Understanding Gospel Music
Another Uniquely American Invention, Black Gospel Music Lyrics and Songs are Universally Uplifting
When an individual not entirely familiar with the character of gospel music thinks of the genre, that person probably wouldn’t consider it as intricately tied into American culture. Perhaps that person would think of the kind of music often sung in black Churches, or the film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” might pop into mind.
One might acknowledge the music’s relevance to specific niche groups of our society, but probably wouldn’t rank it nearly as influential as, say, Rock, Jazz, Rap, or even Country.
What most people don’t understand, but which is understood within the gospel song industry, is that ‘Gospel music’ isn’t just a single genre. The gospel label encompasses a wide range of sounds, styles, and messages, and the simplistic description of it as “God music” simply isn’t appropriate. In fact, understanding the evolution and impact of Gospel provides valuable insight in the character of American culture.
Black Gospel and Southern Gospel Explained
The primary difference was that Black Gospel was and still is primarily about God, while Southern Gospels tend to be addressed to God. Both genres, then also vary radically from other Christian music, with which they are often confused. The history of Gospel is rich and intricate. So, to make it simple, let’s look at it from two basic perspectives. We’ll take the earlier examples, and consider black Church music, and the kinds of sounds people know from O Brother Where Art Thou. These two perspectives summarize the essential roots of Gospel music, as a fusion between early American white and black culture.
Similar Roots to Jazz
Black church music is probably the most obvious example of gospel music that people have in their minds. Similarly to Jazz, this type of music traces its roots back to slave spirituals sung in the 19th century, and, also like Jazz, continues its evolution up through work songs sung in labor camps in the early 20th century. However, it splits from the more secular jazz music at this point.
Segregation Breeds Invention
Due much in part to the segregation of America in the early and mid twentieth century, black churches quickly developed a very different culture than those that white people often attended. The oral tradition that began with black spirituals had grown and developed, and synthesizing with religious connotations, found its way into churches. These spirituals became a staple part of church life, but never saw much commercialization until the end of the 20th century. After public exposure in film and even some pop music, perhaps most famously by Madonna in “Like a Prayer, gospel music, alongside and sometimes overlapping the growing popularity of rap, black gospel has become not only a viable commercial enterprise, but a prominent, if understated, feature of American culture.
Southern Gospel has ingrained itself in American culture in a similar manner, though its evolution is surprisingly analogous. Think of George Clooney crooning away in the hit movie “Oh Brother, Where art Thou?”. The type of music he sings there is actually representative of one of the few musical genres that has maintained its popularity since the early days of sound recording. This type of music has its origins in a mixture of the slave spirituals of black gospel, and a more Puritan sound known as heart song. This acapella music, one of the few really acceptable in Puritan society, was commonly sung in praise of God and spirituality. Fast forward 150 years or so, and there’s a new industry booming through the use of radio and recorded songs. Very quickly the easy, upbeat, and catchy sounds of quartet music gained prominence with listeners.
It’s important to point out that while Southern Gospel is different from ‘black’ Gospel, that doesn’t mean one is just in the domain of the white folks while the other is for black folks. Many of the early quartet groups had some or all black members. In fact, as Black Gospel did not gain popularity outside of black culture until many decades later, these quartets were one the earliest opportunities for black entertainers to gain mainstream attention and recognition.
As Popular as Ever
Nearly a century later, and much of Southern Christian Gospel has remained unchanged. While its popularity died in the middle of the century, the couple Bill and Gloria Gaith did much to revive it in the early 90’s through a massive national tour. This inspired a movement that reached out to new listeners, and eventually grew into Progressive Christian Gospel, a sub-genre that mixes elements of traditional, traditional Southern Gospel, Bluegrass, modern country, contemporary Christian and pop music. This evolution has helped spread its popularity and accessibility, particularly among younger listeners.
Today, Southern Christian Gospel remains one of the most popular forms of music in the country, though it functions within a very closed community. Despite this exclusiveness, its influence has spread to other countries, particularly Ireland, (List others). More than being simply religious Southern Christian Gospel represents the spiritual and aethetic characteristic of American society.
So, while one might not see billboards prominently displaying the latest Gospel artists, or read about it in history textbooks, it remains an important and stalwart part of the American identity.