Styles & Forms | Golden Age Gospel

The period between the late-1940s and the mid-1960s is described as the Golden Age of gospel music. During this time, attention was focused mainly, but not exclusively, on the quartets that crisscrossed America on what was known as the Gospel Highway, filling the role of pop stars for the black religious community of the times.

These aggregations could have anything up to seven members, but the term ‘quartet’ was used to describe both the groups and the style in which they sang, developed from the jubilee sounds of the 1920s and 1930s. The accent was still on performing a cappella, though a guitarist might form part of the group, and the range of vocal resources was explored to its limit. Both falsetto and bass were exploited for dramatic effect, and melisma was extended about as far as it could go. Non-musical effects such as grunts, exhortations, asides, hand-clapping, shouts and screams were brought into augment the emotional arsenal. One of the greatest of all quartets, The Soul Stirrers, pioneered the use of the joint lead, in which two singers would vie with and encourage each other as they bounced a song between them across a background provided by the rest of the group. Performances were also extremely visual, with the formally attired groups weaving with choreographed, sweating exactitude around the microphone (if there was one), as the lead singers fell on their knees, wrung their hands, waved their arms, invaded the audience and even ‘fell out’ under the impact of their own singing.

On the road, these groups sang commercially in churches and school houses throughout America, finding their largest audiences in the bigger cities and the rural south. Personalities emerged, inspiring their own followings, while fans avidly studied the movements of personnel between groups. Competition played a large part in generating interest, and ‘the programs’, as gospel shows were known, would often advertise ‘battles’ between eminent quartets. The groups and individual singers developed their own images and reputations; The Harmonizing Four were known for their more restrained reliance on hymns, while The Pilgrim Travelers were famous for songs about grey-haired mothers, alongside less-sentimental fare. The most admired singers were those who could deal with everything from a drawn-out rendition of the Lord’s Prayer to the controlled hysteria of a ‘hard’ quartet performance designed to ‘wreck the house’. Some of the great men on the gospel circuit were: Silas Steele, who moved from the jubilee group The Blue Jay Singers to join with Wilbur ‘Little Ax’ Broadnax in the celebrated Spirit Of Memphis Quartet; Rev. Rebert Harris and Paul Owens of The Soul Stirrers; Ira Tucker of The Dixie Hummingbirds and Julius Cheeks of The Sensational Nightingales. These men were famous not just for their amazing musical ability, but for the dedication and piety witnessed by their scorning of the secular arena and its considerable earthly rewards. Once upon a time The Norfolks and The Gates could get away with singing pop songs – but up until the late-1950s,...

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


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