Gospel music has a fascinating story. Its roots run deep, like a mighty oak tree. To pursue its path, is to find the foundation of the richness of African American culture. For years, Gospel’s medicinal affect has brought healing to the African American community during its toughest, most trying battles. People, past and present, have tasted of its fruit… and have found strength in it.
The story began on the south side of Chicago, where Thomas A. Dorsey tapped out the first notes of, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” on the piano. From there, Dorsey became Minister of Music for Chicago’s notorious Pilgrim Baptist – which ultimately became known as Gospel music’s birthplace. From then until now, generations of African Americans have depended on the musical message of “The Good News” to help them connect with their spirituality – and to overcome life’s biggest struggles.
Kirk Franklin summarized Gospel music perfectly in his song, “Why We Sing”. He wrote: “Someone asked the question, Why do we sing?” The answer, “I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free, His eye is on the sparrow, That’s the reason why I sing.”
Grammy® nominated artist Anita Wilson (Speechless, Jesus Will) recalls;
“Gospel music has been a part of my life all of my life. My parents, who were Pastor & First Lady of a Baptist Church, use to play great gospel music around the house, and those songs/messages have stayed with me to this day. Gospel Music has not only kept me reminded of God’s Love for me, but it also… has positively impacted me as an artist, writer and producer!”
However, for a brief period in African American History, in its early stages, nobody wanted to hear Gospel music, or the reassuring messages Dorsey wanted to portray through it. Yet today, Gospel music lives on. The story tells of faith and survival, of peace in times of struggle, of overcoming trials and tribulations…, and of “The Good News” of Jesus Christ.
Anita Wilson agrees. “Gospel Music provides inspiration as well as hope for the African American Community,” she affirms. “When experiencing life’s triumphs and challenges, the melodies of Gospel songs we’ve heard throughout our lives quickly come to mind. These lyrics help us all stay grounded and uplifted.”
In the late 1920’s, right before Thomas Dorsey began his musical pilgrimage in the Gospel music arena, many churches did not have musical instruments. African Americans in small southern towns mostly worshipped in small congregations where call & response songs ruled the day – and those songs were sung acapella. Hand clapping and foot stomping filled in wherever the music was lacking. People, who remembered those times, said the singing could be heard from miles away.
Dorsey was a Georgia native who was a notorious blues piano player and composer known as “Georgia Tom”. After hearing an audience singing spirituals in 1921 at the National Baptist Convention in Chicago, he was inspired to integrate the smooth sounds of jazz with the Gospel message. Dorsey ingeniously used Bible scriptures, written with stimulating words, to inspire delightful but ‘spirit-filled singing’. But it was not until the early 1930’s that Dorsey gave his full attention to writing Gospel songs, and introduced them to churches.
Urban Inspirational Recording Artist and Grammy and Dove nominated songwriter, Dayna Caddell (What He’s Done, Crazy) believes,
“Black people, more than other cultures, have held on to God’s word through adversity and joyous occasions throughout time. By putting scripture in a lyrical form, it becomes tangible in a sense. Not only can we speak of His goodness, but now share in song, which can have a tremendous impact on lives and the culture as a whole.”
Nevertheless, in the early days of Gospel music, many churches were skeptical about embracing it. Some felt the music was too heavily influenced by the popular blues and jazz tunes of the day, so they rebelled against Dorsey’s music. As a result, Dorsey decided to enlist the help of his friend Sally Martin. He sent her on solo tours around the country to help popularize Gospel songs from coast to coast. His plan worked too because Sallie Martin won the hearts of the church community wherever she appeared while on tour. Sallie Martin eventually convinced Dorsey that he should copyright and publish his songs – to make them available to churches in larger volumes, instead of one by one.
Early Contributors to Gospel Music
Because of Thomas Dorsey, doors opened for musicians, Gospel quartets and choirs. Each containing skilled vocalists who built on Dorsey’s original ideas and stretched the limits of Gospel music into a new era, they added style, energy and diversity to the songs. Nevertheless, God’s message was always presented in the songs and performances.
“I remember being introduced to Gospel Music at a young age by my mother [Chicago Mass Choir President/CEO, Dr. Feranda Williamson] who sang in the church choir and a local community choir for years,” recalls Tracy Williamson, former Label Director at Tyscot Records.
Moreover, “I was drawn in by the singing, but it was the message of Jesus Christ which caused me to listen a little closer.” Tracy Williamson went on to say. “The message and music has encouraged me to push harder in my personal life, no matter what the day brings. I’m grateful for the opportunity to promote a genre of music [Through Tre7 Entertainment – provides A&R, Artist Development, Marketing, Promotions and Publicity services], which draws others closer to knowing the power of God’s word.”
For sure, Gospel music drew some great talents to its genre. The 1940’s and 50’s brought fame for great singers like the innovative Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and groups such as the Dixie Hummingbirds, The Golden Gate Quartet, The Soul Stirrers, The Swan Silvertones, The Sensational Nightingales and The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. These groups introduced even more stylistic freedom to Gospel music singing by applying their own unique arrangements and mixed harmonies to Dorsey’s songs. In their own distinct way, each group began to use, either catch phrases, or a new style of call & response to reach their audiences. It excited audiences, and inspired people of the era in a new way… to fall in love with Gospel music.
As Gospel music continued to evolve, “It was popularized by Mahalia Jackson, who captivated audiences with her gospel praise,” John W. Fountain of the Chicago Tribune wrote. Jackson paved the way for others to achieve stardom such as Bessie Griffin, Clara Ward, Albertina Walker, The Caravans, The Davis Sisters, Dorothy Love Coates and Roberta Martin.
“Gospel music” gained further recognition in the 1960s with the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ song “Oh Happy Day,” and with Chicago native, the Rev. James Cleveland. Cleveland took choir music to another level. From the 1960’s through the late 1980’s, with songs like “I Don’t Feel Now Ways Tired” and “Where Is Your Faith”, he changed the way choirs sing choir songs, and helped them to achieve a more modern “Gospel sound” – by founding G.M.W.A. (Gospel Music Workshop of America).
From the 1990’s until now…, the sound of Gospel music has changed immensely. This new sound and the rhythms have brought mainstream interest in gospel music. However, the “Good News” message is still being spread – to the youth who want the positive message of God, to people who have never been inside a church, and to different nationalities of people from all over the world. They are embracing the music, singing the songs… and figuring out they can find peace and tranquility in God’s music – Gospel music – just as Dr. Thomas Dorsey did decades ago, when he needed it most.