Gospel music: what it is, how it evolved and some of the best gospel performers to listen to

As gloriously varied as it is hugely popular, gospel music is here to stay. Composer and conductor Ken Burton traces the genre’s history

Gospel music: what it is, how it evolved and some of the best gospel performers to listen to

From its humble roots in the 18th century as an expression of the oppressed people of America’s Deep South, gospel music, with its rich history and unique sound, has grown into an international phenomenon. Such is its popularity that, in the US, gospel and contemporary Christian recordings continue to outsell jazz and classical ones combined.

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What is gospel music?

Just as ‘classical’ defines both a genre and an era, similarly the term ‘gospel music’ has a dual meaning, defining a music genre in its own right, and music that uses lyrics based on the Christian faith set to styles of various types, among them rap, jazz, Afro-beat, reggae, country and pop. This second meaning is based on the definition of the word ‘gospel’, a modernisation of the Old English ‘godspel’, meaning ‘a good story’, and is translated from the Greek word evaggelion, ‘a good message’. The common tenet here is that the message itself always has primacy.

As a musical genre, gospel is characterised by hymn-like melodies and harmonies, and a range of expressions derived from African music-making and spirituality. Its sounds include the subtle hush and gentle hum, the plaintive moan, surging phrases and stentorian tones. There is also extensive use of vocal embellishments. Its pulse is often quite pronounced and its rhythm free, and is regularly accompanied by physical movement, from gentle rocking to energetic dance.

Gospel is interactive, communal music: a ‘musical liturgy’, if you like – and so an ensemble of gospel singers is more than simply a performing group, but a quasi-congregation engaging in collective worship and prayer. The gospel soloist’s role is similar to that of a worship leader, or a member of the congregation sharing a personal testimony, a preacher transmitting a message, or a combination of all of these, often during
the same song.

How did gospel music start?

While essentially being a 19th- and 20th-century creation, the underlying ethos behind the music can be traced back thousands of years to music-making attitudes spoken about in the Bible. There are several accounts of characters responding to events by breaking into spontaneous song, referred to as an ode pneumatikos, or ‘spiritual song’ – a good example of this is found in the account of the song of celebration led by Miriam following a divine miracle where the Red Sea was parted to allow the recently freed Israelites to escape the Egyptian army. Another, that has been set by countless composers for the classical liturgical repertoire, is the Magnificat, the spontaneous song of praise sung by Mary, Mother of Jesus.

Where did gospel music come from?

Over centuries, Protestant Christians sought to break away from formalism and focus on an experiential connection with the divine, expressed in music which people could relate to and enjoy singing. The Biblical and subsequent Protestant principles resonated with African-Americans, who had been transported from their homeland to the Americas in a four century-long oppressive slave trade.

They could identify with the enslaved Israelites, and created their own impromptu songs on the plantations: the spirituals. Drawing from African work-song structures, borrowing lyrical lines from songs heard in church services that the enslaved were obligated to attend, based largely on the five-note pentatonic scale (referred to as the ‘slave scale’), and regularly consisting of a call-and-response structure, these songs allowed, even for a brief moment, the participant to express themselves freely in an environment  where neither reading, nor normal conversation between slaves, was allowed.

How did slaves use gospel music to communicate?

How did the slaves use gospel music to communicate?
Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

Such songs therefore became the primary vehicle of communication and teaching. They brought about a feeling of solidarity and, even though there was an air of melancholy in them, their message renewed a sense of hope that one day freedom would be a reality. The lyrics would subtly serve to encourage, as well as communicate, the way of escape, the call-and-response structure serving as the perfect rallying call. Hence, there are recurring lyrical themes of travel and heaven – while the celestial home was the ultimate goal, the terrestrial ‘heaven’ was the immediate goal.

Drawing on the language of Old Testament accounts of Israelites enslaved by Egyptians, the spirituals speak of the ‘River Jordan’, the ‘Promised Land’, ‘Moses’ and ‘Pharaoh’, which could as easily refer to, respectively, the Mississippi River, the northern states and Canada, facilitators helping slaves to freedom and the slave owners, as they did to the events in the Bible.

The heavy pulse of these songs suggest they also often acted as a metronome during work, where labour such as chopping wood would be done in time with music. It’s estimated there are over 6,000 spirituals, although less than a hundred are popularly known.

How did emancipation influence gospel music?

Following emancipation in the 19th century, there was a migration northwards to find work in places such as Chicago and New York. A new music was required, and given the shift from rural to urban life, its creation was facilitated by the presence of instruments in a church.

Drawing from existing songs, particularly those of hymn writers Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts and the growing number of new songs by evangelical songwriters (whose music was the first to be called ‘gospel’), a new music was being created. There arose a number of African-American hymn writers, among them Charles Tindley (1851-1933). Their music maintained the deep pathos of the Southern spirituals, yet took on a new joy, and followed the mandates of the Psalms to celebrate with all one’s energy – and instruments. Lack of demonstrable participation in worship was seen as a sign of lack of genuine connection with the divine.

In the late 1800s a new faith, the Holiness Church, was developing and rapidly spreading among African Americans. Its theology and practice better reflected an African ethos. Music played, and continues to play, a central role; it is seen as an extension of the highly dramatic preaching style.

At the same time as the rise of this new gospel music, the spirituals moved away from their rural folk roots, rejected as a functional music form, and were being adapted for concert audiences. These musical arrangements were known as the ‘concert spiritual’. This new form resulted in the proliferation of Black American religious music worldwide, as well as having an influence in the classical music world.

Educational establishments were set up for the recently freed African-Americans. With little money to operate, these institutions would fundraise through touring groups performing spirituals and folk songs to regular concert audiences. The most notable of these were the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University, Tennessee, who travelled the world, captivating audiences and even monarchs including Britain’s Queen Victoria. In order to relate to the largely European audiences, their sound was adapted to merge the sounds of western choral art singing with the pathos and practices of the African-American expression. This distinct type of choral sound and repertoire continues today with Black American collegiate choirs; in the UK, the repertoire has been proliferated by the London Adventist Chorale.

Who have influenced gospel music the most?

One notable composer and arrangers of spirituals was Harry Burleigh (1866-1949), a music student at the National Conservatory of Music in New York, who arranged spirituals in the German lieder style. He did chores around the institution, and in the manner of his ancestors, themselves African-American slaves, sang spirituals while working. These caught the attention of the conservatory director, the Czech composer Antonín Dvoπák, who was so moved by the spirituals that he declared them the foundation for ‘the future music in the United States’. In his ‘New World’ Symphony, most notably the main theme of the second movement Largo, Dvoπák uses melodies and the pathos of American spirituals. Later in the 20th century, the sound of gospel would also attract English composer Sir Michael Tippett, whose best-known choral work A Child of Our Time contains five spirituals.

The post-spirituals musical form which became officially labelled ‘gospel’ is attributed to Thomas Dorsey (1899-1993), an Atlantan musician who earned the moniker ‘the father of gospel music’. A jazz musician by profession, he converted to Christianity and his natural manner of playing gave a new voice and approach to the existing hymns: rhythms were swung and harmonic progressions linked phrases together. Dorsey spread his musical influence by selling sheet music of his works after services.

With the rise in the ability to travel, and the development of sound technology, the concept of the gospel artist was born. Soloists and ensembles grew, and continue to grow rapidly, recording and performing, spreading the music globally – there has even been success in the pop charts, as in the case of the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ hit ‘Oh Happy Day’ in 1969. And creators of gospel music have become more innovative over the years, drawing on diverse musical influences that speak to modern audiences.

Gospel musicians have an evident respect for classical music and musicians, and gospel composers, most notably Richard Smallwood, have successfully brought the two worlds together. The vocal approach also grows in complexity, with such groups as the a cappella Take 6 redefining the possibilities of vocal music, greatly influencing choirs in the field of close-harmony singing.

In Britain, African-American-influenced religious repertoire is becoming standard fare, even with traditional chamber choirs. The popularity of the genre continues through established choirs such as the London Community Gospel Choir, as well as through community and church choirs. It has also been included in BBC Proms programming and the flagship BBC Television programme Songs of Praise has an annual Gospel Choir of the Year. In short, gospel music’s development and growing influence can only be… good news! 

Best gospel music performers

Mahalia Jackson

HUGELY INFLUENTIAL as both a performer and civil rights activist, Mahalia Jackson (1911-72) was a traditional gospel singer who came from New Orleans. Often referred to ‘The Queen of Gospel’, Jackson’s distinctive contralto vocal sound can be heard in songs such as ‘Move on Up a Little Higher’ and ‘I Can Put My Trust in Jesus’ on the many albums she recorded for Columbia.

Born in Atlanta, Richard Smallwood is a gospel singer and composer, best known for his performances with The Richard Smallwood Singers and, later, Vision. His signature is a mix of classical elements with the familiar gospel sound, and his recommended songs include ‘Total Praise’ and ‘Holy Holy’ and his arrangement of ‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion’ from Handel’s Messiah.

Take 6

Formed in Alabama in 1980, Take 6 is an a cappella sextet who fuse gospel with jazz, soul and traditional hymns. As well as appearing with well-known singers such as Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and Whitney Houston, the group has won an impressive ten Grammy awards. Their best-known albums include So Much 2 Say (1990) and
The Standard (2008).

In 1992, leading gospel performers including The Richard Smallwood Singers and Take 6 united for the recording of Handel’s Messiah: A Soulful Celebration. A reworking of the famous 1741 oratorio using a variety of African-American music forms, the Grammy-winning album opens with a musical genealogy called ‘A Partial History Of Black Music’.

London Adventist Chorale

Founded in 1981 and conducted today by Ken Burton, the London Adventist Chorale is a rarity in British gospel music in that it sings mostly a cappella African-American repertoire with a sound closer to the Western choral tradition than most. The choir sprung to fame by winning the 1995 Sainsbury’s Choir of the Year competition, and has recorded a number of albums, including 1997’s Steal Away.

7 opera singers with gospel roots

Unsurprisingly, it was in gospel choirs that a number of leading opera stars, from the middle of the 20th century to the present day, first discovered the joy of singing, and several have gone on to make recordings of spiritual music.

Marian Anderson

The first ever black singer to appear at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, Marian Anderson (1897-1993) had a large discography that included Verdi, Brahms and, from 1962, He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands (RCA G0100017167746), a compilation of spirituals recorded over the course of her career.

Leontyne Price

It was on being taken on a school trip to see Anderson in 1941 that the Mississippi-born Leontyne Price (b1927) herself was inspired to become a singer. As well as going on to become one of the great opera sopranos of her generation, Price would also, in 1971, record a disc of religious songs called I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free (RCA G010002763310S). But why just have just the one opera great when you can have two?

Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle

In 1990, Jessye Norman (b1945) and Kathleen Battle (b1948) joined their considerable forces for Spirituals in Concert (Deutsche Grammophon 477 9377), conducted by James Levine. Norman has also recorded solo gospel music discs.

Lawrence Brownlee

And finally, bringing us right up to the present, try also Spiritual Sketches (download only), the recent release by the superb Ohio-born tenor Lawrence Brownlee (b1972).

You can find lyrics to many famous hymns here, including some gospel hymns

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