Gospel music (also known as “black gospel music” or “African American gospel music”) is a sacred music genre that emerged in the 1920s out of a confluence of sacred hymns, spirituals, shouts, jubilee quartet songs, and black devotional songs with noticeable blues and jazz rhythmic and harmonic influences. It is often considered the sacred root of several American pop music genres. Thomas A. Dorsey (the “father of gospel music”) coined the term in Chicago in 1921. Dorsey used the term gospel song to differentiate his music from “gospel hymns,” a term often used among African American hymn writers of the early 20th century. Initially, gospel was met with resistance from many church leaders; however, other composers began to contribute to the style, and audiences continued to support this sonic mix of black sacred folk music traditions with urban styles of popular music. Like African American spirituals of the 19th century, the lyrical content of gospel music is centrally important, and it addresses the worldviews, theologies, culture, and experiences of African Americans. Song lyrical content can be devotional, testimonial, inspirational, social justice oriented, or evangelistic. It can be performed in a variety of vocal settings (i.e., choir, ensemble, solo, or duet) and usually has instrumental accompaniment. Several factors contributed to the delayed scholarly research of gospel music in the midst of its mid-20th century expansion, including biases against non-Western art music traditions and difficulties in distinguishing gospel from other black sacred music forms. While gospel music had established channels for publication, recording, distribution, and performance by the mid-20th century, consistent scholarship on gospel music did not emerge until the late 1960s. Prior to this time, many accounts of gospel music came from popular magazines and African American newspapers. A great deal of gospel music research has been devoted to tracing its origins, identifying its founders and pioneering influences, and documenting its growth and development. Because the genre includes regional, denominational, stylistic, and theological influences from a variety of sources within African American Christian communities, the scholarship includes chronological framings of gospel music as well as stylistic approaches that take account of musicological analysis of substyles and eras of gospel music (i.e., classic, traditional, modern, contemporary, and urban contemporary). In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, additional research topics emerged, such as gospel as a symbol of ethnic identity, the gospel music industry, gender and performance, gospel’s international influence, theology, and documenting gospel music research.
General Overviews and History
While the history of gospel music can been found in a variety of sources on African American sacred music and on gospel music artists, as well as in general historical overviews of African American music, the late 20th and early 21st centuries saw a rise in resources solely developed to more thoroughly documenting gospel music from a variety of perspectives. Some sources pull together disparate biographies and oral histories of unsung pioneers of the genre and make them available in one robust text (Marovich 2015, Reagon 1993). Others take the traditional sociohistorical approach that includes musical and/or lyrical analysis (Cusic 2012, Southern 1997). In recent years, perspectives that engage gospel music history from the standpoint of liturgical history and theological perspectives have added to the scholarship (Costen 2004, Kemp 2015).
Costen, Melva Wilson. In Spirit and in Truth: The Music of African American Worship. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004.
Costen’s text offers an examination of African American worship through biblical, historical, theological, and liturgical lenses. It includes a history of gospel music and its substyles as a part of a body of sacred music central to many African American Christian worship traditions (i.e., camp meetings songs, metered hymns, arranged spirituals, and Pentecostal music traditions). The last chapter discusses issues facing church music in the 21st century.
Cusic, Don. Saved by Song: A History of Gospel and Christian Music. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012.
Originally published as The Sound of Light: A History of Gospel and Christian Music in 1990, this reprint is a rich text that examines both African American gospel music traditions alongside “Christian music,” its industry contemporary in Anglo-American music markets and communities. Cusic delves into the parallel histories of both traditions and delineates how both spawned their own respective, mostly independent, music industries in America during the 20th century.
Kemp, Kathryn B. Anointed to Sing the Gospel: The Levitical Legacy of Thomas A. Dorsey. Chicago: Joyful Noise, 2015.
A book-length work that documents the whole of Thomas A. Dorsey’s life and musical experiences, from his early childhood in Georgia until after his death in 1993. The text’s scope goes beyond the typical examination of Dorsey’s performance style and gospel music analysis, and includes the role of ministry and theology in Dorsey’s life before and after he developed the genre and its performance practice. Kemp posits that Dorsey is a modern day Levite in the text.
Marovich, Robert M. A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015.
Very substantial contemporary history of Chicago as the historic birthplace of gospel music. Marovich includes extensive historical documentation of the individual churches, choir directors, choirs, composers, and gospel groups that made Chicago the first nexus for gospel music. Marovich moves the narrative of gospel in Chicago beyond the dominant sphere of Thomas A. Dorsey and offers documentation and oral histories from key unsung figures and congregations in Chicago’s music community.
Reagon, Bernice Johnson, ed. We’ll Understand It Better By and By: Pioneering African American Gospel Composers. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1993.
Extremely rich text featuring scholarly writings on several key figures in gospel music history and development: Charles A. Tindley, Lucie E. Campbell Williams, Thomas A. Dorsey, William H. Brewster Sr., Roberta Martin, and Kenneth Morris. The chapters are written by gospel music historians, ethnomusicologists, and musicologists and the text includes a discography, annotated bibliography of African American gospel music, forty-nine piano-vocal scores, and sixteen pages of photos of the figures discussed in the text.
Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History Third Edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.
This book is colloquially considered “The Bible of Africa American Music” and it remains an invaluable resource. The text’s music history approach is contextualized in the midst of several musical traditions and their connections to African American history. The coverage of gospel music is one of the most thorough in book form, from its origins to the contributions of women, gospel and theater, and contemporary gospel. Bibliography, discography, biographies, sound recordings, and a periodicals list included.
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