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Gospel Music

Discover the rich history behind gospel music.

Today, the inspirational Christian songs that comprise gospel music can be heard around the world. [©Jupiter Images, 2009]
©Jupiter Images, 2009
Today, the inspirational Christian songs that comprise gospel music can be heard around the world.

Gospel music, like most contemporary musical genres, evolved from other traditional musical styles. Columbia College Chicago defines gospel music as African-American, protestant vocals that use emotion and drama to celebrate Christianity. Other definitions focus on gospel music's basis in folk melodies, combined with jazz. Although many people associate gospel music with the American south, its origins can be traced to New England, according to The Gospel Music Project. Today, gospel musicians can be heard around the world, singing inspirational songs that appeal to many Christians.

Roots of Gospel Music

While the term gospel music was not coined until the early 20th century, the roots of gospel were established long before. Jonathan Edwards, a New England preacher, started a religious revival in the 18th century known as The Great Awakening, which is believed by many to have been the impetus for gospel music. His passionate preaching style did not mix well with slow hymns, so faster tempos and upbeat spiritual hymns were matched to his style.

At around the same time, Negro spirituals were setting the stage for gospel music in the south. African-American slaves were denied drums and forbidden from singing any of their traditional music or gathering in groups outside of church, so they focused on singing hymns inside of church. Slaves learned traditional hymns during these services and re-worked them, usually in secret, into what we now refer to as the Negro spiritual. These uplifting songs also became codes for traversing Harriet Tubman's Underground Railroad. After the Civil War, the tradition of Negro Spirituals was kept alive through academic endeavors and new African-American churches that were taking root.

Thomas Dorsey and Early American Gospel

American gospel music as a distinct genre began in the mid 1920s. Thomas A. Dorsey, the musician known as the Father of Gospel Music, was the first to coin the term gospel. Despite gospel's origins in the spirituals, Dorsey experienced a great deal of resistance from mainstream African-American churches, which were trying to break away from, if not dismiss entirely, rural slave traditions. Dorsey's new style of spiritual music combined themes and lyrics from Christian music with rhythms from jazz and blues. Even though some critics referred to his music as "Devil's music," Dorsey persisted, eventually becoming the musical director at the Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago, where he held this post until 1983. Additionally, Dorsey founded the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses in 1932.

The Growth of American Gospel

Many other musicians have helped carry gospel from its beginnings to what it is today. Two such artists, James Cleveland and Mahalia Jackson, helped expand the popularity of gospel throughout the 20th century.

James Cleveland, also known as the King of Gospel, worked with a large number of groups and individuals throughout his career. He co-founded the Gospel Music Workshop of America, where he imparted his knowledge of gospel to others. In addition, Cleveland received four Grammy awards for his work, one of which was awarded posthumously.

Mahalia Jackson, the undisputed Queen of Gospel, toured and recorded extensively throughout the 1940s and 50s. In a time when popular gospel recording artists had trouble selling 500,000 records -- the number required for a gold record -- Jackson earned numerous gold records. In addition, her album was the first post-war album to sell more than a million records. Jackson appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and sang before Dr. Martin Luther King's famous speech, I Have a Dream, performances that were instrumental in bringing gospel into the mainstream

Gospel Music and the Civil Rights Movement

During the Civil Rights Movement, gospel songs became known as Freedom Songs and played an integral role in motivating hundreds of thousands of people. Civil Rights activists sang songs such as We Shall Overcome and This Little Light of Mine. These songs and many more like them were sung during marches, rallies, sit-ins and boycotts. Just as spirituals had inspired generations of slaves, gospel music became a powerful force in rallying protestors.

White Southern Gospel

White Southern gospel is a separate and distinct form of gospel music that draws its rhythmic influences from country and bluegrass. It has been an acknowledged sub-genre of gospel since the early 1900s, and traditionally consists of a quartet of male singers who sing a cappella or with the accompaniment of a single instrument. Many modern groups such as the Cathedral Quartet uphold the tradition of four male singers, but the style has seen a rise in solo and duet artists drawing from a wider range of musical influences.

The Gospel Music Hall of Fame and the GMA

The Gospel Music Association (GMA), founded in 1964, serves to promote and celebrate the tradition of gospel music. The GMA hosts the annual Dove Awards, which honors gospel and other contemporary Christian musicians. They also sponsor Music Week, which brings together individuals and groups from every branch of the Christian music recording industry, to listen, learn, and teach about gospel music. The Gospel Music Hall of Fame was established in 1971 by the GMA. Since then, it has inducted more than 150 members, including the Oak Ridge Boys, Elvis Presley, Pat Boone, Amy Grant, Ethel Waters and Al Green.

Modern Gospel Music

Today's gospel musicians reach a wider audience than ever before. Gospel music is no longer viewed as church music. With a growing and broadening audience, many current gospel songs are sold alongside pop and rock music. Some gospel songs have even joined the ranks of popular music on the pop-charts. In addition, as gospel music has continued to evolve, elements of R & B and hip-hop rhythms have been integrated into many tunes. While the music has undergone changes, the message remains the same, focusing on Christianity and inspiration. The gospel recording industry has dramatically expanded over the last two decades, and now grosses more than a half a billion dollars a year. Although African-American artists and audiences make up the mainstay of gospel music, it has made many inroads to other cultures and racial groups.

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