Gospel Music

In the context of music consumption, we seem to have Gospel Music as a subgenre of Christian Music. That is to say all Christian Music is not Gospel but all Gospel is Christian Music. My research reveals that there are also several subgenre of Gospel; there is Black Gospel which is then divided into Traditional, Urban, Contemporary and UK (British). Southern Gospel is another major subgenre as is Christian Country and Country Gospel and these two are found in the Country Music family tree as well. All of these types of music have had influence on Popular Music and vice versa. Today I will focus on the North American aspects, as noted above many of these genre have the same origin but (for the most part) with ethnicity and regionality giving us the different styles. This music is a cover song enthusiasts dream as ‘everyone’ was recording the same tried and true songs, the two hymns I mentioned above have been covered over 1,000 and 115 times respectively.

Southern Gospel

The origins of this subgenre come from the Southeast United States. It was the brought over from the hymn singing that originated in European Churches and then developed into its own style in the South. From this dynamic grew the Church Choir and its reach stretched to the communities at large. Although not exclusively, this was the music of White Americans. If we step out from the Church pews a bit here, I think the definition was largely a commercial one, directly related to the Recording Industry. In an earlier post I talked about the Bluegrass genre and religious songs that can traced back to before the 1870’s, they came from rural and Southern Church hymns. This in turn for example, presented itself in the music of the Carter Family in the 1920’s. While there are other names to mention, The Carters were pioneers of Folk, Bluegrass, Gospel and Country Music recording. Including most every Bluegrass/Country artist, a Gospel background was a part of singers early lives. Christian songs sung by someone other than your family or local Church congregation could be enjoyed through the radio and or attending a traveling revival. Then there were the few that could afford an admission fee to a major show/artist or maybe even buy a phonograph.

Johnny Cash was influenced by listening to Gospel radio, Dolly Parton sang hymns in Church starting at age six, Kitty Wells grew up listening to her Gospel singing mother and her first group sang Gospel songs. I have referenced many of the Country greats that recorded Gospel and Christian inspired tunes such as “I Saw the Light” by Hank Williams. Country legend Roy Acuff sang in his schools Chapel Choir and would record the hymn “The Great Speckled Bird“. The Gospel Quartet The Oak Ridge Boys had a couple of crossover songs and “Elvira” was the most well known. Randy Travis and Alan Jackson have as many or more Christian songs as they do mainstream hits.  This music is still very popular today and we can hear the stylings of many Gospel singers such as the Gaither Vocal Band (and friends) via television, radio, touring and multiple recordings.

Once the recordings of early Southern Gospel gained attention in the late 1920’s, it became another revenue stream in the music publishing and recording business. Not to say the singing in Churches became commercial but the records and artists were products of a soon burgeoning and still booming business. The organ or piano accompanied singing and sometimes acapella style in churches was mostly from the Hymn books called the Sacred Harp. These books were printed with different shapes such as circles, squares and triangles used to help guide the singer, each shape represented the notes such do, re, me etc. It is often referred to as Shaped Note singing that appears to have originated in New England in the late 1800’s but quickly moved to churches everywhere. From this type of singing emerged the Gospel Recording artists I mentioned above. The mainstay for many years seemed to be the male quartet, with the forefathers of The Oak Ridge Boys being The Statesmen Quartet,The Stamps Quartet, The Jordanaires, The Blackwood Brothers and a few family groups such as The Speer Family. These groups were singing what is often referred to as “that old time religion” music, and closely resembled what they sang in Church but delivered by professional voices and musicians with what would become very slick production and marketing.

As I have noted you can see the line blurs between Bluegrass, Country and Southern Gospel. However as we know there is much about Country Music that has little or no relation to Gospel or Christian Music.

Black Gospel

At about the same time as its “Southern” counterpart, Black Church Gospel was also being marketed by the recording industry. It’s history can be traced back to sacred music from the 1700’s thru to the early 1900’s. From it’s countries of origin, the evolution of modern Black Gospel is a blend of styles where the Traditional Spiritual meets the Church Hymns. Though not exclusive to Black Gospel the “call and response” was a big part of the structure to these songs. This singing and composition style was popularized by Minister and Composer Charles Albert Tindley in about 1920. This was followed by the rise in both the featured solo singer and the exuberant hand clapping, rhythm and movement seen in particular at the Holiness and Pentecostal Churches. This is not to say the more lively expression of faith was widely adopted by all in the Black Church Communities, in the Northern US especially there was a divide as many preferred the more somber traditional hymn singing. But the Great Migration was bringing Southern Blacks to New York, Philadelphia and Detroit. It was Chicago however that became the epicenter for this expanding music movement typified by a less subdued yet joyful method of praise. It was seen in many places of worship such as The Church of God In Christ.

Taking his cue from Charles Tindley, Thomas A. Dorsey (Take My Hand, Precious Lord) came to be known as The Father of Gospel Music. He started his Blues career after moving to Chicago in 1919 at age 20. Largely self taught he turned his Blues skills into writing and publishing, and with great success as he amassed over 2,000 compositions. For a time he was also the bandleader for the Wild Cat Jazz Band that backed Blues legend Ma Rainey, she, one might say was the antithesis of Church based Gospel. By 1928 he was writing Blues tinged Gospel Songs that put him at the center of the Black Church Gospel movement where the traditional was being replaced by the more jubilant and up-tempo songs.

Early names in Black Gospel recording include The Dixie Hummingbirds (I’ll Live Again) who were formed in 1927 and The Golden Jubilee Quartet. Black Male quartets were also represented by groups such as The Fairfield Four (they often actually had five members) and my research shows they would have influence on the above mentioned Southern Gospel Quartets (popularized in the 1960’s) in terms of style, performance and delivery.

Thomas Dorsey would mentor a number of youth, including Mahalia Jackson who with her own sense of style helped shape the face of Black Gospel in the 1940’s. The two toured throughout the US quite extensively for a number of years. Jackson covered the Hymn “Move On Up A Little Higher” in 1947 and it (combined with a re-recording in 1954) reportedly sold over one million copies. Written by a Baptist Minister by the name of W. Herbert Brewster who purpose wrote it for a small local religious play. It was first recorded by Brother John Sellers in 1946. Brewster said that “Mahalia knew what to do with it” and indeed she did, her version of the song is listed in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry, it’s on The Songs of the Century List and is one of the 500+ songs that Shaped Rock & Roll from the Hall of Fame. Mahalia Jackson has been dubbed The Queen of Gospel and she sang Amazing Grace at the funeral for the fourteen year old Emmett Till in 1955. Emmetts brutal murder and the aftermath fueled the Civil Rights movement that would bring much change, yet sadly as we’ve seen not enough.

Sallie Martin and Willie Mae Ford Smith were both associated with Dorsey and important singers in these early days and along with The Staple Singers they all formed what is referred to as the influential, Chicago Gospel. The ever so gifted Mavis Staples would have a successful solo career as well. There were of course many gospel singers elsewhere such as The Five Blind Boys of Alabama who were formed in 1939 and The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. Along with the amazing Winans Family from Detroit with a long history, there are of course more contemporary names such as Hezekiah Walker and Koryn Hawthorne.

It’s been well documented that Black Gospel had influence on Rock and Roll Pioneers such as Sam Phillips who recorded Gospel groups in 1952/53 at Sun Records in Memphis. Also directly influenced  were Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and the Chess (Records) brothers to name a few. Albeit Elvis was also exposed to Southern Gospel at his parents church where his relatives were members of the choir, he even learned his first guitar chords from Reverend Frank Smith. And, as we know he teamed up with a Southern Gospel group named The Jordanaires from 1956 to 1972. Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Gladys Knight and Lloyd Price sang in Gospel choirs at church. Cooke of course was part of one of the most prominent Gospel groups The Soul Stirrers before going mainstream in 1957. Both Chuck Berry and Big Mama Thornton had strong family ties to the Baptist Church where they were first exposed to music.

Gospel gave Aretha Franklin her start in music but in 1960 she followed Sam Cooke to be among the first Gospel Singers to go mainstream. I have referenced Aretha Franklin dozens of times as her influence was vast and is seen in many genre and singers still today and she never totally left her Church roots.

There is another influencer, (no not on Tik Tok) that I have made mention of a number of times, including my very first blog post, but I have not done much in terms of telling her story, that is about to change today.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

In the minds of many, including myself she is (among other things) the most influential artist to come from Black Gospel. After she first wooed audiences at the Cotton Club in 1938 she would appear at the Apollo, The Paramount, Carnegie Hall and other venues across the US and UK. She could write songs, play the guitar like few others in the world and had a remarkable singing voice. You will see references to her as The Godmother of Rock & Roll and she was inducted into the R&R Hall of Fame in 2018 as an Early Influencer. I point out that since the Hall began inductions in 1986 it’s an honour that many believe was long overdue. If you haven’t already, listen to some of the Youtube clips I have provided or on your favorite streaming service and you’ll hear why many think so much of her.

She was born Rosetta Nubin in Cotton Plant Arkansas on March 20, 1915. It seems researchers disagree on her birth surname but do agree her mother Katie was a worker on a Cotton Farm. Rosetta’s mother was also a mandolin player and active in the Pentecostal church and choir. There’s some evidence that the man known to be her father, Willis Atkins may have been a singer, but it’s clear he had little to do with her upbringing. Rosetta was a child prodigy and began playing guitar and performing at age four. Her mother would form a touring troupe and Rosetta would join them as one of the lead stars at age six. At that time the two settled in Chicago and made a living performing in Churches, at Religious Revivals and touring the country with Rosetta the star performer in many Gospel shows. In 1934 at age 19 and through the urging of her mother she married a Preacher named (Thomas) Tharpe and she would keep that as her stage name. The marriage only lasted about four years and she would have relationships thereafter and had no children.

Rosetta moved to New York with her mother, there she would record for the first time on October 31 in 1938. She had teamed up with the newly formed band led by Lucky Millinder who would later employ the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Wynonie Harris. Rosetta’s first Gospel songs, “That’s All“, “My Man and I” and “The Lonesome Road” were a great success. She also recorded “Rock Me” which was an adaptation of a Thomas Dorsey song, first recorded by Charles Beck and released in 1938. Backed by Millinders Swing Band combined with her powerhouse voice it had a completely different sound than the original by Beck. So much so it was considered quite scandalous by the Gospel audience. As were her live shows with the band, but she continued to bring in large crowds at both the Clubs and Gospel shows. Her continued performances to secular and White listeners led to something of a falling out with some of the Gospel crowd. She tried to return to her roots but her recording contract with Millinder demanded the more secular songs-but she still drew a large audience in all formats.

You will find many references to other artists such as Mahalia Jackson and Sam Cooke in particular as the first Gospel singers to take the genre or move their careers mainstream, but before them it was Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Her Gospel and mainstream recordings were very popular with both Black and White audiences. I am unable to find numbers on her record sales which I find a bit disturbing given her prominence. However most certainly, collectively her records would have sold in the millions.

She performed through the WWII years and appeared on a V-disc (Victory) which were special recordings sent to troops overseas. Her 1944 recording of “Strange Things Happening Every Day” with the Decca Records Boogie Woogie Pianist Sammy Price has been identified as a contender for the first Rock and Roll Song. Throughout the 1940’s she and her then partner and protege Marie Knight would continue playing live performances and did some sporadic recording. In 1947 at Macon City Auditorium (Georgia), Tharpe gave a 14 year old Richard Penniman (Little Richard) an opportunity to open her show after overhearing him sing some of her songs. After a tragedy in Marie’s life she left Rosetta and the music business but they remained friends. Through to the early 1950’s she would play to packed houses, she was a legitimate Superstar.

As a publicly stunt in 1951 she was married at Griffith Stadium in Washington in front of some 25,000 people, followed by many memorable performances by the lead Gospel voices of the day. The sham marriage to Russell Morrison, a man she barely knew really just left her with a new and incompetent manager and a controlling husband. However it seems from people who knew her that she wanted to have a husband, and indeed she would stay in that relationship until her death.

Rosetta would employ several female Gospel backup singers known as The Rosettes. In the 1950’s she continued performing and at one show, after the initial surprise (to both Rosetta and the Audience) of the promoter booking a White group, she would use the all male The Jordanaires as a backup group for many tours and recordings, long before they sang with Elvis Presley. He is said to have been amazed at both her singing and guitar playing. She was ripping, rocking and using distortion on the electric guitar before Chuck Berry and it may surprise you to learn that Jimi Hendrix was an admirer and used some of her techniques. Bob Dylan has been recorded talking about how impressive she was and such a “striking character”. As with all things, musical tastes change, and as much as she was a huge influence on Rock and Roll this was not recognized at the time.

As Rock and Roll took hold in the US, many Gospel and Blues artists began to tour the UK where there was still a demand for their style of music, as previously they only had the records. In 1957 British Jazz Trombonist Chris Barber hired her for a tour and she stole the show. In 1963/64 she played with Muddy Waters and others on a Blues and Gospel Tour that included her memorable appearance at an old Manchester Train Station, This was for a Granada TV special which was later seen by some 10 million people. In the audience that day were Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Keith Richards and Brian Jones. According to the shows producer Johnnie Hamp they all told him they were heavily influenced by her performance. Rosetta would tour Europe quite extensively in 1966 and 67.

For her instruments she played acoustic guitar as she began before the advent of the eclectic guitar but by the mid 1940’s she adopted the Gibson L-5. For a louder sound she often used the steel bodied resonator guitar invented by John Dopyera, later to be known as the Dobro which is now the generic name for most any resonator guitar. From the mid 1950’s she played almost exclusively various custom made Gibson Guitars such as the White Les Paul. Gibson released a Signature Rosetta Tharpe L-5 Electric Guitar in 1962 (picture). She was also a capable piano player.

The loss of her mother Katie Bell Nubin in 1968 had a devastating impact on Rosetta. Her final tour and recordings were in 1970 but the last release of her music that I can find was from 1969. By this time she still had a small fan base but had fallen well out of popular fashion. In 1970 she was suffering from diabetes, she had a stroke and her leg was amputated. She was all but forgotten by most, however she still continued to perform when she could. After 54 years of performing it had taken its toll and she died the night before a planned recording session in Philadelphia at age 58, October 9, 1973.

Mismanagement played a large part but where her money went is a mystery. After a quiet funeral in a half empty church, she was buried at Northwood Cemetery in Philadelphia, her still husband/manager Russell Morrison claimed he could not afford a gravestone. To myself and others this was a travesty, her grave went unmarked for 36 years until a 2009 benefit concert raised funds for a rose coloured monument. Where were the Churches that she had raised so much money for? Where were the record Companies and promoters that she had no doubt made millions for?

There is more to her story and you can find some of it on Vimeo and Youtube, it’s the documentary by Mick Csaky titled The Godmother of Rock & Roll: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, it’s well worth an hour of your time. If you didn’t know much about her before reading this the only thing I can say in closing is that she was one of the most talented, influential and dynamic performers in history and she should be celebrated as much as Elvis or Chuck Berry or any other name you want to think about.

Secular Music

Black Gospel and Southern Gospel are not that dissimilar in many ways and they certainly share many of the same songs. The Church is responsible for bringing music education to both the parochial and secular primary school curriculum in the mid to late 1800’s in the United States, Canada and the UK. So for the secular youth there was certainly some exposure to singing, instruments and rudimentary knowledge of reading musical notes. In these early years much of the music programing in schools came from Religious leaders but was not considered to be related to Gospel Music.

However at Christmas time nativity plays were performed at both religious and secular schools. There is of course a very long history of Secular (Non Church) music but still with Christian influences. So there are many parallels with International and American Folk music and this influence can be seen in the development of many of the same genre that Gospel has touched. For the most part I don’t think we make the direct connection in the secular world to Spiritual and Religious songs. So, I don’t want to leave the impression that it was Gospel music alone that shaped Rock and Roll or modern pop music but it was clearly a major influence.

If we look beyond the Church and it’s Parishioners, the many forms of Gospel have had a formative impact on many music genre, just two more names I would like to mention. Opera Singer Marian Anderson had a church choir background as did Sarah Vaughan, who had one of the finest voices in the history of Jazz vocals but we don’t think of them as Gospel singers. As already noted this impression of music from the Churches very much includes Bluegrass, Country, and newer subgenre like Christian Rock, Christian Metal, and the more contemporary forms of Christian and Gospel music. The largest impact to mainstream music has been the effect on R&B and Soul music.



Guitar Image 1

My apologies to my subscribers who received part of this post in error on April 5. Hopefully this one does work.

18 thoughts on “Gospel Music

  1. I love gospel music…the older kind. Our church does not use musical accompaniment. So…all the songs we do would have sounded the same in 1920 as they do today. Shall We Gather At The River is probably my favorite…that and Silent Night.
    Rosetta Tharpe was just awesome in so many ways. Her guitar playing and singing. She was the complete package.
    Again Randy another awesome post.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow Randy, once again you’ve blown me away with another exhaustive, well-researched and beautifully-written post! A little of what you’ve shared I already knew, mainly from having watched the Ken Burns series on Country Music. But I learned so much more from your wonderful article. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I appreciate all of the history you’ve compiled on the gospel genre. Some surprises in there about some of the more popular country stars having as many or more gospel recordings. I can take gospel music in small quantities as I get OD’d on joy lol.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m by no means a gospel expert, but I’ve yet to hear a gospel song that sucks. I find gospel singers oftentimes have incredible vocals and plenty of soul. I’m glad you dedicated a lot of space to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a true trailblazer and guitar pioneer. I think it’s quite telling that the likes of Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix paid attention to her!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Again Randy, a very comprehensive post, thanks..
    I recall hearing Mahalia Jackson many years ago- she struck my ear in a good way. Also, when Wilco toured here a few years back Mavis Staples was Wilco’s opening act. She still can sing, and her ‘You Are Not Alone’ written and produced by Jeff Tweedy won a grammy in 2010 as well. Well worthy, IMHO.
    I’m no way religious but some gospel songs are truly uplifting. ‘O Happy Day’ f’rinstance?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I think I already commented on this, but can’t seem to find it! Don’t ask. Really great comprehensive post about a genre of music that I have loved for a long time! And Sister Rosetta Thorpe is one of the best! Thank you for this. North

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s