Gospel music suggests many things to different people. In its most general application, gospel music refers to religious music, regardless of age or origin. Congregational songs, ring shouts, quartets, sacred harp choirs, sanctified groups, and work songs all qualify. Less broadly, gospel refers to an innovative, popular style of music combining secular forms, particularly ragtime and blues, with religious texts. Although, there are many interpretations as well as different types of gospel music, to the African-American community, gospel music has historically been a significant source of hope and strength linking past, present, and future generations.
Gospel music is rooted in the religious songs of the late 19th century known as Negro spirituals. The lyrics of Negro spirituals were tightly linked with the lives of elders in the African-American community and heritage. The songs were anthems and testaments to the joys, pains, and hopes of the enslaved. It was out of the constant development of Negro spirituals that gospel music was inspired and introduced as another type of Christian song. Gospel music is utilized in a number of political, social, and educational settings to build solidarity and to express the joys, pains, and hopes of African Americans in a wide range of localities.
Gospel music was well established early in the 20th century with the late Thomas A. Dorsey (1899-1993) as one of the vanguards of this diverse genre of music. Dorsey's early career focused on the arrangement and composing of blues tunes; he later began writing gospel music that is considered some of the greatest gospel music ever written. Dorsey played a critical role in helping to shape this music that inspires, moves, and soothes the mind, body, and soul.
Consummate musician by many standards, Dorsey is remembered as "The Father of Gospel Music." It was Dorsey who combined such genres as shape-note songs, spirituals, blues, and ragtime to create gospel music. His musical career afforded him many opportunities to accompany some of the most famous blues singers all over the world including Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, who greatly influenced the creation and birth of gospel music. Dorsey's music can be heard today in African-American churches across the United States in neighborhoods, on street corners, through open windows, down alleys, in bars and restaurants. America's premier gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, whose untrained but vibrant voice combines with the depths of true religious sincerity, brought the writing of lyrics and the performing of gospel music to national prominence. Her singing of Thomas Dorsey's most famous song "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" placed gospel music as a standard of American music and launched her musical career to national and international acclaim.
With its immense popularity, widespread appeal, and influence created and established by Dorsey and Jackson, gospel music became the center of urban social life in African-American churches as well as at many of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) (e.g., Atlanta, Clark, Fisk, Hampton, Howard, Spelman, Morehouse) throughout the South. For example, the nationally and internationally known Fisk Jubilee Singers from Fisk University are known for their heart-wrenching, soul-stirring, hand-clapping, foot-stomping songs in celebration of the beginnings of Black freedom. Although, the choir is much larger today than when it was first established, the Fisk Jubilee singers continue their tradition of performing traditional Black sacred songs that reflect their advanced musical education and discipline sung in a nontraditional style to inspire Americans everywhere. Their early international tours helped introduce the world to a new genre of "spiritual singing," later to be recognized as gospel music.
Gospel music has in many ways influenced other forms of music such as soul, jazz, blues, and R&B. Some of America's greatest musical leaders from the past and present have been influenced or inspired by gospel and recognize it as a heritage. Some of these great leaders include Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Clara Ward, and Whitney Houston.. Contemporary gospel groups such as BeBe and CeCe Winans and Take 6, to name just a few, have found combining rhythmic tempos of jazz, blues, and R&B the reason for the diverse following of adults and children. Many musical artists mentioned above and new emerging artists began their musical careers in the Black church singing gospel music.
Like gospel music, the Black church has historically been a source of hope and strength for African Americans who might otherwise have been left out. It is in the Black church where some of gospel's greatest music was and is composed and performed. The space of the Black church, singing, and the interactions shared while singing, creates a sense of solidarity and congeniality that provides African Americans a great sense of self-esteem, self-worth, and enhanced empowerment. In a society where very often the voices of the Black community are muted, gospel music has been and continues to be the venue where African Americans from diverse localities are able to express freely their voices and be assured that their voices would be heard. Through the medium of gospel music, African Americans have been able to engage their young in positive experiences providing them with spiritual, educational, social, political, and economic access within diverse African-American communities and larger society.
Gospel music as a tool for empowering the African-American community can be traced as far back as slavery. Despite the apparent dangers associated with being Black during slavery in America, Blacks found solidarity and comfort in singing "old Negro spirituals" that became known as gospel music. Gospel music was considered by African Americans a productive way to ease their feelings of dejection given their plight in America. It was through gospel music that African Americans found the strength to surmount those difficult times in our nation's history. Slavery was just one of the problems that gospel music supported African Americans in overcoming. Immediately following slavery other societal forces worked against African Americans in the United States. Discrimination in employment, education, and practically every aspect of American life for Blacks led to an even stronger push to maintain the quality and value of gospel music in the African-American community.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s is yet another pivotal time in history whereby gospel music was utilized to bring together the African-American community in solidarity in great numbers. Similarly to the ways that Negro spirituals were used during slavery, African Americans during the 1960s also wrote gospel music to reflect the reality of the time period. As the Civil Rights Movement progressed, gospel music within the Black community made some permanent and temporary yet fundamental shifts. These shifts and changes in addition to reflecting the time sought to reach an even wider audience of Americans from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. The changing of the tempos and extending of the lyrics serve to illustrate the deep frustrations and strong emotions as well as to demonstrate individuality and collectivism and cultural identity of the African- American community.
Gospel songs like "Move On Up a Little Higher," the first gospel recording by Mahalia Jackson to sell over a million copies, and "I Don't Feel No Ways Tied" and "Can't Nobody do me like Jesus" can be heard from African-American and other American communities as they assert their independence and freedom and their refusal to turn back considering all the educational, political, social, and economic gains made. Gospel music continues to provide African- American communities everywhere a language and voice to assert that "I am somebody, and because I know that I am somebody, I am not going to give up." Affirmations like these are the major reasons why gospel music has become such a powerful tool for communicating social injustices, inequalities in the African-American community, and the larger society. Stemming from traditions of the slave past, gospel music has increased its rhythms, drawing not only the sounds of ragtime, blues, and jazz into the church but also instruments such as drums, tambourines, triangles, guitars, saxophones, trumpets, and double basses, which have become central to bringing gospel music fully into the fabric of American life.
Today, gospel music in its more contemporary form is critical to the African-American community in guiding youth toward positive experiences that supports their growth and development and ultimately increases their life chances through the very poignant messages found in this genre of music. Although gospel music has undergone a number of changes, the messages of "We Shall Overcome" and "This Little Light of Mine" and "Never Turn Back" still resonate with African-American old and young when faced with difficult times and joy during happy times.