Styles & Forms | Modern Gospel

The spiritual tradition gave rise to many gospel staples, though many of the early ‘university’ singers who performed them had received a formal European musical schooling. The tradition reached a peak with the solo concert performances of the great singer Paul Robeson and the famous contralto Marian Anderson – the ambassadors for black America.

The links between blues and gospel, developed by Rev. Dorsey, are illustrated in the work of ‘sanctified singers’ such as Blind Willie Johnson and Joel ‘Blind Joe’ Taggart. These artists of the 1920s and 1930s performed in a style that closely resembled the early blues singers, accompanying themselves on the guitar. Indeed, Taggart recorded a couple of blues under the nom du disque of ‘Joe Amos’, while the famous blues singers Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charley Patton sang religious songs under the names of Deacon L.J. Bates and Elder J.J. Hadley. The style continued into the post-war years, with artists such as Rev. Utah Smith and Rev. Louis Overstreet using electrified instruments. Allied to these guitarists were Arizona Dranes, who supported her own lead vocals with a storming barrelhouse piano, and Washington Phillips, unique in his use of the dulceola.

In the period before the Second World War there was a fashion for recording preachers who would often end their sermons with a burst of song from their ‘congregation’. Instruments such as trumpets and trombones, more readily associated with jazz, often backed these performances. Preaching on record continued after the war, its most famous exponent being Rev. C.L. Franklin, the father of Aretha and Erma, while the church founded by Daddy Grace became well known for its trombone-heavy brass bands.

Men had not dominated the Golden Age exclusively; there were many mixed groups, such as The Roberta Martin Singers, and all-female line-ups such as those of the tragic Davis Sisters and The Clara Ward Singers. From the ranks of the last named came the magnificent Marion Williams who, along with Prof. Alex Bradford, ‘The Thunderbolt Of The Mid-West’, rocked Europe in the early 1960s with the hit show Black Nativity. Prior to this event, the singer who made the biggest impact outside the USA was the genre’s diva, Mahalia Jackson. The glittering, guitar-slinging Sister Rosetta Tharpe was also at her zenith during this period.

During the 1960s black culture developed a taste for church-based choirs. Energetically promoted by Rev. James Cleveland, it sparked the international hit ‘Oh Happy Day’ by The Edwin Hawkins Singers, and finds expression today in the massive choirs assembled for prestigious black religious events.

Since the 1960s the more ‘commercial’ form of gospel has repeatedly followed the lead of popular black music, with groups performing disco, gospel funk, smooth soul ballads and most recently gospel rap, which may hark back in some way to the chanted narratives and social comment of The Golden Gate Quartet.

‘Sacred steel’ has developed in recent years. This springs from the musical tradition of the Keith and Jewel Dominions...

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


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