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Gospel Music

Stripped of their cultural heritage through slavery, the early Afro-Americans found the Church the only institution able to explain and mollify their new position. The simple life-after-death theology, delivered through par­able preaching and inspirational singing, enabled the Black Churches to flourish through the 19th century. They `Afri­canized' the early Anglican hymns in aural transmission, transmuting and reassembling them into the Negro Spirituals — the call and unison response of 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot', the long sustained melody of 'Nobody Knows The Trouble' and the syncopated claprhythmic 'Shout All Over God's Heaven'.

The early 20th century upsurge of fundamental, sancti­fied and holiness churches in the dehumanizing industrial ghettos brought ecstatic, testifying shouts, holy dancing and musical instruments into church music. Reflecting this, the pre-depression recording boom waxed a wide range of styles of religious material, from Rev. J. M. Gates' short sermons and answering congregation, to the piano-playing evangelist singer, Arizona Dranes, to the religious blues of guitarist Blind Willie Johnson and the ruggedly harmonised versions of the spirituals by Jubilee Quartets like the Golden Gate and the Norfolk Quartets.

In the Thirties, traditional spirituals were supplanted by new gospel material. Earlier, Rev. Charles A. Tindley had published 'Stand By Me' and 'Understand It Better By and By' and Lucie Campbell produced 'Something Within Me' and 'In The Upper Room', but Thomas A. Dorsey (aka Georgia Tom) is regarded as the Father of Gospel Music. In 1932, he co-founded the National Convention of Gospel Singers which promoted the spread of material like his own `Precious Lord' and 'Peace In The Valley'. With performers like Sallie Martin, Roberta Martin and Mahalia Jackson pushing them, the sentimental, optimistic blue-note ridden gospel numbers swept the nation, finding white acceptance through artists like Red Foley and the Stamps-Baxter Quar­tet.

Though Mahalia was the 'Gospel Queen', others were important. Willie Mae Ford Smith, an instructress at Dor­sey's Conventions, taught many younger singers, like Brother Joe May, the improvising slurs, note bending and rephrasing techniques of gospel, while Sister Rosetta Tharpe took the gospelly blues 'This Train' into the race charts.

 

The golden age for gospel began in 1945.

New independent recording labels like Apollo, King and Specialty prospered issuing gospel material, radio stations featured early morning and Sunday gospel shows and the gospel highway of one-night theatre stands, church benefits and anniversary programmes, was thick with travelling groups. Run by matriarch Gertrude, the Famous Ward Singers, who used daughter Clara's arrangements, Marion Williams' solos and Rev. W. Herbert Brewster's material like `Move On Up A Little Higher' and their rivals, Albertina Walker's Caravans, who nurtured current solo stars including Shirley Caesar, Inez Andrews, Dorothy Norwood, and, more briefly, James Cleveland and Bessie Griffin, featured strong emotional lead singers in front of imaginative background harmonies, usu­ally accompanied by simple piano or organ lines. Clara Ward exerted a considerable stylistic influence on the young

Aretha Franklin, whose first recordings were made in her father's (Rev. C. L. Franklin) New Bethel Church. Others, like the Consolers with ethereal guitar and organ-backed versions of 'heart warming spiritual hymns' like `Waiting For My Child' and the early Staple Singers, of the hillbilly harmony 'Will The Circle Be Unbroken', appealed more to southern audiences.

Male acappella 'quartets' were also developing. Using gos­pel material and a second tenor to complete the four part harmony behind the high clear tenor voice of Rebert Harris, the Soul Stirrers gave gospel and—through Sam Cooke—soul music, one of its lasting styles. Likewise, the contrast of Claude Jeter's falsetto and the harsh shouter leads of the Swan Silvertones presaged the Temptations, while the devil-demolishing ecstatic screams of the Five Blind Boys' Archie Brownlee were picked up by the young James Brown, whose stage movements could be a parody of the frenzied move­ment of Ira Tucker of the Dixie Hummingbirds.

The end of acappella came with the addition of guitarists, like Howard Carroll of the Dixie Hummingbirds, and in the Sixties popular groups like the Mighty Clouds Of Joy and the Violinaires used falsetto harmony behind the preaching lead voices of Joe Ligon and Robert Blair respectively. Now the instrumentation of gospel groups can be as full as soul groups, enabling the Rance Allen Group to rework secular hits, alongside the smooth jubilee hymns of the Harmonising Four or the cool sophisticated homophonic Voices-Supreme.

James Cleveland's 'Love Of God' with the Voices Of Tabernacle and 'Peace Be Still' with the Angelic Choir in the Sixties ushered in the era of choirs and soloists, with his Gospel Music Convention promoting large interdenomina­tional choirs, and the surprising pop success of the Edwin Hawkins Singers' Oh Happy Day'.

   
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