The Changing Nature of Gospel Music: A Southern Case Study

By Jackson, Joyce Marie | African American Review, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

The Changing Nature of Gospel Music: A Southern Case Study


Jackson, Joyce Marie, African American Review


African American gospel music forms an important part of the community's aesthetic expression and is a synthesis of music, dance, poetry, and drama distilled into a unified whole. Gospel music also represents a strong link to African roots in both subtle and sometimes obvious ways.

While gospel music is strongly entrenched in the African American "folk church" tradition, it also attracts many who identify as much with its expression of African American values, aesthetics, and life experiences as with its expression of religion. Participants in the tradition, with varying degrees of expertise and from a wide range of ages, denominational affiliations, and geographic locales, readily articulate its significance in the African American community.

The factors involved in making gospel music what it is are numerous and complex, and only by considering all of them can we begin to approach satisfactory explanations of its changing nature. In this study I wish to suggest that it might be more profitable for researchers to undertake more comparisons involving cultural, societal, and historical processes that influenced the development of gospel music rather than to consider musical structures alone. Although comparisons of musical structures are important, it is probable that further research into processes will result in the discovery of more regularities in musical behavior.

Conducting regional comparative studies of gospel music that utilize quantitative musical analysis would certainly be a phenomenal venture, and probably a very revealing one. For instance, E. Dwight Franklin, an extraordinarily talented full-time minister of music for various churches in New Orleans, has observed that

in Los Angeles the organ is an accompanying instrument to the piano - here the piano leads - whereas the piano is not the lead instrument in New Orleans. When you hear choirs from the West Coast, their voices are higher for some reason.... Tenors have no problem singing A flats and B flats on the West Coast. Take for example the gospel compositions of Margaret Dureaux. (Interview)

Of course, this type of comparative study could also be misleading, because there is a tremendous amount of overlap between the various regions. In the early history of gospel music this type of study could have been done more easily; however, today, due to the influence of gospel composers/arrangers and technological advances in media (commercial recordings, radio broadcasts, music videos, and television), it would be much more difficult.

The evolutionary history and analysis of gospel music is complex, and researchers, practitioners, and aficionados have encountered many problems in attempting to delineate different styles and genres of the tradition, since it has such a changing nature. Some sources discuss gospel within various sub-categories, such as country or folk-styled gospel and jazz-styled gospel. The most popular designations are traditional, contemporary, urban contemporary, and inspirational - categories used on the popular awards shows such as the Grammy, Stellar, and Dove Awards. For Al Hobbs, chairman of the Announcers' Guild of the Gospel Music Workshop of America, traditional gospel

is used to set the mood for a morning worship service; contemporary gospel can be used in a worship service, but is primarily heard at a concert; and urban contemporary goes out to people who may never hear the gospel message unless they hear it in a song played on a soul station or through a gospel music video on television. (Haynes 80)

Gospel music has also been classified chronologically, historically, and categorically by designated years - often without explanation as to why these years were chosen. Because we end up with too many categories, several of which overlap, this process of classification tends to confuse rather than clarify. In addition, while the battle rages over whether traditional or contemporary is the "real" gospel, problems arise on another front: studies that rely primarily on description and analysis of musical practices. …

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