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What Is Gospel Music?
Gospel music is a style of Christian music that has both inspired and drawn from popular music traditions. By definition, gospel music can derive from any number of ethnic styles and religious traditions, but in practice, Black American gospel music dominates the genre.
Many gospel songs emerged from traditional church hymns. Over time, gospel began incorporating traits of secular music—particularly country music, blues, and ragtime—which made the music as entertaining as it was reverent. Gospel's relationship with secular music ran in both directions; many gospel singers and soloists began their musical journeys singing in church before transitioning to popular music. Gospel artists including Little Richard and Aretha Franklin helped shape the sound of R&B and rock 'n' roll.
A Brief History of Gospel Music
Gospel music has deeply influenced American popular culture from its eighteenth-century origins to the present day.
- Anglican roots: Some of the most famous contemporary gospel songs, including "Amazing Grace" and "Rock of Ages," began as hymnal songs in the eighteenth century Anglican church. These hymns would later be set to the melodies we know today.
- Defined in the nineteenth century: The phrase "gospel music" appears to have first been printed in 1874, when composer and Baptist evangelist Philip Bliss published Gospel Songs: A Choice Collection of Hymns and Tunes. The word "gospel" referred to the Biblical message of Jesus Christ as the son of God. The published music was generally catchier and more accessible than most church hymns of the era.
- Country music and rural gospel: While Black American gospel music would eventually become the prevailing style, from the 1870s through the 1920s, gospel music centered around white churches and the country music tradition. Prominent gospel artists of the era included Ira D. Sankey, George F. Root, and the Carter Family.
- Gospel in the Black church: Praise songs have long been a part of the Black church, and popular recordings of Black gospel music gained recognition in the 1920s and 1930s. Early Black American gospel stars included the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, Sister Rosetta Tharpe (an early progenitor of rock ‘n’ roll), and Arizona Dranes.
- Formal gospel music publishing: Chicago musician Thomas A. Dorsey saw great potential in Black American gospel music, and in 1930, he began a publishing house dedicated to the art form. As a songwriter, Dorsey came to be known as the “Father of Gospel Music” and partnered with vocalist Mahalia Jackson to consciously usher gospel music into popular culture.
- The golden age of gospel: Black gospel music reached its popular peak in the decades surrounding World War II. Vibrant gospel scenes emerged in cities touched by the Great Migration (the Black American emigration from the South to the North)—including New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. Major gospel stars of the era included Roberta Martin, Clara Ward, Pilgrim Travelers, Soul Stirrers, and the Reverend James Cleveland.
- Crossover artists: By the 1950s and 1960s, many gospel artists began forays into mainstream secular music. Soul and R&B singers such as Little Richard, Aretha Franklin, and Sam Cooke all learned their trade in Baptist and Pentecostal gospel choirs, which laid the foundation for secular R&B and rock music. Gospel music also deeply influenced the sound of soul in the 1960s. In more recent decades, artists like Kirk Franklin and Yolanda Adams have toggled back and forth between gospel and secular music, selling millions of records in the process.
- Urban contemporary gospel: In the 1970s, artists like the Clark Sisters, Andrae Crouch, Edwin Hawkins, Yolanda Adams, and Kirk Franklin merged spiritual music with the popular styles of the time. Today’s gospel artists delve into new popular music styles such as hip-hop and contemporary R&B.