Purposes of Gospel Choirs and Ensembles in State Supported Colleges and Universities

By Young, Sharon | The Western Journal of Black Studies, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Purposes of Gospel Choirs and Ensembles in State Supported Colleges and Universities


Young, Sharon, The Western Journal of Black Studies


The utilization of music for religious purposes continues to be one of its most significant principles. There are many genres of sacred music; Hymns, Motets, Spirituals, Masses, Southern Gospel, Christian Inspirational and Black Gospel are only a few. Gospel music came into existence during the late 19th century and was a customary part of church services. The name "gospel" or good news was derived from the New Testament (Courlander, 1963).

Southern black people brought their spirituals with them from the south during the great migration to northern cities. It was in these urban cities that black gospel took on the many characteristics of "urban blues", improvisatory piano, guitar and instrumental accompaniment. (Cleveland, 1981). Gospel music continued to thrive and evolve from the Historic gospel songs of Thomas Dorsey and Kenneth Morris to the Modern gospel songs of the Soul Stirrers featuring Sam Cooke, the Caravans featuring Shirley Caesar, the Dixie Humming Birds, and Mahailia Jackson. (Walker, 1979).

Contemporary Gospel music was born during the "black pride" movement of the 1970s and the release of Walter Hawkin's arrangement of the hymn "O Happy Day." The highly charged emotionalism inherent in this style of gospel music resulted in a new interest and popularity among younger generations, which continues today. Many predominately white and historically black colleges and universities have gospel choirs.

The context in which gospel music was created was one of acknowledgement and worship of a Divine being. Gospel music is a part of the black experience (Curtis, 1986), and thus a part of American history and culture. Can gospel music, however be studied and performed devoid of its original context?

The historic Supreme Court decisions of the early sixties concerning religion and public schools promoted a philosophy of neutrality. The first amendment seems to suggest that a government nonpartisan in religious matters better serves religious interests of all its citizenry. The purpose of the first amendment as defined by Justice Rutledge in the 1947 case of Everson vs. Board of Education was to "create a complete religious realm and government by prohibiting every form of public aid or support for religion" (Fisher, 1996; Mients, 1965; Scamm, 1967).

The official stance of the National Association for Music Education, formally the Music Educators' National Conference (MENC, 1996) concerning the performance of religious music in public schools states: "The study and performance of religious music within an educational context is a vital role and appropriate part of a comprehensive music education. Omitting sacred music from the school curriculum would result in an incomplete educational experience" (MENC, 1996 p.2).

Chief Justice Warren E. Burger affirmed that the following questions should be asked of groups and institutional activities that involve religious content. 1. What is the purpose of the activity? 2. What is the primary effect of the activity? 3. Does the activity involve entanglement with a religion or religious group, or between schools and religious organizations?

Although students join university Gospel Choirs for many reasons, a basic question concerns the purpose of schools of music or music departments in state supported colleges and universities, for the establishing and offering Gospel Choir as part of the curriculum. The intent of this study was to investigate the perceived purposes of gospel choir in predominately white and historically black, state supported schools.

Method

A survey instrument was created to determine the purpose of gospel choirs at colleges and universities. The survey instrument consisted of eight questions concerning the presence of a Gospel Choir, the number of members enrolled in gospel choir, whether or not the choir was affiliated with the school music department, the main purpose of the gospel choir, the percentage of music majors enrolled in gospel choir, the racial/ethnic make-up of the ensemble, and the style of music performed most (traditional, contemporary) by the choir. …

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