Gospel Music is music that is written and performed to express either a personal or a
communal belief regarding Christian life, as well as (in terms of the varying music styles)
to give a Christian alternative to mainstream secular music.
Like other forms of Christian music, the creation, performance, significance, and even the definition of Gospel music varies according to culture and social context. Gospel music is composed and performed for many purposes, including aesthetic pleasure, religious or ceremonial purposes, and as an entertainment product for the marketplace. However, the most common themes of most Gospel music is praise, worship or thanks to God, Christ, or the Holy Spirit.
A large body of American religious songs with texts that reflect aspects of the personal religious experience of Protestant evangelical groups both white and African-American. Such songs first appeared in religious revivals during the 1850's, but they are more closely associated with the urban revivalism that arose in the last third of the 19th century. Gospel music has a place in the hymnals of most American Protestants and, through missionary activity, has spread to churches elsewhere. By the middle of the 20th century it had also become a distinct category of popular song, independent of religious association, with its own supporting publishing and recording firms, and performers appearing in concerts.
From the need to subjugate or from fear, many American slave owners did not allow blacks to use traditional African instruments, nor could they play or sing their native music. Gradually much of the words and melodies were forgotten and disappeared in North America. It is because of this ban on their musical ancestral that a new African American style of music was created. New songs were created using the African traditions of harmony, call and response, behind a strong rhythmic meter mixed with European traditions of harmony and musical instruments.
Gospel songs created by Blacks used Christian subjects with African vocal and rhythmic influences. The church became a sanctuary for Black slave expression. It was the only place that groups of slaves could congregate without fear of white supervision. Though not all slave holders allowed religious instruction or permission to worship and had to meet secretly.
The enslavement of Blacks in the American Colonies began during the 1600's. Slavery flourished in the South, where large plantations grew cotton, tobacco, and other crops. The plantations required many laborers. Work songs and "field hollers" were used to ease the drudgery of hard labor in the fields, later they were sung while laying railroad track, or while working in places such as the many turpentine camps in the mid 1800s.
The role of the church remained central to Blacks in America once they were emancipated. With emancipation, a just and equal freedom was elusive and largely nonexistent. Jim Crow laws remained as a given in the South and a huge exodus of Blacks migrated to the industrialized North (and continued until the 1970s), which promised jobs and more freedom. To a very limited degree jobs were found, but only jobs that whites did not want to do.
More freedom was granted to them only, as some historians argue, because the North lacked the tradition of a fully organized and functioning racist tradition, and because virtually the entire organized abolitionist tradition existed in the North. The former abolitionists switched from advocating emancipation to advocating fair treatment for recently freed Blacks.
With this political and social backdrop, the church evolved as a religious sanctuary from the eyes of slave holders to a sanctuary where Black culture and music could thrive. In this atmosphere churches were used as meeting places for black town forums with, at times, more of political than religious agendas.
Gospel music was changing rapidly. As once rural Blacks migrated to large cities in the North and South, and with the advent of a growing black economy an emerging urban sophistication, gospel music turned it's back on some of the cruder forms of harmony, melody. and structure. Whites portraying Blacks nationwide in minstrel shows whetted the appetite for white audiences who desired Fisk Jubilees Singers, who were students of the all Black Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, traveled widely in America internationally with great success singing spirituals.
The Seminal Influence of T.A. Dorsey: The term "Gospel" existed before W.W.II, but other terms such as "anthems", "spirituals", and "jubilees" were more common. After World War II a former blues musician and son of a preacher (who used to accompany the widely popular blues singer Bessie Smith), Thomas A. Dorsey, converted back to the church and turned his considerable talents to writing religious music. T.A. Dorsey, best known for "Precious Lord, Take My Hand", is of a pivotal post World War II importance when we consider the three elements of his business acumen:
He is the first Black man to start a black owned music publishing company in America. Although he published his own music and others, he had the acumen to include singer Sallie Martin as a partner. He wrote the songs and secured the rights to other songs. Sallie Martin then became a glorified sales rep. She traveled from coast to coast performing and selling music sheets to black churches. It is Dorsey's distinctive style of writing that the majority of choirs use today. A combination of the old hymnody of Watts, and of the African "call and response" sung in country churches.
This distinctive style of religious music he insisted should be called"Gospel". He wanted to disassociate what he felt was a modern style of black religious music from the days of slavery and the distasteful nostalgia of antebellum South. Surprisingly the gospel term stuck retiring "anthems", "spirituals", and "jubilees"
as an anachronism of past Black religious music. Secondly, he was the first black promoter on a large scale to promote the better choirs, quartets, and solo singers in and, more importantly, out of the church. With much controversy among the faithful, he was the first to advertise the religious concerts, and charge money to see them. (The first on record were the Fisk Jubilee Singers. It is also interesting to note that black Historian W.E.B. DuBois sang with and promoted the Fisk group one summer in the late 1800s). By doing this, T.A. Dorsey had helped create a star system.
In the Black culture of the first half of the 20th century, gospel music was considered antithetical to blues and jazz, despite their similarity of origins, and gospel performers rarely sang in nonreligious settings. Later, as all three forms became popular outside the Black community, they were less mutually exclusive. A strong gospel element underlies the soul jazz and rock music of the 1950s and 60s. Composer and pianist Thomas A. Dorsey, often referred to as the father of the gospel song, played a major role in the development of gospel music. Important gospel performers have included Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Alex Bradford, James Cleveland, The Swan Silver Tones, The Mighty Clouds of Joy, The Dixie Hummingbirds, and The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. Pop singers who have been heavily influenced by gospel include Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles. While the greatest era in gospel is widely considered to be c.1945 - 1965, the tradition and the music remain vital in contemporary culture. The Gospel Music Association rewards achievements in the genre with the annual Dove Awards.