Gospel: The Root of Popular Music

The New Crisis, July/August 1999 | Go to article overview
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Gospel: The Root of Popular Music


The foundation of twentieth-century black popular music is rooted in the sounds of several folk styles, including black minstrel and vaudeville tunes, blues, and ragtime. The music of the African-American church, however, has played one of the most significant roles in the evolution of black popular music. Inextricably bound to the spirituals sung by slaves, the gospel style came to dominate the black religious experience in America. By the turn of the century, gospel music had reached popularity as black religious songwriters began to publish their own compositions. One of the earliest and most influential of these writers was Charles Albert Tindley, a Maryland born Methodist preacher, who was responsible for writing several gospel music classics. His son "I'll Overcome Someday" resurfaced more than a half decade later as "We Shall Overcome," the anthem of the 1960s civil rights movement. Tindley's 1905 composition "Stand by Me" became a major hit for singer Ben E. King and the Drifters during the 1960s.

Tindley's music subsequently influenced Thomas A. Dorsey, whose talents as a religious songwriter, accompanist, and choir director earned him the title "the father of gospel music." Before dedicating his life to the Baptist church, Dorsey spent his youth as an itinerant blues pianist, performing under the name Georgia Tom. Like other bluesmen/preachers such as the Reverend Gary Davis, Blind Willie McTell, and Gatemouth Moore, Dorsey performed both secular and religious music. In 1928, for example, he not only co-wrote the blues hit "Tight Like That" with guitarist Hudson "Tampa Red" Whitaker, but also composed his first gospel song-"If You See My Savior Tell Him You Saw Me."

Four years later, Dorsey abandoned his career as a blues and jazz pianist to devote himself to a form of religious music that historian Michael W. Harris describes as a gospel-blues style melding black religious and popular music into a unique and passionate form of gospel. During the Great Depression, Dorsey's new style of gospel served as an uplifting spiritual release from the pervasive poverty experienced in the black community. The performance of two of Dorsey's songs at the 1930 National Baptist Convention created a wave of enthusiasm for gospel across the nation. In the following year, Dorsey organized the world's first gospel choir. In 1932, he began a forty-year career as choir director at Chicago's Pilgrim Baptist Church. During his stay at Pilgrim Baptist, he launched the golden age of gospel music (c. 1945-1960), training and accompanying singers from Sallie Martin to Mahalia Jackson.

GOSPEL AND THE RECORDING INDUSTRY

The advent of the phonograph around the turn of the century helped to heighten the popularity of gospel music. The distribution of records helped break down the musical isolation imposed upon blacks since slavery, allowing them to reach audiences outside their own communities. Recorded by the Victor label in 1902, the Jubilee and camp meeting shouts of the Dwinddie Colored Quartet appeared as one of the first black recordings. In the 1920s, black religious music became popular with the race record (a title designating the segregated sale of African-American recordings). By 1924, Paramount Records sponsored its own Jubilee singers, and within three years Columbia Records began to send engineers into the field to record the richly complex harmonies of gospel quartets. Also popular were recorded sermons backed by occasional musical instruments, and evangelistic guitars, known commonly as "jack legs," which brought street-singing gospel blues to a wider audience.

After a decline in recordings by evangelists during the 1930s and early 1940s, gospel music experienced an immense rise in popularity as hundreds of independent recording labels appeared after World War II. During the 1940s, numerous gospel quartets went on the road as full-time professionals, while thousands more sought work on weekends.

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