Performance Styles and Musical Characteristics of Black Gospel Music

By Robinson-Martin, Trineice | Journal of Singing, May/June 2009 | Go to article overview
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Performance Styles and Musical Characteristics of Black Gospel Music


Robinson-Martin, Trineice, Journal of Singing


FOR TEACHERS OF SINGING effectively to train and nurture the gospel music singer, teachers not only must understand voice production as it relates generally to Contemporary Commercial Music (CCM) pedagogy and repertoire, but they also must understand specifically gospel music and its associated styles. This article, based on a review of the literature, presents the many gospel musical styles and categorizes them within four broad performance styles.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF GOSPEL MUSIC

The era of "Gospel Music," a specific type of American black sacred music, began in the late nineteenth century. Its musical roots can be found in spirituals, work songs, slave songs, white Pentecostal hymns, and evangelistic congregational songs from the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.1 Gospel music also has evolved by integrating musical ideas and expressions from genres such as blues, jazz, rock, soul, classical, and country.2 Thomas A. Dorsey, regarded by many as "The Father of Gospel Music," even though he was not the first to compose gospel songs, infused white evangelistic hymns and black gospel songs with various musical elements and performance practices of secular blues and jazz.3

It was the tradition of the slaves to create songs that told stories about their living conditions, with "endurance of trials of this life with the reward of life after death" as the dominant theme.4 Marietta Miller writes that in the texts of some spirituals, the circumstances of slaves' struggles are correlated with the bondage and strife of the original children of Israel. Referencing the familiar spiritual, "Go Down Moses," Miller says the slaves believed that God would once again send down Moses to tell the pharaohs of the slave system to let God's people go.5

After the emancipation of the slaves, many blacks had a strong desire to achieve greater educational and economic independence. They migrated from rural settings to large industrialized cities such as Chicago, St. Louis, and Philadelphia to pursue this dream. As a result, the lyrics and tone of newly composed and arranged black sacred music began to reflect the challenges accompanying this new lifestyle.6 Miller notes that gospel songs often use scriptural references from the Bible to address contemporary issues and reflect the songwriter's personal experience with Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The gospel song message is that of the "Good News" and tells its audiences that even in sorrow and despair, there will always be hope for them as long as they have Christ in their lives. This message differs dramatically with the often negative message of the blues.

The transition from slave songs and spirituals to twentieth century gospel songs began with composers such as Charles Tindley, Lucie Campbell, and Dr. Isaac Watts. They took traditional songs and "gospelized" them both lyrically and musically by applying African American music aesthetics, including flatted notes, altered rhythmic pulses, and pentatonic scales. According to gospel music scholar Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer, Charles Tindley used pentatonic scales for many of his melodies and left space within his melodic lines and harmonic structures for the interpolation of flatted thirds and sevenths. Tindley also left space within his compositions for the improvisation of text and rhythm.7 Thomas Dorsey further developed this practice by increasingly merging elements used in blues performance with the performance of black sacred music. The musical form, the use of textual interpolation, rhythmic variation of text and melody, and the overall expressive quality found in the performance of blues, was insinuated into sacred music by 1939.8

Dr. Ray Allen summarized gospel music as being "distinctly African-American" in its incorporations of "the melismatic moans of the spiritual, the driving music and instrumentation of sanctified music, the syncopated licks and 'bent' notes of jazz and blues, and the ecstatic emotionalism of southern preaching.

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