Saturday, November 25, 2017

Potted history of Spirituals and Gospel Music

The term Negro Spirituals first appeared in print in the 1860s and described slaves using the noun spiritual for religious songs sung sitting or standing in place, and spiritual shouts for more dance-like music.

Numerous rhythmical and sonic elements of Negro spirituals can be traced to African sources but experts believe Negro spirituals developed in North America as a result of cross cultural influences between African religious elements and the music and religion derived from Europe. Enslaved people were forbidden from speaking their native languages or practicing their own religions. Many continued clandestinely to communicate by alternative means with singing being one of the major methods. It was part of this that saw the development of intricate mulitpart harmonies which were sung with passion in field songs and later chain gangs.

Enslaved Africans embraced Christianity and in particular the Old Testament in the belief their oppression and adversity would eventually be overcome through faith. Negro spirituals were primarily an expression of religious faith but also a way of communicating information which was liberating. Since the laws of slavery prevented those from being taught to read or write a strong oral tradition developed and their culture was passed through the generation via songs. Absence of notation meant musical improvisation was possible. By the middle of the nineteenth century songs like Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, Steal Away to Jesus, The Angels are Coming, I'm a Rolling, and Roll Jordan Roll were common repertoire.

At the end of the American Civil War in 1865, many former slaves wanted to distance themselves from the music associated with captivity. It took until 1872 before Negro spirituals were published in a book titled Jubilee Songs as Sung by the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University, by Thomas F. Steward. Undoubtedly these were Westernised but the format proved popular and gave Christians (both black and white) an alternative to mainstream secular music. The Fisk Jubilee Singers toured the States raising money for their school. So popular did they become the group were invited to perform before royalty during tours of Europe. Soon other collections of plantation songs were published.

When classical composer, Antonín Dvorák visited the United States in 1892 he encourage American musicians to draw upon the Negro spiritual for inspiration. When in 1916, singer and composer Harry T. Burleigh wrote "Deep River,” for voice and piano this was considered to be the first work of its kind to be written specifically for performance by a trained singer. In no time at all it became common for recitals to end with a group of spirituals.

Emancipated slaves formed churches which were in the main affiliated with white Pentecostal denominations. Revivalist churches were known as Sanctified or Holiness churches and the black congregations sang songs openly and dynamically in acceptance of the “Good News” found in the four Gospels of the New Testament. These were called Gospel (Hymns) and the term was coined by Ira Sankey in 1875. Gospel developed out of the combination of Christian lyrics mixed with black melody, syncopation, elements of spirituals, traditional jazz and the blue note of blues. Spiritual and gospel music shared the same origins through faith in the risen Saviour but whilst Spiritual music was mainly inspired by the Old Testament, Gospel was sung in open praise, worship or thanks to God, Christ, or the Holy Spirit. In general gospel music could be broken into three basic categories: the call and response type is where the “leader” begins a line, which is then followed by a choral response. This is often sung to a fast, rhythmic tempo e.g. Swing low sweet Chariot. The slow and melodic spiritual were sung with sustained expressive phasing e.g. Calvary. Gospel songs often told a story set within a fast, syncopated rhythm like “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.”

At first conservative congregations and their ministry openly rejected gospel musical, condemning it as too secular. The Reverend Charles A. Tindley (1851-1933), wrote many gospel hymns including: “I’ll Overcome Someday” and “We’ll Understand It Better By and By.” He like others copyrighted and published their music in collections such as Gospel Pearls and New Songs of Paradise. Composers promoted their works through concerts and events. Gospel hymns were performed by male quartets or female gospel choirs and gradually instruments such as the piano, drums and tambourine were used in church.

With the great migration from the South the music was carried throughout the States. But Chicago became the centre of gospel music in the 1930’s. The ‘Father of Gospel Music’ was Thomas A. Dorsey (1899-1993) who was a consummate musician, composer and arranger of blues tunes. He had a very successful career writing and performing with blues diva Ma Rainey but when he met Charles A. Tindley he started to write religious songs with blues elements incorporated and his songs combined shouts of praise and emotional fervor with a contemporary style Most conservatives thought the combination of sacred (spirituals and hymns) with secular (blues and jazz) music was an abomination and they referred to it as "the devil's music." Dorsey went from church, gradually convincing ministers that his gospel music was suitable for their services. With the help of Sallie Martin, Mother Willie Mae Ford Smith and Mahalia Jackson among many others, he recorded gospel songs and generated an international audience for his music. Thomas A Dorsey wrote over 400 songs with his most famous “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” recorded by many artists. In 1932 Dorsey founded The National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses to encourage others to develop gospel music.

Between the 20s and 40s gospel quartets were popular and performed with instrumental accompaniment and sang four-part harmonies. Most of the groups were male with the best known being: The Swan Silvertones (led singer Claude Jeter); The Sensational Nightingales (lead singer Rev. Julius Cheeks); and The Dixie Hummingbirds. There were also some popular female quartets i.e. The Soul Sisters, The Davis Sisters, Harmonettes and the Caravans. Many of the later stars of rhythm and blues were influenced by these gospel groups. During the 40's, gospel ensembles and quartets travelled extensively throughout the US. Many of the groups were dressed casually presenting a more flamboyant image and people clambered to hear their favourite singers both live and on record.

Gospel choirs and choruses gradually replaced the quartets in terms of overall popularity. By which time performers were less restrained in their use of harmony, and vocalists and instrumentalists used far more improvisation. The lead singer took a much more active role, singing whole verses while the other members of the ensemble repeated words or phrases behind the leader in harmony. In the years that followed great singers like Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward and James Cleveland all developed careers as gospel singers. Some restricted their performances to churches whereas others like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Golden Gate Quartet and Clara Ward all performed gospel music in secular settings. A new breed of performers called “singing preachers’ sprung up and many had dual careers as singers of secular and sacred music. Blind Lemon Jefferson for example was a bluesman but also appeared as Deacon L. J. Bates when performing gospel. As lead singers took more centre stage young, handsome, men like Sam Cooke brought an entirely new audience to gospel music. Performers like Mahalia Jackson started to appear on television, and feature at major concerts venues and festivals.

The growing demand to hear the music meant more and more gospel was recorded and played over the radio. Ironically despite the obvious public interest in the music many of the musicians and singers were poorly treated and cheated out of royalties. By the late 50s Gospel music was beginning to influence mainstream pop e.g. Ray Charles had hits with "Drown in My Own Tears" and "Hallelujah, I Just Love Her So." The stage performance of James Brown was in the manner of Revivalist preachers.

By the sixties gospel was given a new lease of life party due to a wider global audience but also because of the civil rights movement in the US. Gospel was performed in nightclubs, and gospel plays had come to Broadway. Sam Cooke became the first gospel singer to successfully cross over into the mainstream and become a secular star. Other Gospel singers followed including: James Cleveland, Shirley Caesar, Aretha Franklin, the Mighty Clouds of Joy, Della Reese, Lou Rawls and the Staples Singers. The Gospel trend continued into the late 60s with God Rock musicals. In 1968, The Edwin Hawkins Singer had a worldwide number one hit with “Oh Happy Day.”

A subset of Gospel music which gained popularity in the 20s and 30s was Country Gospel [sometimes referred to as Inspirational Country or Southern Gospel Music (SGM)]. Ostensibly white gospel was performed by all male quartets (tenor-lead-baritone-bass), with strong harmonies with extremely wide ranges (i.e. extremely low bass, falsetto tenor). Bluegrass Gospel music was another form which was rooted in American mountain music. Christian Gospel has progressed into a mainstream country music. Gospel continues to evolve incorporating contemporary secular music styles such as Hip Hop and Rap.

Worth a listen

Golden Gate Quartet

Mississippi Singers
Daniel saw the stone

Jessye Norman
Motherless Child
What a beautiful city

Paul Robeson
Swing low sweet chariot
Joshua fit de battle of Jericho
O’l man river
Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel
Jacob’s ladder


The Caravans (Albertina Walker and James Cleveland)
Its Jesus in me
I’m coming through

The Carter Family
The sea of Galilee
I’m working on a building
There’ll be joy, joy joy
On a hill lone and grey

Patsy Cline
Just a closer walk with thee

Edwin Hawkins Singers
Oh Happy Day

The Dixie Hummingbirds
Amazing Grace

5 Blind Boys of Mississippi
Jesus love you
I can see everybody’s mother
Wherever there is a will
I’m a soldier

Aretha Franklin
Precious Lord Part 1 &2
Yield not to temptation

Golden Gate Quartet
Preacher and the bear
Rock my soul

Mahalia Jackson
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
Come to Jesus
No matter how you pray
Take My Hand, Precious Lord

Etta James
Amen/This little light of mine

The Sallie Martin Singers
Let me cross over

Jerry Lee Lewis
When the saints

Lucky Millender and his band (featuring Sister Rosetta Tharpe)
Shout sister shout
The Oak Ridge Boys
I’ll wake up on the other side
When I lay my burden down

Elvis Presley
Take my hand, Precious Lord
Working on the building
Joshua Fit the battle

The Soul Stirrers (with Sam Cooke)
Jesus give me water
Peace in the valley
How far am I from Cannan?

The Staples Singers
This may be the last time
Stand by me

The Swan Silvertones
Get your soul right
Saviour pass me not
Lords Prayer

Sister O M Terrell
I’m going to that city

Sony Terry and Brownie McGee
Down by the riverside

Clara Ward and the Ward Singers
Surely God is Able

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