History of Black Gospel
GLORY HALLELUJAH: The Golden Age of Gospel
by Michael Corcoran
On an unseasonably breezy August afternoon in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was outside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. ready to give the speech of his life. But first there would be songs, untamed by social order, from a dignified, 260-pound African American queen who contorted her face, jerked her body and chomped on lyrics as if a legacy of suffering flowed through her.
Mahalia Jackson. Could any name better fit the physical and spiritual embodiment of Mother Church? Ma- HAIL- Yeah. There’s a song in those syllables.
“How I got over,” she began, softly. “Well, how I got over,” her voice gained strength in the repetition. “Well, my soul looks back and wonders how I got over.” Like most gospel performances, the song grew in intensity with each verse and the crowd’s response built from murmur to “Amen!” shouts. It took several minutes for the energized crowd of 200,000 to settle down, then Dr. King stepped up to the podium. “I have a dream,” the Civil Rights leader intoned, “that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood.”
After that historic speech, the crowd joined arms and sang “We Shall Overcome,” an update of the old gospel song “I’ll Overcome.”
It was appropriate that the Civil Rights movement adopt as its soundtrack a style of music rooted in the African American struggle against opression. The church has long provided a sanctuary for those who wish to express their blackness in all its glory.
Mahalia Jackson would sing for Dr. King one last time. It was at his funeral in 1968 and the song, second only to “Amazing Grace” in the hearts of black churchgoers, was “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” written by Thomas A. Dorsey in the midst of paralyzing grief. After his wife had passed away in childbirth in 1932 and his newborn son died days later, Dorsey sought comfort at the piano and the beautiful song about going forward from tragedy just overcame the writer, as all great compositions do.
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me on
That gospel standard would be sung again, four years later, when Jackson, the most powerful black woman in America, passed on at age 60. The memorial service at Chicago’s Arie Crown Theater ended with Aretha Franklin, the former Mahalia acolyte who went on to become “Lady Soul,” wrapping herself around “Precious Lord.” When it was over the audience applauded, unusual reaction at a funeral, but not everyone approved. “Worst thing I ever heard,” Dorsey’s longtime associate Sallie Martin was overheard grumbling. “A nightclub singer at a gospel singer’s funeral?”
Never mind that Aretha, like such R&B/pop acts as Wilson Pickett, Lou Rawls, the Staple Singers, Johnny Taylor, Billy Preston and Dinah Washington, began her singing career in the gospel field or that she was always quick to acknowlege such church singers as Clara Ward, Marion Williams and Bessie Griffin as influences. That her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin of Detroit’s Bethlehem Baptist Church, was one of the most powerful and respected ministers in the country carried little weight with the irascible Martin or other gospel hard liners who believe the spiritual and the secular should always be kept separate. You don’t cross over to the pop music field, you defect, as R&B superstar Sam Cooke found whenever he joined his old gospel group, the Soul Stirrers, for a song and a voice from the crowd would invariably yell, “Get that blues singer off the stage!”
Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a great blues guitarist as well as gospel belter, was almost stripped of her “Sister” rank by shocked churchgoers in the early ’40s when she sang religious songs with an 11-piece jazz band. Clara Ward and the Ward Singers, meanwhile, were openly chastized when they traded their choir robes for sequined gowns and took their act to Las Vegas. Though they meet an hour before dawn, Saturday night and Sunday morning are polar opposites in the minds of many purists. The Lord doesn’t shake hands with the devil.
But what is the gospel music of syncopated handclaps, thumping pianos and wailing vocalists if not, simply, spiritualized secular music? Willie Mae Ford Smith used to call her gritty, downhome style of church singing “Christian blues” and gospel’s greatest songwriter Dorsey began his career as a juke joint piano player. Just as bars and liquor stores often reside next to churches in predominantly black neighborhoods, gospel and blues have co-existed in tight quarters ever since they both grew out of “Negro spirituals.” Some stations in the ’40s and ’50s, including 50,000- watt Nashville station WLAC, aired them side by side. Many of the same independent labels that trafficked in R&B or “race” records – including Apollo, Peacock, Savoy, Vee-Jay, Specialty and Excello – signed gospel acts as well. Disregard the lyrics and gospel is just an annointed step from rhythm and blues.
But you can’t diminish the importance of the words in these sermons set to music. The power, the rhythm, the urgency of great gospel music springs from lyrics of praise. The blues singer is all alone in this world, but the gospel singer is part of a family of faith. There’s a sense of stability, an air of confidence in the fundamental African American Christian belief that God has control over every aspect of their being. “No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that rock I’m clinging,” goes the old Quaker hymn, which would later be gospelized. “It sounds an echo in my soul, how can I keep from singing?”
An Aretha in every church
For every great church singer who went on to the pop charts, there are hundreds, thousands maybe, equally gifted, who stayed loyal to gospel. These include the great quartet singers Rebert H. Harris of the Soul Stirrers, Claude Jeter of the Swan Silvertones, Julius Cheeks of the Sensational Nightingales, Archie Brownlee of the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi and Ira Tucker of the Dixie Hummingbirds. These guys made Little Richard sound like Chubby Checker. They were singing soul music and doowop in the late ’30s, before those sub-genres had names. But when the big pop contracts were dangled in front of them, they chose to keep their deal with the Lord to use all their talent in praise of the one who gave it to them.
There are also incredible singers who air out their heavenly gift every Sunday, then go to work cleaning motel rooms on Monday. Gospel soloists are predominantly female and many not known beyond their congregations could’ve been the next Aretha Franklin (whom, it’s worth noting, was merely one of many great gospel singers before she landed on her lofty perch as pop’s greatest voice). But stardom wasn’t in God’s plans for these wailing, growling, shrieking church ladies. Instead they exemplified the splendid anonymity that makes the history of gospel music so fascinating. The enthusiast becomes a prospector for golden echoes.
Though generally acknowleged as 1945- 1960, the glory years of gospel can be traced as far back as the 1920’s, when a new crop of blues-based religious songs grew in popularity so quickly that the Baptist Church had to begrudgingly endorse them or lose parishioners to the more fervent Pentecostal services. The people wanted the new intensity – jubilation, not assimilation – and eventually the bluesy gospel songs gained respectability and crossed denominational lines to become the preferred church music of most black Christians.
Resistance to innovations in religious music goes back to the early 1700’s when a British pastor named Dr. Isaac Watts realized that the stodgy hymns of the day, taken straight from scripture and delivered at a plodding pace by a monotonous congregation, did not do justice to the Creator. To Watts, religious songs were a personal offering of praise and therefore should feature a more glorious presentation and heartfelt sentiment.
Almost three centuries later, the Five Blind Boys of Alabama followed that edict when they gave the old Dr. Watts hymn, “Every Time I Feel the Spirit,” their own robust spin.
Climbing Jacob’s ladder
Updated ancient Protestant hymns- from “Amazing Grace” (by England’s John Newton, though it’s often credited to Dr. Watts) to “Oh Happy Day,” a 1969 pop hit for the Edwin Hawkins Singers, make up much of the contemporary gospel songbook, but there’s no way to overstate the influence of African American compositions of the 1800s. “Negro spirituals” found slaves bringing the rhythms and melodies of their African homeland to tales of Old Testament heroes. While they couldn’t sing openly about their own desire to be free, they could rejoice in the story of Exodus, when the children of Israel yearned to be liberated from bondage. When slaves sang “Go down Moses, way down in Egypt land/ Tell old Pharaoh to let my people go,” they did so with a vigor that suggests deep personal connection. Heavenly salvation and earthly freedom became intertwined. Those who embraced Christianity were told that great rewards awaited believers who endured great
In the years directly following the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865, many newly free blacks discarded the spirituals as reminders of a time they wanted to forget. They were called “sorrow songs,” these folk tunes that spoke of a weary people held captive and beat down because of their race. But there was no getting over the songs, which resonated so deeply with listeners. Post-slavery singing groups like the Fisk Jubilee Singers trained their voices to sing the cultured songs of European composers, but it was always “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Ezekial Saw the Wheel” and the rest of the slave songs segment of the program that brought audiences to their feet.
So many old spirituals, such as “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep,” “Didn’t It Rain,” “Jacob’s Ladder,” and “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord” endure today, because they provide the same lift, the same kinship through melody, as they did 150 years ago.
Blues music also sprung from the spirituals, with such bleak numbers as “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See” and “Steal Away To Jesus” laying the foundation for the lyrical realism that would be the domain of Delta bluesmen. But there’s also great release in the growling rhythms. Just as the slaves sang “The Lord Delivered Daniel (Why Not Me)” to hoist their spirits, blues singers shout about no-good liars and cheats as a way to get over them.
Music is the language of the soul, that invisible entitity that preachers are always trying to save. Music expands the people who create it. It diverts, elates and comforts.
The Dorsey bounce
The man they call “the Father of Gospel” began his career as “Georgia Tom,” a piano thumper for the likes of Tampa Red and Ma Rainey. Thomas A. Dorsey, who died in 1993 at age 93, was not the first songwriter to set religious themes to secular styles. Dorsey’s earliest gospel songs, in 1926, were preceeded by more than a decade by “We’ll Understand Him Better By & By” and “Take Your Burden To the Lord” from Philadelphia preacher Charles A. Tindley.
But Tindley’s tunes didn’t have “the Dorsey bounce.” The real revolution in religious music came when Dorsey melded the language and concerns of the common churchgoers to
sophisticated variations of the blues on such standards as “Peace In the Valley.” Based in the gospel capital of Chicago, this son of a Georgia preacher spent most of the 1920’s alternating between writing saucy double entendre numbers like “Tight Like That,” which paid the bills, and composing such sacred tunes as “If You See My Savior” and “What Could I Do.” Following a nervous breakdown in 1928, Dorsey realized his musical double life was weighing heavily on his psyche so he gave up the blues and threw himself fulltime into spiritual music. Among his credits are “Hide Me In Thy Bosom” (renamed “Rock Me” by Sister Rosetta Tharpe), “Search Me Lord,” a big hit for Brother Joe May and “I’m Going To Live the Life I Sing About In My Song,” a jab at “backsliders” who, literally, don’t practice what they preach.
While Dorsey was, in the words of Mahalia Jackson “our Irving Berlin,” a host of gospel Gershwins emerged during the nascent years to enlarge the canon of church music, creating a repertoire of songs that have each been recorded dozens of times. These include:
* Lucie Campbell (1885- 1963). As a board member of the National Baptist Convention, Memphis native Campbell was instrumental in publishing “Gospel Pearls,” which included songs of the new composers, in 1921. The first woman to receive recognition within the national gospel scene, Campbell is best known for writing “Jesus Gave Me Water,” a hit for the Soul Stirrers and “Touch Me Lord Jesus” by the Angelic Gospel Singers.
* William Herbert Brewster (1897- 1987). Gospel’s greatest lyricist, this Memphis preacher found inspiration in his sermons and created a body of work that includes Mahalia Jackson’s signature tune “Move On Up a Little Higher,” “Surely God Is Able” by the Ward Singers and and “How I Got Over,” recorded by countless artists. He was also one of the first writers to meld the spiritual with the political and his songs were often sung at civil rights marches.
* Roberta Martin (1907- 1969). This Arkansas native’s Roberta Martin Singers- an ensemble of male and females that included Delois Barrett, Norsalus McKissick and Bessie Folk – pioneered choral arrangements that would be the basis of community church choirs decades later. Her songs, including “Try Jesus, He Satisfies” and “God Is Still On the Throne” exemplify the refinement she brought to Pentecostal “shout songs.” Her piano accompaniment is still the model for church playing today.
* Kenneth Morris (1917- 1988). Born in New York, he came to Chicago with his jazz band to play the 1931 World’s Fair, and never left. Credited with popularizing the organ in gospel music, Morris was a masterful arranger whose “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” is the definitive version. His best-known compositions include “Dig a Little Deeper,” “Does Jesus Care?” and “Yes, God Is Real.” In 1940 he teamed with Sallie Martin to form the Martin & Morris publishing house, the biggest in gospel for more than 50 years.
Before partnering with Morris, Martin, a marvelous bluesy singer with a head for business, teamed with Dorsey to establish the first publishing house for black gospel compositions in 1932. The same year, the pair helped organize the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses to help teach these new songs to music directors from all over the country. To demonstrate the material- and push sales of his sheet music – Dorsey hired an up-and-coming singer named Mahalia Jackson. But it seems that even “the father of gospel” was resistant to change and when Jackson’s voice took off on flights of improvisation, moaning and slurring and bending notes, Dorsey wondered aloud if she could tone it down.
He soon realized that request was as futile as asking the wind not to blow.
Jackson couldn’t help herself when she was overcome by the spirit, a quality she had picked up as a girl in her native New Orleans, where the yelps and howls and fervent stomping of storefront Holiness churches were unavoidable. A lifelong Baptist, Jackson nonetheless credits “Sanctified” services with influencing her unbridled delivery.
“Everybody in there sang and stomped their feet and sang with their whole bodies,” Jackson recalled in “Movin’ On Up,” her 1966 autobiography. “They had a beat, a powerful beat, a rhythm we held on to from slavery days, and their music was so strong and expressive, it used to bring tears to my eyes.”
“Saved, sanctified and filled with the Holy Ghost”
Indeed, the roots of the “hard gospel” style Jackson perfected can be traced to the Pentecostal/ Holiness movement at the turn of the century, when the “shout songs” became synonymous with the holy ghost possessing a soul. Churchgoers spoke in tongues, rolled in the aisles, waved their arms wildly, shouted “Hallelujah” and clapped their hands in sanctified percussion as the pianist pounded away on an untuned upright. As the preachers wailed and raged, the music matched the mood. But the mainstream black Baptist and Methodist churches were embarassed by such savage displays. Their dignified worship services, aimed at reversing Jim Crow era preconceptions of ignorance and savagery, were being undercut by the “holy rollers,” who were becoming a national joke.
But an increasing number of people- both black and white – were becoming interested in the Pentecostal doctrine and the new worship services that urged emotional release. The vortex of this impassioned twist on faith was at the pilgrimage of Pentecostal leaders to the Apostolic Faith Gospel Mission in Los Angeles in 1906. Being “saved, sanctified and filled with the Holy Ghost” by speaking in tongues was the theme at the event now commonly referred to as the Azusa Street Revival. Musical instruments, once considered the tools of the devil, were used to punctuate the testimony and wild foot-stomping dances called “shouting” broke out at will. A one-eyed black man named William Seymour preached the message of Pentecost in Acts 2:4 of the New Testament, which tells the story of the Holy Ghost descending on a gathering of Christ’s disciples in the form of tongues of fire. At Azusa Street, those overcome by the spirit talked in a Hebraic-sounding language (called “glossolalia”) which was translated by the preacher.
Although the Azusa Street Revival was racially integrated, the resulting new congregations were segregated by choice, with many of the whites present founding the Assemblies of God in Hot Springs, Ark. and other Pentecostal offshoots. Most of the African American Pentecostal churches were called Holiness, though an Azusa Street reveler named Charles Mason would return to Memphis to start the Church of God In Christ (COGIC), the launching pad for gospel greats Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Blind Willie Johnson, Marion Williams, Margaret Allison of the Angelic Gospel Singers, Ernestine Washington and Andrae Crouch.
A blind COGIC songleader named Arizona Juanita Dranes, who learned to play at Austin’s Institute for Deaf, Dumb and Blind Colored Youths from 1896-1912 invented “the gospel beat” in the 1920s, when she infused elements of barrelhouse and ragtime piano to sacred songs.
Even before the gospel revolution found a headquarters in Chicago, the word was being spread throughout the south by guitar evangelists, including Texan Blind Willie Johnson
(whose “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” was later covered by Led Zeppelin), and South Carolinans Rev. Gary Davis and Blind Joe Taggart. In Teague, Texas a mysterious figure named Washington Phillips blurred the line between the sacred and secular with the gritty “Denomination Blues,” covered years later by Ry Cooder.
In the Tidewater community of Virginia in the late ’20s/ early ’30s, such vocal groups as the Silver Leaf Quartet, Norfolk Jubilee Singers, the Golden Gate Quartet and the Harmonizing Four were applying a rhythmic beat to jubilee songs like “Down By the Riverside” and inspiring generations of gospel quartets. The fertile region in and around Birmingham, Ala., could boast the Foster Singers, the Famous Blue Jay Singers and the Birmingham Jubilee Singers, each forging a style of “folk gospel” by adapting the trained vocal harmonies of the Fisk Jubilee Quartet to a raucous church audience. Nashville’s Fairfield Four also revved up barbershop harmonies in the ’20s.
Stirring the soul in the great migration
The most influencial gospel quartets sprung out in the late ’30s, when the Soul Stirrers from Trinity, Tex., the Dixie Hummingbirds from Greensville, South Carolina and the Swan Silvertones of Knoxville, Tenn. injected some sanctified heat to the jubilee format and poured the foundation for soul music. It’s worth noting that the groups’ names didn’t have religious connotations, as the music created by the best quartets (add Harmonizing Four, Sensational Nightingales, Caravans and the Blind Boys) can be as scintillating to atheists as to diehard pew-warmers.
The Stirrers would prove to be the most important of the lot, with leader Rebert H. Harris slinging his elastic falsetto with an emotional intensity that would’ve been considered too flamboyant for the times if he wasn’t such a devout churchgoer. Able to gracefully bounce
between silky smoothness and grainy boister, Harris introduced to gospel such vocal techniques as melisma (drawing a single syllable over several notes) and delayed-time phrasing. The Stirrers were the first five-member quartet, sporting two lead singers so the four-part backing harmonies would not be disturbed when a singer stepped out front. The two main singers would often switch leads, increasing the frenzy with each turn, until members of the audience would “fall out” in an emotional heap. It’s amazing just how much power this a cappella group, which moved to Chicago in 1939, could stir up.
Though Chicago was the gospel Mecca in the ’30s, almost all of its major players were southern transplants with rural roots. Dorsey and Sallie Martin hailed from small towns in Georgia, Roberta Martin and Sister Rosetta Tharpe were Arkansas natives, Dorsey’s closest peer Theodore Frye came from Mississippi and Mahalia Jackson moved to Chi-town from New Orleans at age 16.
The Hummingbirds, meanwhile, relocated to Philadelphia, the #2 gospel stronghold, and the Swans drifted to Pittsburgh. They were all part of a national trend of rural Southern blacks migrating to urban industrial areas. Big city ghettos could be rough and confusing places for country folk, but the church offered a semblance of stability. Small, storefront chapels, which accounted for more than 75% of the 500 black places of worship in Chicago in the ’40s, represented an adaptation of the intimate rural churches to city life.
The new temptations, rejoiced in bawdy R&B records, lacquered the line between saints and sinners. You were either on a highway to hell or walking the path of righteousness, and the unambiguity of the choices galvanized gospel scenes all around the country. In St. Louis you had Willie Mae Ford Smith, Brother Joe May and Cleophus Robinson; Memphis was ruled by Brewster’s divine belter Queen Candice Anderson and the Spirit of Memphis quartet, featuring Silas Steele from the Famous Blue Jays; New York City served as homebase to that Arkansas belter Ernestine B. Washington and the Georgia Peach; Detroit was where you’d find the Meditations (with Della Reese), Wilson Pickett’s Violinaires, Wynona Carr and, of course, Aretha Franklin; Baltimore had the hit group CBS Trumpeters of “Milky White Way” fame; the Birmingham, Ala. scene was ruled by Dorothy Love Coates and Prof. Alex Bradford; Houston boasted the Pilgrim Travelers, who helped create the dramatic “mother song” sensation with 1948’s “Mother Bowed,” as well as Austin, Tex. transplants the Bells of Joy, who had a whopping 1951 hit with “Talk About Jesus.” The Consolers, the husband and wife duo of Sullivan and Iola Pugh represented Miami on the “gospel highway,” as the touring circuit was dubbed.
With the acceptance of the liberating new sounds, singing with abandon was the thing and good-natured competitions to “wreck a church” became common. A 1944 singing contest between two blind a capella groups, Alabama’s Happy Land Singers and the Jackson Harmoneers of Mississippi, was billed as “a battle between the Five Blind Boys of Alabama and the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi.” Led by Archie Brownlee (challenged only by Julius Cheeks of the Sensational Nightingales as the hardest singing man in gospel ), the Mississippi Blind Boys won the crowd, but both groups adopted their new names.
Before a 19-year-old Mississippi-born and Chicago-raised Sam Cooke joined the Soul Stirrers in January 1951, older churchgoers sat in the front and youngsters filled the back pews. But as soon as Cooke’s first single with the group, “Jesus Gave Me Water,” became a smash hit, seating preferences were flipped. Handsome, charming, sophisticated and possessing an impossibly smooth and athletic tenor, Cooke was gospel’s first official sex symbol.
Gospel has always been a sensual music, with singers quivering to get every last drop of passion and the congregation wailing in unbridled ecstacy when they feel the spirit. Gospel is music that gets all over you. In many songs, you can replace the name “Jesus” with that of a man or woman and end up with a steamy ballad. The gospel highway has been lined with groupies ever since the first masculine shouter dropped to his knees in song. Until Cooke, however, the link between the sexual and the spiritual was not so out in the open. Cooke’s predecessor R.H. Harris quit the Soul Stirrers when they were the most popular gospel group because he couldn’t take all the hypocrisy that snuck around on the long and lonely hours between performances. But by most accounts, Cook, as his name was spelled then, embraced the attention of jezebels.
That this handsome, talented, savvy man, the son of a Holiness preacher, died such a hideous, salicious death was a morality play of Biblical proportions.
Although details remain murky this many years later because there had only been a percursory investigation, biographers generally concur that Cooke had checked into the Hacienda motel in Los Angeles the night of Dec. 11, 1964 with a 22-year-old woman who was not his wife. (She would, months later, be arrested in a prostitution sting.) While he was taking a shower, she reportedly split with his pants and money. Enraged and thinking night manager Bertha Franklin might’ve been in on the fleece, Cooke charged into the lobby with his eyes aflame. Franklin claimed self-defense after she shot Cooke when he lunged at the gun she was pointing at him. She was cleared of any charges. “Lady, you shot me” were the last words intoned by that glorious voice which gave the world “You Send Me,” “Twistin’ the Night Away,” “Chain Gang” and many other hits.
Cleveland and the higher choir
When rock and roll emerged in the mid-’50s, with its ringing guitars and pounding pianos, gospel had a rival in musical intensity. Then in the ’60s, Motown put the Pentecostal handclaps to pop melodies to create a soul sensation. “Calling all around the world, are you ready for a brand new beat?” Martha Reeves and the Vandellas declared on “Dancing In the Streets” and it did seem that gospel was becoming passe. But L.A.’s Mighty Clouds of Joy, who formed in 1959 as unashamed Julius Cheeks acolytes, kept the quartet style thriving with frenetic stage shows that led to the nickname “the Temptations of Gospel.” Consecrated girl groups, the Caravans and the Ward
Singers, also remained wildly popular as the fifties became the sixties, with both entities stocking the gospel scene with solo acts for years to come. After payment disputes with Clara Ward’s notoriously stingy mother/manager Gertrude, Marion Williams, Frances Steadman, Kitty Parham and Esther Ford left the Ward Singers to form the Stars of Faith. The Caravans, meanwhile, were basically a group of lead singers, with Shirley Caesar, Inez Andrews, Dorothy Norwood, Imogene Green, Cassietta George and Bessie Griffin passing through, while Albertina Walker remained the constant.
Also from the ranks of the Caravans came James Cleveland, the group’s pianist and collaborator, who specialized in funkified arrangements of overdone songs like “That Old Time Religion.” Like Dorsey, Cleveland was a masterful piano player and prolific songwriter, penning more than 500 tunes before his death in 1991. But the main reason Cleveland has been tagged “the Father of Contemporary Gospel” was for his work to make the massive church choir the definitive sound of gospel today. It started in earnest, this renaissance of heavenly voices, with the 1963 hit “Peace Be Still,” recorded live (as were all Cleveland
choir albums) with the angelic choir of the First Baptist Church in Nutley, New Jersey.
A Chicago native, Cleveland began studying music at Dorsey’s Pilgrim Baptist Church under the tutelage of the legendary gospel sophisticate Roberta Martin. Just as Dorsey had organized gospel singers as a way to spread his songs, Cleveland founded the Gospel Workshop of America in 1968 to teach his material and that of other writers to church music directors from all over the country. Kirk Franklin, mimicking Cleveland’s gruff songleading (derived from the old Baptist “lining out” technique), is among Cleveland’s most successful followers. In the past few years a host of other young talents, including Yolanda Adams, Take 6, the Winans, Hezekiah Walker and Fred Hammond have kept gospel relevant.
The gospel tradition of looking down on those who push for change has also been kept alive. When reality hip hop infiltrated the religious music scene as “godsta” rap, many longtime churchgoers were besides themselves. By its nature, the church is a conservative establishment.
But to true gospel music fans, real talent wins out in the end. When music is performed with extraordinary skill and compassion, it testifies to the existence of God or at least the power of the Holy Ghost. For how could man alone be responsible for such glorious Creation? And why should the devil have all the good music?
“There is, in some of the African voices, a wild and touching pathos, which art can never reach,” New Englander Ethan Andrews wrote after witnessing a black church service in Baltimore. That his visit was in1835, it becomes apparent that the emotionally-charged spirit of black church music existed long before anyone started calling it “gospel.”
The most fulfilling music is that which is made not for money nor fame, but because it just has to come out. They can’t be contained, the voices that are unified, sanctified and possessed by a fiery spirit and so they burst out, reaching for heaven’s gate.