Black Gospel Music: A Tradition of Excellence
by Don Robertson
Originally published in 2002 on DoveSong.com
One of the sources of black gospel music was the black "jubilee" groups that were formed in colleges primarily located in the Southeast United States. These groups employed quartet singing with four-part harmony. One of the earliest and certainly the most successful of these groups was the Fisk University Jubilee singers, a male quartet that sang
Negro spirituals. The jubilee style of singing continued, while evolving, well into the 1940s.
Another early source of Negro gospel music, was the work that was accomplished by Charles Albert Tindley (1851-1933), a Philadelphia preacher who composed nearly 50 hymns, including such standards as Stand By Me, Nothing Between, Leave it There, and the important We'll Understand it Better By and By, composed in 1905.
Meanwhile, another tradition of church singing and composition sprang forth from the birth of Pentecostalism that occurred in the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles a year later. This important outpouring of divine spirit spawned a new music, called sanctified singing, and was pioneered by such people as Arizona Dranes, Rosetta Tharpe, Lucie Campbell, W. Herbert Brewster and Kenneth Morris, then reached a zenith in the 1930s when Thomas A. Dorsey in conjunction with such singers as Roberta Martin, Mahalia Jackson, Robert Anderson and Sally Martin, gave birth to a new style of gospel music that was developed in Chicago and in other Midwestern and Eastern cities.
In 1921, The National Baptist Convention published Gospel Pearls, the first book of songs published by a black congregation that used the name "gospel" in relation to the newly evolving style of Negro sacred music that would later be known as Gospel Music. The book included songs by Charles Albert Tindley, Lucie Campbell, and Thomas A. Dorsey.
In the 1940s, the jubilee quartets evolved into the harder singing style of such groups as the Blind Boys of Mississippi, the Spirit of Memphis, the Soul Stirrers, and the Sensational Nightingales.
During the 1970s, black gospel music moved primarily into another direction. Pioneered by the great gospel singer James Cleveland and based on his work with Thomas A. Dorsey, this movement was called the Mass Choir Movement. This movement produced some great in addition to some mediocre music into the 1980s, as black gospel music began to more and more mimic the soul music of the secular world. Clearly the great Golden Era of Black Gospel Music was over. Except for the few older groups that continued the older styles, what was originally black gospel music had been all but obliterated by the 1990s, and now what you will find in the record stores, and called "gospel music," has little or no resemblance to the original, just as contemporary country music has little or no resemblance to the country music of the 1950s and 1960s, and contemporary jazz has little or no resemblance to the jazz of bygone years. Styles of music peak, then dissolve, that is why it is important that we capture the music at its peak, then relish it for years to come...something we can now only do because of technology
In this list, I focus on the great black gospel music up through the 1960s in addition to the artists that have maintained the traditions of uplifting music such as Andre Crouch and Edwin Hawkins in their earlier years, Slim and the Supreme Angels, the Williams Sisters and the Canton Spirituals.