African-American gospel music

African-American gospel music
   While absorbing American Protestant religious music, African Americans molded it to fit their own needs. In the process, they created a unique and influential art form that has influenced religious music around the world.
   The spirituals sung by black slaves had a double meaning, combining traditional Christian themes of salvation and life after death with a longing for freedom from slavery and life outside of the slave culture. To the slave, the Promised Land could be heaven - or the states across the Jordan (Ohio) River. A typical lyric says: "O, blow your trumpet, Gabriel/Blow your trumpet louder/And I want dat trumpet to blow me home/To my new Jerusalem."
   In the decades after the Civil War, with the emergence of black Methodist and Baptist denominations, a complex interaction developed between the largely segregated Protestant churches. Whites borrowed from African Americans to create white spirituals, largely devoid of the immediate physical references in their black counterparts. (Even in the slave era, especially at camp meetings, whites had observed the enthusiastic singing by black participants, often accompanied by hand clapping, dancing, and body movements. Spontaneous improvisation on older songs would transform them, often to the consternation of the whites.)
   At the same time, black churches borrowed heavily from the dominant European tradition of hymnody, often mediated through the music programs within the new African-American colleges. However, black churches could often not afford such tools of European hymnody as organs and hymnbooks. Besides, the dominant white community identified Euro-American culture with civilization; their attempt to "civilize" as well as Christianize African Americans was not always welcome. Instead, African-American colleges celebrated spirituals as a valued illustration of ethnic creativity, and nourished them through choral performances.
   By the end of the 19th century, an African-American style of worship and religious music had emerged. "Gospel music" developed within the black HOLINESS and Pentecostal churches (often called the Sanctified churches), adding to the earlier spirituals a strong beat (provided by hand clapping and foot stomping) and the beginnings of instrumental accompaniment - drums, pianos, guitars, and (at a later date) organs. This music eventually found its way into the older, more conservative denominations, in small doses.
   Gospel music was taken in a different direction by Baptist musician Thomas Dorsey (1899-1993). Heavily influenced by secular black music from the blues to ragtime, he created an African-American urban gospel music designed to be performed by professionals, or at least accomplished amateurs (the church choir). Other outstanding practitioners such as Mahalia Jackson (1911-72) and James Cleveland (1931-91) left their own marks on the tradition.
   Today, gospel music in all its variety may be found in all segments of the black church. It exists not only as a means of worshipping God but of preserving African-American identity.
   Further reading:
   ■ Mellone Burnim, The Black Gospel Music Tradition: Symbol of Ethnicity (Bloomington: Indiana University, M.A. thesis, 1980)
   ■ Sherry Sher-rod DuPree, African-American Good News (Gospel) Music (Washington, D.C.: Middle Atlantic Regional Press, 1993)
   ■ Michael W. Harris, The Rise of Gospel Blues: The Music of Thomas Andrew Dorsey in the Urban Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992)
   ■ Joan R. Hillsman, Gospel Music: An African American Art Form (Washington, D.C.: Middle Atlantic Regional Press, 1990)
   ■ Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans, 2nd. ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1983).

Encyclopedia of Protestantism. . 2005.

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