With its enduring message of comfort and inspiration, gospel music’s origins are rooted in the tragedy of African-American slavery. From the earthy recordings of the evangelist street performers to the polished sound of the jubilee quartets, this Rough Guide features many of the trailblazing artists who paved the way for what has become a global phenomenon.
Deeply rooted in the rich traditions of the African-American church, gospel music was born out of grief and suffering and has long served as a beacon of hope for singers and listeners throughout the world.
During the late 1800s, African-American churches in the southern United States started fusing various styles of music into their services of worship, including spirituals, hymns and other sacred songs. Come the early 1900s, blues and jazz became a key influence on the evolution of gospel music, as highlighted by the classic album opener by the blind pianist and singer Arizona Dranes. With her distinctive high-energy vocals and piano playing that incorporated barrelhouse and ragtime styles, Dranes influenced many later gospel artists including Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Clara Ward, and was one of the first to bring the musical styles of the Holiness Churches' religious music to the public through her records.
Many of the early recorded gospel artists were evangelist street preachers who had a calling to spread the word of God through their music. Often with little education or connection with a regular church, they would preach to spontaneous congregations on the streets or set up small store-front churches of their own. From the artistry of guitar evangelists Blind Willie Johnson and Rev. Edward W. Clayborn to the "jack-leg” preaching and strange zither-like accompaniment of Washington Phillips, these performers were important missionaries in the evolution of gospel music.
In parallel to the earthy recordings of the street preachers, the mid-1920s also saw a market develop for recorded sermons by ordained ministers such as Rev. J.M. Gates. With his dynamic fire and brimstone style of old-time preaching the Rev. J.M. Gates was largely responsible for the rise in popularity of recorded sermons with the success of the featured ‘Death's Black Train Is Coming’, setting the precedent for others like Rev. A. W. Nix and Rev. J. C. Burnett who soon followed his lead.
The acknowledged father of gospel music Thomas A. Dorsey remains arguably the most influential figure ever to impact the genre. A former jazz and blues pianist and composer who had worked with famous blues performers such as Ma Rainey and Tampa Red, Dorsey created a new style of gospel which incorporated blues melodies and rhythms with his spiritual beliefs. Many of his songs went on to become gospel standards and he was a key influence on the career of the ‘The Queen of Gospel’ Mahalia Jackson, whose signature song ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ was written by Dorsey after he experienced the loss of his wife and first-born in childbirth.
Another important strand of gospel music’s development was the emergence of jubilee quartet singing which dates to before the turn of the twentieth century. Remarkably the Dinwiddie Colored Quartet’s beautiful rendition of ‘Down On The Old Camp Ground’ was recorded in 1902 and is a key example of the development of black jubilee music. Typically, the early jubilee quartets featured close harmonies and formal arrangements that emphasized restrained musical expression and technique derived from Western musical traditions. Early quartets reinforced their respectable image by adopting uniforms that a university glee club might wear and discouraging improvisation.
Often referred to as the “Big Bang" of modern country music, the Bristol Sessions of 1927 introduced the Southern gospel of the singing white preacher Ernest Phipps and His Holiness Quartet, whose musical style encouraged a rousing, hoedown-type emotional approach. In contrast fellow preacher Alfred G. Karnes accompanied himself with the harp-guitar, a seldom recorded instrument from the Edwardian era. These tracks go to show that although gospel music is a genre synonymous with its deep rooted African-American history, it also has a long-standing appeal to white musicians, who like their African-American counterparts sought to spread solace in its lyrics of joy and sorrow, hope and despair, and a better life in some future place.
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