Spirituals are sacred folk songs, usually of unknown authorship and often from the era of slavery. They employ Biblical images that often speak obliquely of enslavement. Groups like Nashville’s Fisk Jubilee Singers sung formal, often stilted arrangements of Spirituals, giving birth to Jubilee singing. Precise harmonies, melodious singing, and playful syncopation characterized Jubilee. Gospel music eschewed most of that. Coalescing in the 1920s, it drew in part on Spirituals and Jubilee, but its songs were mostly of recent and known authorship. It drew on secular African American music, but influenced secular music even more. Gospel is more ecstatic and rapturous, but of course there are no recordings of Spirituals as they were originally sung. An 1881 review of the Fisk Jubilee Singers in the Peoria Journal said, “they have lost the wild rhythms, the barbaric melody, the passion….They smack of the North….” So Gospel and Spirituals might not have been so different after all.
The importance of African American churches and their music to the community in general and to secular African American music in particular cannot be overstated. Free of white influence, churches organized and mobilized communities. The Civil Rights movement within the South was largely organized within churches, often by preachers. African American sacred music influenced Jazz and Blues, and Soul music was, in many ways, a secularization of Gospel music.
Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts formed in London. The Society is actually a slave owner in the West Indies, but introduces Protestant hymns to American slaves. West African traditions of chant, ritual, dance, and polyrhythmic singing survive and adapt to the Protestant hymns, especially those of Dr. Isaac Watts.
Landmark publication in African American worship music. Richard Allen of the African Methodist Episcopal Church publishes A Collection of Spiritual Songs and Hymns, Selected from Various Authors by Richard Allen, African Minister. It is specifically for African American congregations, although the composers are white. Subsequent AME hymnals include an increasing number of hymns by African Americans.
“The Religious Instruction of the Negroes in the United States.” White minister Charles Colcock Jones recommends the hymns of Dr. Watts. He writes: “One great advantage in teaching them [slaves] good psalms and hymns, is that they are thereby induced to lay aside the extravagant and nonsensical chants, and catches and hallelujah songs of their own composing.”
Charles Tindley—African American hymnodist and preacher born. After the Civil War, his family moves to Philadelphia, and he writes more than seventy hymns, including “Stand by Me,” “We’ll Understand It Better Bye and Bye,” and “I’ll Overcome Some Day.” He uses words that speak directly and eloquently to African American congregations.
Freed slaves in Memphis build the Beale Street Baptist Church. Beale Street will later become the hub of African American life in the mid-South.
“Slave Songs of the United States” published. Collected by white abolitionists, the songs are all spirituals. That year, Atlantic magazine publishes an article, “Negro Spirituals” by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and “spiritual” becomes a more common name for African American worship songs after this.
Formation of Fisk Jubilee Singers. Five years after Fisk University opens its doors in Nashville to offer liberal arts education to “young men and women irrespective of color,” it’s in dire financial straits. A music professor organizes a choral ensemble, soon dubbed the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who tour the United States and, in 1873, Europe. “The original band of singers went forth from Nashville after liberation from slavery,” commented the Nashville Globe, “eleven simple, devout, and brave men and women to sing their songs to an uninterested world…that their institution might survive.” The tour lasts seven years and raises $150,000. Other groups often attach “Nashville” to their name, regardless of their place of origin, because Nashville becomes synonymous with Jubilee singing.
National Baptist Convention founded in Montgomery, Alabama. It has become the largest predominantly African American denomination, and is now headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee.
First African American Sacred recordings. The Standard Quartette, the Unique Quartette, and the Kentucky Jubilee Singers record a mix of spirituals and minstrel songs for Columbia, but very little audio has survived. The Dinwiddie Colored Quartet records six spirituals and hymns for Victor Records in 1902, and these have survived.
Church of God in Christ founded in Jackson, Tennessee. A Pentecostal Holiness Christian church with a predominantly African American membership, it moves its headquarters to Memphis in 1907. COGIC emphasizes music as part of worship, and performers who start their careers in the church include Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Andrae Crouch, and the Winans.
Fisk Jubilee Singers record their first session, held at Victor’s studio in Camden, New Jersey. Their arrangements are tailored to a broad audience.
Mahalia Jackson born in New Orleans. She is later hailed as the Queen of the Gospel Singers.
Roebuck “Pops” Staples born in Winona, Mississippi. His first children, Cleotha and Pervis, are born on the Dockery Plantation, Mississippi; the third, Mavis, is born after the family leaves for Chicago.
The Great Migration: In 1900, Just 740,000 African Americans (or roughly eight percent of the black population) lived outside the South. Between 1916 and 1970, The Great Migration sees more than six million African Americans from the Triangle leave for northern cities, primarily Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland. Among them are Thomas A. Dorsey who leaves Georgia for Chicago in 1916; Mahalia Jackson who leaves New Orleans for Chicago in 1927; Sister Rosetta Tharpe who leaves Cotton Plant, Arkansas for Chicago in the mid-1920s; Sam Cooke, whose family leaves Clarksdale for Chicago in 1933; Pops Staples, who leaves Winona, Mississippi for Chicago around 1935; Aretha Franklin, whose family leaves Memphis in 1944 first for Buffalo, New York and then Detroit; and Al Green, whose family leaves Forrest City, Arkansas for Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1955.
Gospel Pearls. In Nashville, the National Baptist Convention publishes Gospel Pearls, compiled exclusively for African American congregations. It includes Thomas A. Dorsey’s first hymn, “If I Don’t Get There.”
Recording era restarts for African American Sacred artists. The Norfolk Jazz Quartet begins recording in 1921, switching to sacred music and becoming the Norfolk Jubilee Quartet in 1924. The Rev. J.M. Gates begins recording in 1926, and his sermons become hugely popular. Until the Great Depression, African American sacred music and sermons are recorded prolifically.
Blind Willie Johnson and Washington Phillips record for Columbia Records in Dallas. Idiosyncratic solo performers, neither sells especially well at the time, but their work is better appreciated today. In 1977, Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” becomes one of 27 pieces of music shot into space on the Voyager spacecraft. Every one of the pieces is designed to encapsulate some part of the human experience on earth.
Thomas A Dorsey and the birth of Gospel Music. The meetings of the “National Baptist Convention (Negro)” feature the first performance of Gospel songs. Mahalia Jackson: “When the Baptist Convention met in Chicago in 1930 that was the time Gospel music was officially expressed. [Thomas A.] Dorsey had written two songs, ‘How About You’ and ‘If You See My Savior.’ These songs swept the convention and it seemed like there was a frantic expression all over the place the whole week, and then it swept the nation…It was the kind of music colored people had left down south, and they liked it because it was a letter from home.” To this point, Dorsey has been better known as blues singer Georgia Tom. He organizes his first choir at Chicago’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, and is later hailed as the Father of Gospel Music.
Sallie Martin. Raised in Pittfield, Georgia, and living in Chicago since 1927, Sallie Martin helps Dorsey organize the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses in 1933. A singer and businesswoman, she later splits from Dorsey to form the Sallie Martin Singers, featuring Ruth Jones, who later becomes Dinah Washington.
Willie Mae Ford. Originally from Rolling Fork, Mississippi, Ford organizes the Soloists Bureau for Dorsey’s National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses. She coaches and inspires many young Gospel artists.
Spreading the Word: Dorsey tours constantly between 1932 and 1944, often with Mahalia Jackson. Very little Gospel music is recorded until after World War II, although it circulates widely in songbooks and on church programs. The first recording of Dorsey’s sacred work is the Famous Blue Jay Singers of Birmingham’s record of “If You See My Savior” aka “Standing by the Bedside of a Neighbor” in 1932. Dorsey also records that hymn in 1932.
Record sales nosedive. At the depth of the Great Depression, the record business suffers. Just eight Gospel quartet records are issued in 1934. A few solo artists and preachers also see releases.
Golden Gate Quartet formed. Four students at Booker T. Washington College in Norfolk, Virginia make up the original quartet. They apply barbershop quartet arrangements and syncopated Jazz vocal techniques to Spirituals, finding a large listenership among white audiences.
Mahalia Jackson makes her first recordings. She cuts four songs but doesn’t record again until 1946.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe mixes sacred and secular music. She appears at the Cotton Club and records songs like “This Lonesome Road.” Later, she records “I Want a Tall, Skinny Papa” with a Jazz band. She also makes seminal Gospel recordings, like “This Train,” “Down by the Riverside” and “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” all of them top selling records featuring her fiery lead guitar. Switching from sacred to secular doesn’t sit well with her congregations.
Golden Gate Quartet performs at Franklin D. Roosevelt’s third inauguration. They also appear in Hollywood movies and short films. Their career post-World War II is sidelined by the emergence of “hard” Gospel groups. They move their base of operations to Europe. The last surviving member of the original group dies in 1998.
Aretha Franklin born, Memphis, Tennessee. The family relocates first to Buffalo, New York, and then to Detroit, where Aretha begins her recording career with her father, the Rev. C. L. Franklin. Her first LP, Songs of Faith, is issued when she is fourteen.
Clara Ward introduced at the National Baptist Convention. She becomes a sensation on the Gospel circuit, especially after recruiting Marion Williams. The Ward Singers begin recording in 1948, and become wildly popular on church programs. Ward franchises herself, launching several Clara Ward Singers, and appears in Las Vegas. She emphasizes glamor and showbiz, and sings with a one-hundred piece orchestra in 1960s. Marion Williams goes solo in 1958.
“We Shall Overcome.” A song of disputed lineage, it possibly originates with Charles Tindley’s “I Shall Overcome Some Day.” Adopted by workers striking against the American Tobacco Company in South Carolina, it’s adapted by Zilphia Horton of the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee into its current form. Later, it becomes a Civil Rights anthem.
Birth of Hard Gospel quartets. As with Blues and Country, very few pre-War artists record after World War II. Many of the newer “Hard” Gospel quartets are influenced by groups from, Birmingham-Bessemer, Alabama. The newer quartets include the Famous Blue Jay Singers, Heavenly Gospel Singers, the Sterling Jubilees of Bessemer, and the Four Great Wonders. The newer quartets usually record for post-War independent labels—often the same labels that record Blues and R&B. Many of the quartets perform a-cappella. 1945-1955 is considered the golden era of Hard Gospel quartets.
The Dixie Hummingbirds, who’d recorded one session before World War II, move to Philadelphia in 1942 and sign with Regis-Manor Records in 1945. Their line-up includes Willie Bobo from Birmingham’s Heavenly Gospel Singers. The Hummingbirds’ style—jumping off-stage, running up and down the aisles—influences not only a generation of Gospel quartets, but R&B and Soul singers, including Bobby Bland and Jackie Wilson.
The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. Formed in 1936 near Jackson, Mississippi, they relocate to Chicago in 1945. They too move away from Jubilee singing to Hard Gospel. Their lead, Archie Brownlee, is one of the most overpowering singers on the circuit, known for his screaming leads. Although blind, he will often jump into an audience.
Swan Silvertone Singers begin recording. The falsetto leads of Rev. Claude Jeter influence a generation of Soul singers, notably Al Green. Sponsored by Swan Bakery on WBIR in Knoxville, Tennessee, they begin recording for King Records in Cincinnati.
The Fairfield Four begin recording. Formed in Nashville in 1928, they too adopt Hard Gospel and begin recording for Nashville’s Bullet Records. They jointly run a funeral parlor on Nashville’s Lafayette Street.
The Soul Stirrers begin recording for Aladdin Records. Formed in Texas in 1934, they are recorded by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress, who recalls “the most amazing polyrhythmic stuff you’ve ever heard.” They originate double leads. In 1950, their lead singer, R.H. Harris, retires, and is replaced by Sam Cooke, formerly of the Highway QCs.
Spirit of Memphis quartet turns professional. Formed in Memphis in 1928, their post-War style is influenced by Birmingham’s Blue Jay Singers. They make their first record in Birmingham in 1949, but sign with King Records in Cincinnati. Quickly, they become one of the most flamboyant and popular groups on the circuit. Later line-ups include future Soul singers O.V. Wright and Joe Hinton.
The Staple Singers start performing in Chicago churches. They begin recording in 1953.
The Blind Boys of Alabama begin recording. Led by Clarence Fountain, the group survives to the present day. Since the 1980s, they have been viewed as the last surviving hard Gospel quartet from the golden era, and have been profiled on 60 Minutes and in the mainstream press. They have appeared at the White House, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and other prestigious venues, as well as on late night talk shows and overseas.
Beginning of Black Radio. In Memphis, a country and pop station, WDIA, becomes the first station to exclusively program African American music and talk shows. There are many Gospel shows, some featuring choirs led by Rev. Herbert Brewster at his East Trigg Avenue Baptist Church. Among those attending East Trigg occasionally is Elvis Presley. The Spirit of Memphis Quartet performs regularly on WDIA, and one of them, Brother Theo Wade, hosts the daily Hallelujah Jubilee show.
Doo-Wop music. The golden age of Doo-Wop (vocal group music) runs from roughly 1945 to 1960. The music draws to a great extent upon Gospel harmonies and often features singers who learned their craft in the church. The reliance of African American secular music upon Gospel will become more pronounced in the years ahead.
Sam Cooke replaces R. H. Harris in the Soul Stirrers. The following year, they become one of the first to record Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Peace in the Valley.” Cooke, born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, goes solo and secular in 1956, prompting a backlash from the African American gospel community.
Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman.” Borrowing the melody, phrasing, and fervor of the Southern Tones’ “It Must Be Jesus,” Charles creates arguably the first Soul record. He attracts criticism from within the Gospel community, but, unlike Sam Cooke, never was a gospel musician.
The Staple Singers record “Uncloudy Day.” It establishes them within the Gospel community.
The Staple Singers switch from Gospel to “inspirational” music. They begin by covering “For What It’s Worth” and “Why (Am I Treated So Bad)?” but soon score a run of R&B/Soul hits with songs of self-empowerment like “Respect Yourself,” and “I’ll Take You There.”
“Oh Happy Day.” The Edwin Hawkins Singers’ exuberant version of an eighteenth century by a British clergyman becomes a hit on underground FM radio in San Francisco, and then a nationwide No. 4 Pop hit.
Mahalia Jackson dies. Aretha Franklin sings “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” at her funeral. Shortly before Jackon’s death, Aretha returns briefly to sacred music, recording her Amazing Grace double LP. Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Clara Ward die the following year.
Although traditional Gospel music survives in smaller churches and on radio, post-1970 Gospel music borrows increasingly from contemporary urban music. Minor chords, pop melodies, and bigger ensembles characterize contemporary Gospel. It evolves but its origin in the Americana Music Triangle is clouded.