Giving Voice, Gospel Traditions

Giving Voice, Reflections by Evelyn Harris 

A Historical Account of the Black Gospel Song

The gospel phenomenon in America came into existence during the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th century and from its inception was connected to congregational singing. The name “gospel” was assigned to these songs because many derived from the first four books of the New Testament. Many of the texts dealt with the teachings of Jesus and the Christian church and were closely connected with the doctrine of salvation by grace. It became a regular part of Black church services and addressed common life experiences. In contrast to the Black spiritual, whose inception was in the cotton fields and rural settings of the camp meetings where large numbers of slaves gathered in the open, the gospel song came about in urban settings. When Blacks began pouring into the nation’s industrial centers during the second decade of the 20th century and after WW1, they brought their joyful spirituals with them but found the rural-born music to be unsatisfactory in urban settings and no longer responsive to their needs. Consequently, the church singers created a more expressive music to which they applied the term gospel. Black gospel music became essentially the sacred counterpart of the city blues, sung in the same improvisational tradition with piano, guitar and other instrumental accompaniment. The spirituals were always sung acapella since Blacks were denied the use of their African instruments by slave owners.

Rev. William Herbert Brewster - 1897-1987

Rev. Brewster was the oldest of 8 children born to sharecroppers in Somerville, Tennessee. In 1915, he entered Howe Collegiate Institute for study to become a preacher. He moved to Memphis, TN to become dean of a proposed African-American seminary but due to anti-Black protests and white fear that the school would attract northern Blacks, Memphis Mayor Edward Hull “Boss” Crump crushed the school’s establishment. Refusing to give in to racial hatred, he founded and directed the Brewster Theological Clinic with branches in 25 cities. In Memphis, he pastored East Trigg Baptist Church for over 50 years, honing his talent for composition. He published over 200 songs, out of which 2 were the first Black gospel recordings to sell over one million copies!! Even though his peers promoted the language of the common people, Brewster endeavored to elevate the ordinary language of Black Christians to instruct them in Biblical teachings. He wrote songs for his ministry, 15 gospel drama pageants, his radio ministry, his performing groups and ALL the period’s top names in gospel music.

Lucie E. Campbell - 1885 - 1963

Called the Mother of Gospel Music, Lucie Campbell was born in a caboose in Duck Hill, Mississippi. Her father worked for the railroad and was killed in a train wreck not long after her birth. Her family moved to Memphis where she became a school teacher and trained many young singers. A singer/songwriter of over 100 hymns, anthems, musicals and pageants, her songs spread but her name faded. Campbell gave national exposure to musicians who went on to become world famous such as Marian Anderson, Mahalia Jackson and Thomas A. Dorsey. She served as Music Director for the National Baptist Convention for 47 years. Annual convention gatherings drew more than 20,000 people where she wrote and debuted a new song every year!! She auditioned singers, chose songs, directed 1000-voice choirs while selling copies of her own songs and hymnals she helped to compile. In 1942, she was invited to the White House Conference on Negro Education, eventually becoming one of the most highly acclaimed of all gospel songwriters.

A blind street performer in Memphis, busking on Beale Street singing spirituals and hymns, was approached by two men who offered him a lot of money to sing the blues. He repeatedly demurred, citing “something within.” Campbell overheard his refusal time and time again and afterward asked him why. He told her, again, there was “something within” that would not allow him to sing the blues. From that encounter, Campbell wrote her famous “Something Within,” the first gospel hymn published by an African-American woman in 1919.

Kenneth Morris - 1917-1988

Born in New York City, Morris was a gospel music scribe, arranger, pianist, organist, composer, conductor and dean of Black gospel music publishers. He began piano lessons at a young age and by 13 served as accompanist for his Sunday School and youth programs. He spent his days studying at Manhattan School of Music and his nights playing jazz in hotels, lounges and restaurants. His first trip outside NYC was in 1934 to Chicago for their centennial celebration. His jazz band was engaged to perform concerts and dances day and night for several days. Playing in the open air for days and nights at a time aggravated his delicate health and he was forced to quit the band and recuperate in Chicago. That changed the course of his life. Because he could read, write and notate music, Morris was thrust into the Chicago gospel scene, replacing jazz as his money maker. He is credited with over 300 songs but, more importantly, he introduced the most important innovation in gospel music up to the 1960s: The Hammond Organ!! You can hear his organ playing on Mahalia Jackson’s million-seller Move On Up A Little Higher. With Sallie Martin, another acclaimed gospel music vocalist, he started the Morris and Martin Studio of Music as a publishing house and music school, the oldest continuously operating Black gospel music publishing firm in the nation!!

Rev. Charles Albert Tindley - 1851-1933

One of the founding fathers of the earliest form of gospel music, the gospel hymn, Tindley was a Methodist minister serving a congregation in Philadelphia as the stream of migrants from the south became a flood. Tindley was a minister who still remembered what it was like to have to leave. He had come to Philly when he was 18, taught himself to read English, Hebrew and Greek and found work as a hod carrier for brick masons while working as sexton taking care of his church. At night, he studied for the ministry and against all odds passed his exams and became an ordained Methodist minister. In 1902, he became pastor of the congregation that he would lead for the next 30 years. Through his church, Tindley Temple, newly arrived Black migrants were led to night classes, given leads for work and were urged to use the church savings plan to save up for a down payment on a row house. Upon his death, the church membership topped 12,500. His composition “I’ll Overcome Someday” was the inspiration and basis for the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome,” composed by artists at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee in 1947.

He was the first African-American hymn writer to have his work copyrighted. In 1901, he published a hymn collection called New Songs of Paradise and a collection of his sermons called Book of Sermons.

Mahalia Jackson - 1911-1972

From famed Carnegie Hall to the leading auditoriums in European capital cities, right through to small packed churches throughout the US, Mahalia Jackson demonstrated that hers was truly the world’s greatest gospel voice. Born in the birthplace of jazz, New Orleans, Mahalia Jackson dedicated her life to singing joyous praise to the Lord. At 5 years old, she was singing in her father’s church, where he preached every Sunday after working on the waterfront loading cargo. At 16, she left for Chicago, taking jobs as a hotel maid and at a food packing plant. On her very first Sunday in Chicago, she went to church where her rich full voice rang out above the choir!! She was quickly asked to come up and sing a solo. Response to her imaginative rendition spread from church to church and soon she was busy as guest soloist all over Chicago. She caught the ear of the great songwriter Thomas A. Dorsey who served as mentor and friend as well as Rev. William Herbert Brewster who wrote several of her hits. She recorded 30 albums, mostly on Columbia Records, and her 45s included a dozen “golds” - million sellers!!

During a time when racial segregation was pervasive in American society, she met considerable and unexpected success in a recording career, selling an estimated 22 million records and performing in front of integrated and secular audiences around the world.

A History of Spirituals

The first musics of Africans in the English language were spirituals and blues. Spirituals expressed slaves’ sacred ideas and blues their secular ideas. Harmony was never taught or encouraged … it was felt and expressed as the spirit moved you. The harmonic systems came directly from African chants and melodies and feelings for the Old World. Africans created complex rhythms never heard before by western ears as well as elaborate harmonic systems using different drums to create harmonies. The diversity in African music came also in the singer’s interpretation. The tense, slightly hoarse-sounding vocal technique of work songs and blues stem directly from African traditions. Spirituals came from the heart of the Negro slave as forceful outpourings of religious passion. They were the music of the pre-Civil War invisible church in this pre-literate era fed by the oral tradition. Miraculously, a body of approximately 6,000 independent spirituals exist today, melodies that were for the most part handed down from generation to generation. They speak of life and death, suffering and sorrow, love and judgment, grace and hope, justice and mercy. Spirituals tell of exile and trouble, strife and hiding. They grope toward some unseen power and sigh for rest in the end. The slaves were not simply singing a song, they were stating a point of view: that the God of justice is always on the side of the oppressed.