The Evolution of African-American Gospel Music in America

Essay by rotimi May 2004

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African American religious music is generally said to have originated from the time of slavery where Africans were brought to America to work on plantations. They were forced to adopt the language and religion of their masters, sing their songs, and in the process manifest their musical instincts in a body of songs known as the spirituals. Spirituals are often referred to as "sorrow songs" because many of them express the lamentations of Africans kidnapped from their motherland and brought to America to live a horrible life of slavery. They also represent great belief, hope, and faith for the slaves. The June 1967 edition of the Atlantic Monthly referred to Negro spirituals as the "vocal expression of the simplicity of their faith and the sublimity of their long resignation." These sacred slave folk songs were passed on by oral tradition through the slavery era, and were not written down until the Fisk Jubilee Singers toured the United States and Europe in the late 1800s.

Although many blacks regarded them as songs from a time they wished to forget, other races loved to hear them and these songs were, and still are published, recorded, and performed today as standard repertoire for many choral organizations. Gospel music as we know it today, is now part of the mainstream music; it is a profound force in the American culture and encompasses all forms of music. In this paper, I will discuss how gospel music began to evolve into mainstream music beginning in the early 1930s. I will also discuss how Father Thomas Dorsey, a blues singer, popularized gospel music and paved the way for many of the gospel artists today. Lastly, I will explain the variety of gospel music sung, the diversity of races involved in singing or producing the music, the different...