Singing in My Soul: Black Gospel Music in a Secular Age

Singing in My Soul: Black Gospel Music in a Secular Age

Singing in My Soul: Black Gospel Music in a Secular Age

Singing in My Soul: Black Gospel Music in a Secular Age


Black gospel music grew from obscure nineteenth-century beginnings to become the leading style of sacred music in black American communities after World War II. Jerma A. Jackson traces the music's unique history, profiling the careers of several singers--particularly Sister Rosetta Tharpe--and demonstrating the important role women played in popularizing gospel.

Female gospel singers initially developed their musical abilities in churches where gospel prevailed as a mode of worship. Few, however, stayed exclusively in the religious realm. As recordings and sheet music pushed gospel into the commercial arena, gospel began to develop a life beyond the church, spreading first among a broad spectrum of African Americans and then to white middle-class audiences. Retail outlets, recording companies, and booking agencies turned gospel into big business, and local church singers emerged as national and international celebrities. Amid these changes, the music acquired increasing significance as a source of black identity.

These successes, however, generated fierce controversy. As gospel gained public visibility and broad commercial appeal, debates broke out over the meaning of the music and its message, raising questions about the virtues of commercialism and material values, the contours of racial identity, and the nature of the sacred. Jackson engages these debates to explore how race, faith, and identity became central questions in twentieth-century African American life.


At the dawn of the twentieth century when W. E. B. Du Bois sat down to consider the future of African Americans in the United States, the music of his enslaved ancestors was ringing in his ears. Published in 1903, The Souls of Black Folk has become a legendary text for understanding the ensuing century. Much of this stature stems from Du Bois's success at foreshadowing many of the challenges that the new century would pose. For Du Bois the greatest of these was race. “The problem of the twentieth century,” he predicted, “is the problem of the color line.” Du Bois invoked spirituals at the beginning of each chapter by creating epigraphs using musical notation taken from the songs. He then devoted the last chapter to a discussion of the songs, which African Americans had forged as slaves. A native of New England born in 1868, Du Bois himself never experienced slavery. Nevertheless, the songs provided a language that captured the emotional dimensions not only of slavery, but also of the racism that would plague the post-emancipation world. Du Bois, who regarded the songs as the “rhythmic cry of the slave,” described the wellspring of emotion the songs stirred in him. “They came out of the South unknown to me, one by one,” he wrote, “and yet at once I knew them as of me and mine.”

Spirituals so moved Du Bois because he saw them not only as heartfelt expressions of human emotion, but also as a reminder of the resilience of the human spirit under hostile circumstances. Slavery, a dehumanizing institution, reduced individuals to chattel, subjected them to harsh working conditions, and separated families at will. Enslaved African Americans used spirituals to transcend the physical world, forging a spiritual universe distinct from the material world. In the process they used music to lend meaning to their circumstances. As slaves, African Americans were regarded as abject inferiors. Yet in the songs they cast themselves as God's chosen people.

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