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

By Levy, Morris S. | Notes, March 2005 | Go to article overview

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


Levy, Morris S., Notes


Singing in My Soul: Black Gospel Music in a Secular Age. By Jerma A. Jackson. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. [xii, 193 p. ISBN 0-8078-2860-2. $18.95.] Illustrations, index, bibliography.

Since the original publication of Anthony Heilbut's The Gospel Sound in 1971, there have been not more than a handful of well-researched histories of twentieth-century African American religious music, nor have there been many good biographies of the major figures in gospel music. Jerma A. Jackson's Singing in My Soul is somewhat disappointing, because it has the makings of either a groundbreaking study of the role of women as musical missionaries in African American churches, or a thoughtful biography of the controversial gospel singer-guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe, but is instead an uneasy combination of the two. That said, Singing in My Soul is an important, if unfocused, analysis of the tradition of the female solo singer in African American religious music, a line that goes through Tharpe to Sallie Martin, Mahalia Jackson, Bessie Griffin, Shirley Caesar, and countless others.

Jackson, an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina, states "the thought of writing a dissertation about music seemed daunting" when "my knowledge of the subject was virtually nonexistent." She received a fellowship from the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, where she met folklorist-performer Bernice Johnson Reagon, who "introduced me to the world of early gospel recordings" and "put a tape recorder in my hand and insisted that this project hinged on oral history" (p. ix). Jackson's inexperience with both early gospel recordings and the collection and analysis of oral history are evident in the writing, where these elements are less than cohesive. Jackson has conflated "oral history" with "interview material;" rather than allowing the narratives, primarily taken from members of black churches in the 1940s and 1950s, to tell their own particular story, they are used more as color to confirm the information already gathered from secondary sources. And while her analysis of early gospel recordings is revealing, Jackson makes conclusions about these records outside the context in which these recordings were made.

Chapter 1, "Exuberance or Restraint," examines the role of religious music in black life after Reconstruction, especially as African Americans began establishing national church organizations. The National Baptist Convention, led by members of the black middle class, denounced the "emotional religion" of slave culture and promoted "education and restraint" (p. 12). Rather than following in the call-and-response "lining-out" tradition of slave hymns, they used hymnbooks and choirs that severely limited spontaneous singing. A new denomination, the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), arose at the turn of the last century, which tied early Christian practices with the ecstatic worship of slave-era African Americans. It should not be surprising, then, that the first stars of gospel music came out of this denomination, also known as the Holiness Church or (derogatorily) as "Holy Rollers."

Chapter 2, "I Just Do What the Lord Say," looks at the role of women in the Holiness Church, in particular as musical missionaries. While the leadership of the Church of God in Christ was almost entirely men, women made up the majority in the pews. …

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