Gospels are a genre of ancient literature concerning the life of Jesus. The word derives from the Old English word for "Good News", a translation of the Greek word euangelion. This refers to the 'good news' being told— that Jesus has redeemed a fallen world. Each of the books reveals, by preaching and reinterpretation, the story of Jesus Christ's life, the "Good News" about Christ's life and presence. The word gospel can also have a narrower meaning, especially when used by evangelical Christians, to mean the specific actions of Christ that are necessary for salvation.
The use of gospel (or its Greek equivalent) to denote a particular genre
of writing dates back to the 2nd century.
In musical terms, the word of Jesus is put into a swinging beat where all participants sing along with the priest.
In the black culture of the first half of the 20th cent., gospel music was
considered antithetical to blues and jazz, despite their similarity of origins,
and gospel performers rarely sang in nonreligious settings. Later, as all
three forms became popular outside the black community, they were less mutually
exclusive. A strong gospel element underlies the “soul” jazz and
rock music of the 1950s and 60s. Composer and pianist Thomas A. Dorsey, often
referred to as “the father of Gospel Music,” played a major role
in the development of gospel music. Important gospel performers have included
Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Alex Bradford, James Cleveland, The
Swan Silver Tones, The Mighty Clouds of Joy, The Dixie Hummingbirds, and The
Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. Pop singers who have been heavily influenced
by gospel include Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles. While the greatest era
in gospel is widely considered to be c.1945–1965, the tradition and
the music remain vital in contemporary culture.
While many white musicians gravitated toward country, folk, and old-timey
music to express their spirituality outside of traditional Christian hymns,
Black Gospel music drew heavily upon the traditional spirituals that had been
passed down from the days of slavery, picking up its more driving rhythmic
emphasis from blues and early jazz. Composer and singer Thomas A. Dorsey crystallized
the style in 1932 with his epochal "Take My Hand, Precious Lord,"
and went on to compose a great many songs that later became standards.
When performed in the churches, the music was traditionally sung by a choir, with individual soloists sometimes taking the spotlight; this often happened in a form known as "call and response," in which either the choir or the soloist would repeat and/or answer the lyric which had just been sung by the other, with the soloist improvising embellishments of the melody for greater emphasis. As the music developed, these soloists became more and more virtuosic, performing with wild emotion (and, in the South, physicality) in order to properly express the spiritual ecstasy the music was meant to evoke.
The music was quite egalitarian in terms of gender, as both male and female performers — Brother Joe May, Rev. James Cleveland, Mahalia Jackson, the Clara Ward Singers, etc. — gained wide renown among both black and white audiences. The small-group format was also prevalent, with major figures including the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, the Soul Stirrers, the Swan Silvertones, and the Dixie Hummingbirds; in general, these groups placed a greater premium on smooth vocal harmonies, although some performances could approach the raucous energy (if not quite the huge sound) of a choir-with-soloist group.
As the years progressed, black gospel and black popular music influenced and borrowed from one another, reflecting the gradual change of emphasis toward R&B; black gospel also had an enormous impact on the development of soul music, which directed gospel's spiritual intensity into more secular concerns, and included a great many performers whose musical skills were developed in the church. As a recognizable style unto itself, black gospel music largely ceased to develop around the 1970s; progressing racial attitudes had helped black popular music reach wider audiences (and become more lucrative) than ever before, and tastes had turned towards the earthy hedonism of funk and the highly arranged, sophisticated Philly soul sound.
The former wasn't quite appropriate for worship, and it wasn't all that practical to duplicate the latter in church services. However, the traditional black gospel sound survived intact and was eventually augmented by contemporary gospel (an '80s/'90s variation strongly influenced by latter-day urban R&B); plus, singers like Whitney Houston continued to develop within its ranks.
The modern gospel style is barely sixty years old, but it continues a tradition of singing, preaching, and shouting familiar to generations of Black people. Any gospel singer, even the "hippest," can summon up feelings of nostalgia for a simpler time when everybody believed and participated in the old-time religion.
The singers are evoking a real experience, acting, as it were, as the custodians of tradition. In so doing, they can induce a camaraderie that quickly draws together a churchful of strangers. "You know I didn't always come from Chicago," the lead for the Pilgrim Jubilees tells a crowd. "Didn't always have it so easy. My brothers and I grew up in a little three-room shack in Houston, Mississippi. We didn't have much back then, church, but we had a family altar. Aw, you all don't know what I'm talking about ..." everybody laughs because everybody does.
Another of gospel's most striking traditional resources is the male quartet. Self-styled "gospel groups" are a recent phenomenon, but quartets were traveling and singing church music long before Thomas A. Dorsey and Sallie Martin helped dream the traveling groups into existence. Black neighborhoods are filled with men who discuss quartet with the same expertise and partisanship they extend to boxing or basketball, down to the smallest details of local origin.
By 1950 there were dozens of gospel hits heard everywhere in Black neighborhoods, on street corners, through open windows, down alleys, in bars and restaurants. A whole generation grew up listening to the:
Trumpeteers' "Milky White Way,"
the Georgia Peach's "Shady Green Pastures,"
the Angelic Gospel Singers' "Touch Me Lord Jesus,"
Mahalia's "Move On Up a Little Higher,"
the Martin Singers' "Old Ship of Zion,"
the Pilgrim Travelers' "Mother Bowed,"
The Ward Singers' "Surely God Is Able,"
the Five Blind Boys' "Our Father"
and the Bells of Joy's "Let's Talk About Jesus."
To the gospel lover, Soul and Rap are for the children. Gospel, like blues and jazz, is the music of grown-ups. The music of feeling.
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