Introduction | Gospel

The first African slaves arrived in America in 1619 and brought their music with them. From then until the Civil War of 1861–65, the music both fascinated and frightened the white slave owners who would flock to see the black people celebrating their weekly ‘day off’ in New Orleans’s Congo Square.

At the same time, slave owners suppressed the drumming that they saw as a possible means of communication between tribal groups who might rebel. During this period, the evangelical aspect of western religion led to efforts to Christianize these heathen ‘children’.

Throughout the nineteenth century the emphasis was placed heavily on the supposed sinful unworthiness of congregations. However, a reaction to this brought about the more moderate movement instigated in the 1870s by Dwight Lyman Moody, who abandoned the hell-and-damnation approach in favour of compassion and redemption. A stream of white religious songwriters appeared, too, headed by Moody and his associate Sankey, and including P.P. Bliss, D.W. Whittle and Henry Date. Influential to both these and to later black composers was the work of the eighteenth-century English hymnist Isaac Watts.

In both black and white traditions, although more so in the case of the black songwriters, congregations would be largely illiterate, leading to the practice of ‘lining out’ songs – a technique whereby the leader sang each line so that the flock could sing it after him. This left room for the development of innovative, overlapping answers, and was the basis of the call-and-response style so prominent in gospel song.

In the wake of the Civil War and emancipation, America’s black population was faced with the problem of integrating itself into the white mainstream society, instigating a process that culminated in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Education was a major issue, but many newly founded black academic institutions found it a struggle to remain afloat during the economic upheavals of the 1870s. In an attempt to generate money to support Nashville’s Fisk University, the choirmaster and treasurer George Leonard White, aided by his black protégé, the singer and pianist Ella Sheppard, assembled the formally trained Fisk Jubilee Singers and took them on a fund-raising tour of North America. The success of this ploy led to other such institutions forming their own travelling choirs. None, however, approached the stature of the Fisk group, who also toured Europe to wide acclaim.

Simultaneously, in more humble venues, liberated and increasingly urbanized black singers were adapting the popular style of four-part harmony group singing known as the ‘barbershop quartet’ to their own ends, working a unique musical alchemy upon it with their rhythmic approach and loosening up its hitherto tight format. Their initial undertakings in this idiom were probably interpretations of popular secular songs, but they soon expanded their repertoire to include new arrangements of much-loved hymns. These were the roots of a music that was to accompany the progress of black America throughout the upheavals of the twentieth century, developing through ‘jubilee’, ‘quartet’ and other styles into the sounds heard...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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