Modern Gospel Music History
Gospel music has evolved and transformed throughout history. It has seen times of tremendous success and popularity, and times of trouble and unpopularity. The most prominent features of gospel are its blues-like quality, highly embellished melodic lines, use of special vocal effects, heavily syncopated rhythms, and the great emphasis on a special accompaniment, usually piano, organ, guitar, or instrumental ensemble (Chasteen, 1975).
The creation of Sunday School in the 19th century created a demand for songs to be used in them, these songs are the earliest examples of what today is known as Gospel Hymns (Chasteen, 1975). In the 1920’s Thomas Dorsey is responsible for the success of Negro gospel music and creating a new gospel music genre “Gospel Blues”. He did this by combining the good news of the gospel with the bad news of the blues (Gentry, 1969). In the 1930’s/1940’s, quartets in black churches began to sing gospel (Samuel, 1993). Then, in the 50’s, Reverend James Cleveland altered the sound of gospel with “big choir” sound. He is the founder of the Gospel Music Workshop of America Inc (Samuel, 1993). When the song “O Happy Day” took off in the 60’s playing on a variety of radio stations, this triggered it’s popularity with college students. Prior to this Gospel Music was considered “low class”, but once college educated students started to like it this advanced its status in society (Samuel, 1993). From the 70’s, 80’s, to present day; gospel music has intertwined with blues, jazz, rap, country, and rock music (GMA, 2004).With this, gospel music has transformed into something that is not geared to a specific church or race. Rather, the idea is that gospel music has recently been breaking music barriers in order to appeal to a wider variety of people. The success of this can be seen in the GMA Hall of Fame inductees. Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash are inductees; neither of which would be classified as the stereotyped “Gospel” artist (GMA, 2004). Another example of Gospel music adapting with the times is WORD Inc. WORD Inc. is a Jesus Rock Label developed by Myrrh Records, this music relates to rock and the top 40, but with a religious message (Chasteen, 1975).
Overtime, gospel music changed from being strictly Evangelical and used in churches, to appealing to a wider audience by using musical influences from a variety of genres including rock, rap, and pop. The “bible belt” stereotypes no longer apply: currently the top markets for Gospel music are NYC, LA, Chicago, San Francisco, and Philadelphia (Price, 2000). The development and success of Gospel music can be seen most clearly in one thing, the Grammy Awards (which have been going on for the past 50 some years). Out of the 109 categories at the Grammy’s, 7 of them are for Gospel music. But furthermore, the categories are arranged by “types of Gospel”. According to the Grammy Awards website these 7 categories are: Best Gospel Performance, Best Gospel Song, Best Rock or Rap Gospel Album, Best Pop/Contemporary Gospel Album, Best Southern, Country, or Bluegrass Gospel Album, Best Traditional Gospel Album, and Best Contemporary R&B Gospel Album. These categories acknowledge that there area variety of types of Gospel music, and that it cannot all be stereotyped as religious or geared to a specific church or audience. The ability of Gospel music to change with the times, has lead to its success and kept it alive and thriving in the music markets today.
By Amanda Ward