Black gospel music is the direct musical and lyrical heir to the spirituals, a musical form created by the enslaved peoples of the American South in the centuries before the American Civil War. These spirituals combined the simple, direct faith of the first-century Christian church with deep musical traditions brought from Africa. The words of the spirituals were almost exclusively based on biblical narratives. By definition, spirituals were improvised with each performance. Only in the 1860s were most spirituals recorded by white transcribers and made available in print. Along with the work songs and shouts of Southern Blacks, this unique musical and lyrical art form is the foundation of virtually all American popular and sacred music.
Are Black Gospel Songs Always Religious in Nature?
Black gospel music (typically called “gospel” in the African American church) combines the lyrics of the Bible (and the spirituals) and the more pronounced beat of the blues, another early African American musical form. Composers like Thomas Dorsey popularized the new style in the early twentieth century. Virtually all of Dorsey’s sacred compositions were either drawn directly from scripture or reflected the tensions of being African American in a time of widespread racial oppression; his compositions include “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” “Peace in the Valley,” and “The Lord Will Make a Way Somehow.”
The so-called golden age of gospel music (roughly 1945-1975) took Dorsey’s gospel music out of its original choral-based foundations. At this time, a host of soloists, duos, and quartets traversed the gospel highway of churches and municipal and school auditoriums singing the new music. Gospel was still defined by its emphasis on Bible-based lyrics, but its music gradually transformed to include more popular music elements. Various forms emerged, including story-songs, the retelling of popular biblical narratives like “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” “Noah,” and “Jonah” that were popularized by groups like the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet.
In the mid-twentieth century composers like James Cleveland, Clara Ward, and Doris Akers used biblical sources to exhort and uplift African Americans suffering under widespread Jim Crow laws. The resulting songs included “No Ways Tired,” “Peace Be Still,” “Surely God Is Able,” “Sweet, Sweet Spirit,” “Lord, Don’t Move That Mountain,” and many others. Other composers, such as W. Herbert Brewster and Dorothy Love Coates employed the same musical tropes but wrote lyrics to challenge the political status quo, resulting in songs like “Movin’ on Up a Little Higher,” “99 and Half Won’t Do,” and “I’ve Been ‘Buked and I’ve Been Scorned.”
In the second half of the twentieth century, composers began expanding the scope of gospel lyrics. Andraé Crouch, for instance, directly addressed many social ills in his songs. Crouch and Walter Hawkins were also among the first to write gospel songs that incorporate what is now called “praise and worship” music, with lyrics devoted solely to praise. Praise music is still a dominant strain of gospel music in the twenty-first century, although artists including Kirk Franklin and Tye Tribbett have incorporated hip hop and rap into their gospel compositions.
- Lovell, John. Black Song, the Forge and the Flame: The Story of How the Afro-American Spiritual Was Hammered Out. New York: Paragon House Publishers, 1972.
- Marovich, Robert Mr. A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015.
- Heilbut, Anthony. The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times. New York: Limelight Editions, 1989.
- Darden, Robert. People Get Ready! A New History of Black Gospel Music. New York: Continuum/Bloomsbury, 2004.