next couple of hundred years, melding to some extent with field hollers and other folk styles. But it wouldn’t be until the latter half of the 19th century that a style called “Gospel Music” took form. In an era far more religious than today, hymns and spirituals were penned by numerous composers and authors, and performed by popular singers and “song leaders” who would lead the musical portions of revival meetings. Far from being limited to rural townships, these meetings were a regular feature of large cities spanning from New York to Chicago to Cleveland and beyond.

It wouldn’t be until 1909 that recordings of Black Gospel were made, but this rendition of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”—a song originally written by a Choctaw freedman named Wallis Willis around 1870—should give you a good idea of what these songs sounded like.  

Two Communities, Two Gospels: Southern Gospel Takes Root

It was around this time that Southern Gospel—a term generally understood to be “White Gospel”—began to take form. Although it shared some common roots with Black Gospel in 18th- and 19th-century hymnody, Southern Gospel drew from a fascinating and wholly unique musical tradition called Sacred Harp.

Itself a byproduct of the popular “shape note” system, a short of shorthand system to help untutored singers find the correct key, Sacred Harp can have a primitive, nearly otherworldly feel. It’s a component that would largely drop by the wayside as the genre moved closer to the mainstream in the early decades of the 20th century. 

Popularized by superstars of the day such as the Carter Family, the style would take its definitive form with the male quartet. Untold thousands of these groups criss-crossed the country in the middle of the last century, performing a largely smooth and highly polished take on classic spirituals in venues of every size and description. At least in the middle of the country, the genre held strong and enduring appeal; before he found success adopting a stereotypically black R&B style for white audiences, Elvis Presley auditioned for several gospel groups, without success. 

Southern Gospel would begin to fade after the 1950s. Like many traditional styles—including Black Gospel—it would begin to incorporate modern elements in the hope of remaining relevant to younger audiences. The somewhat stiff and “old-timey” all-male quartet format increasingly gave way to mixed-gender duets and solos, and the melismatic style favored by Black Gospel and American Idol alike found a more or less receptive audience here.  

Nowadays, Southern Gospel is more or less a niche genre, but a popular one. In 2005, no fewer than 285 radio stations in America named it as their primary format. 

Black Gospel Music: From the Altar to the Arena

As Southern Gospel began its popular rise, Black Gospel was hardly sitting idle. Drawing from deep cultural roots to bring a reasonably recognizable and homogenous musical style to the masses, all it lacked was a “Big Bang” figure. It found one in the form of Charles Albert Tindley, the man generally acknowledged as the “Father of Gospel Music.” 

Tindley was born in rural Maryland in 1851; while his father was a slave, he was born free by dint of his mother being a free woman. Though he was never able to attend school, Tindley was a fierce autodidact. Ordained as a deacon in 1887, he quickly became an influential and widely respected civic leader. 

When he wasn’t leading his congregation—which over the course of his pastorship swelled from roughly 100 to over 10,000—Tindley composed numerous hymns, including “I’ll Overcome Someday,” widely recognized as the source of the Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” 

Tindley was a progenitor, but he wasn’t a performer or a recording artist. For that, gospel would have to wait until 1899 and the birth of Thomas Dorsey, a man who could lay equal claim to having fathered the genre. Though he wrote the 1928 smash hit “It’s Tight Like That”—an unabashedly suggestive rag that went on to sell some seven million copies—Dorsey was already turning his attention to more, shall we say, exalted matters. 

Dorsey would go on to compose some 400 gospel and blues songs; at one point, his new-styled gospel songs were so ubiquitous they were simpley known as “dorseys.” In giving Black Gospel a more modern, blues-inflected rhythm and feel, Dorsey would more or less determine the genre’s template for the next several decade, and in the process exert a major influence over the styles that former gospel singers would later propagate, most notably Soul. 

We’ve written about several of those artists before; their number includes Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin, two of America’s most distinctive and influential vocalists. But the last one we’ll mention today deserves special attention, not only for the power of his singing and his production skills, but for helping bring the two threads of Gospel we’ve discussed today—white Southern and Black—back together again. His name was Andraé Crouch.

Born in 1942 into a preaching family, Crouch demonstrated a musical ability from an early age. With his first professional group, The Disciples, he penned a number of hugely successful songs including “The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power.” Incorporating more contemporary musical styles like modern R&B into the mix, Crouch was widely credited with using a shared musical vocabulary to bridge the cultural gap between the two major styles of Gospel. 

Pop artists took note. After The Disciples split in 1979, Crouch found his talents as producer in wide demand. In addition to being covered by such artists as Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Elvis Presley and others, he brought his arrangement skills to Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” Michael Jackson’s “Man In the Mirror,” and such films as The Color Purple and The Lion King.    

Gospel Today: Looking Backwards and Forward

Like Southern Gospel, Black Gospel continues to have a strong following, if one largely outside the spotlight of pop culture. A younger generations of artists like the Winans, and more recently Kirk Franklin and Kelly Price garner serious plays, while the seemingly evergreen interest in American roots music ensures that old-time styles will find fans for generations to come. 

But for many of us, the 1950s to the 1970s represent the apex of Gospel. And 2019 saw the release of a truly momentous document from this era: Footage of Aretha Franklin’s 1972 concert  at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. While audio had long been available, the filmic release of Amazing Grace is a powerful testament to the magnitude of Franklin’s gift. Perhaps more than any other American artist, she sprang fully formed from the cradle of Gospel to become one of the world’s most iconic voices, one you can appreciate no matter your religious affiliation.

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