Hymns and History
While the Grammys announce the 2020 nominees for Best Gospel, we look at how the subgenre defines Christian music and the African American Christian Experience
Author: Leandra Archibald
Ranging from jubilant songs of praise to solemn songs of lament, music, by Biblical standards, has always been an integral part of Christian culture. Whether it be through the mention of trumpets, harps, or voices, music has served as one of the mediums through which people have strengthened their connections with God, and in today’s time, the faces of Christian music are drastically different from those of the past. Names of early pioneers Thomas Dorsey, Sallie Martin, and Willie Smith have made way for Kirk Franklin, Donnie McClurkin, and, more recently, Kanye West to champion the genre and popularize it to the point of having its own Grammy category, but how did this occur? After all, Gospel is only a subgenre of the Christian music genre, yet the former’s development is wildly independent of the latter. To better address this, we have to trace it back to American history, and the specific development of music for African American Christians.
Gospel itself is deeply rooted in the African American Christian experience, preceded by African American spirituals, hymns, and psalms. Unlike psalms and hymns, however, which similarly proliferated in the late eighteenth century, spirituals were used by slaves as songs that would express both the hardships of slavery as well as their longing for freedom, and though they did implement Christian themes, these spirituals were most explicit in expressing the conditions and desires of slaves in those times. In addition to this, spirituals also served as a form of “secret” communication for those searching for freedom. One prime example of this was in the popular spiritual “Wade in the Water”, which Harriet Tubman notably used to guide runaways to the water in order to get dogs and slavemasters off the trail. Similar lines like that of “Steal Away” (Chorus: Steal away, steal away!; Steal away to Jesus!; Steal away, steal away home!; I ain't got long to stay here!), served as a signal to call for meetings discussing runaway plans. This type of music, in conjunction with other types of folk song, served as the foundation for modern black gospel.
Fast forward to the early twentieth century, when Thomas Dorsey, the “Father of Gospel Music”, was struggling to reconcile his secular background in the Blues scene with the sacred music of the Southern church. By the ‘20’s, he was already a seasoned arranger and accompanist, arranging for the “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey and performing on tour with popular Blues figure Louis Armstrong. However, it wasn’t until the death of a close friend that he wrote his first gospel hit “If You See My Savior, Tell Him That You Saw Me” in 1926, with a bout of depression later on that year turning him away from making music completely. It didn’t help that many churches turned down his music due, in part, to his “fusing of the secular and the sacred”, but, two years later, he would go on to devote himself completely to writing gospel songs, with his “big break” occurring in 1932, when the Pilgrim Baptist Church of Chicago hired him as a choir director. His most popular hit, "Take My Hand, Precious Lord", would be written later that year, after the death of his wife, Nettie Harper, and their unborn child. Some sources go as far as to state that he wrote the song during a mourning service the same week, but either way, the song would be a favorite of many, including future Civil Rights activist Martin Luther King Jr.
As choir director, Dorsey pioneered energetic spirituals called “jubilees”, and served as the face of a church landscape that was drastically changing from the European hymns that were integral to Western Christianity. Like before, churches would initially resist this “degradation” of sacred music, but an influx of new churchgoers who appreciated this modern, lively music would overshadow the conservative nay-
sayers that failed to appreciate Dorsey’s approach. By the 40’s, Dorsey would be the driving force behind gospel music’s “Golden Age”, turning gospel in an even newer direction and allowing figures like Mahalia Jackson and James Cleveland to bridge the gap between genres including R&B and jazz.
Now, gospel is more diverse than ever, with such intersections between hip hop and gospel, now dubbed “contemporary gospel”, and pop and Christian music selling in the millions. It continues to grow globally, and though the message of faith, praise, and love remains, the faces of gospel aren't as dominated by African American males anymore. As said by Bishop T.D. Jakes at McDonald’s Gospelfest in 2011, “As diverse as we are, as the people are expressing it, they are going to be equally diverse...methodologies are always different but the message should be the same”. In essence, though the gospel genre is constantly evolving, in its sound and audience, the everlasting message of faith, and strengthening it, will continue to persist as it always has.
Leandra Archibald is a rising senior who currently resides in Mount Vernon, New York. Raised in a non-denominational Christian family, Leandra has always had an open mind to different denominations and religions, and has been going to Catholic school for much of her life. Through observing other communities, she finds clarity in what it means to maintain a connection with God.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views or positions of Converge Interfaith.