Gospel Music

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    Gospel music isn't just heard in church on Sunday mornings. You might hear it blaring from a car stereo at a stoplight, or from your neigbor's open window on a Tuesday night. Gospel music fills and warms the spirit with its messages of praise and worship, and the soaring voices that seem to emerge from some sacred and powerful source. When a Gospel choir hits its stride, the rejoicing does indeed rise high as the listening skies. 

Day 7 - G is for Gospel Music

Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972)

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    Mahalia Jackson started singing as a child at Mount Moriah Baptist Church and went on to become one of the most revered gospel figures in the United States. "Jackson had one of the great big, gorgeous voices of the 20th century — maybe the biggest — inducing cold chills and hot springs of unexpected feeling. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she followed an interior compass that kept her locked exclusively onto gospel music. By her calculus, Jackson didn't budge much from her original sound. While she made some recordings in the 1930s, Jackson tasted major success with "Move On Up a Little Higher" in 1947, which sold millions of copies and became the highest selling gospel single in history. She always sang like a bigger-than-life, supremely talented zealot. Her voice and timing and intensity not only rattled black listeners..., but — for the first time — inspired mainstream white listeners to appreciate religious and secular music with a black gospel feel."

    Gwen Thompkins, NPR Music 2019

"How I Got Over" - Mahalia Jackson

"How I Got Over" - Yolanda Adams


The Father of Gospel Music

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    During the early 1930s, Thomas A. Dorsey (1899-1933) created gospel music -- the African American religious music which married secular blues to a sacred text. Under the name “Georgia Tom” he performed with blues artist Ma Rainey and her Wild Cats Jazz Band. He wrote over 400 compositions, but it is for “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” that he is best known. Dorsey was the son of a Baptist preacher; his mother was the church organist. Throughout his early years he fel t torn between the sacred and the secular. In August 1932, Dorsey’s life was thrown into crisis when his wife and son died during childbirth. In his grief, he turned to the piano for comfort. The tune he wrote, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” came, he says, direct from God. He teamed with Mahalia Jackson, and the team ushered in what was known as the “Golden Age of Gospel Music.” Dorsey himself became known as the father of gospel music.

The Origins of Gospel

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    "The precursor to black Gospel music is the African American spiritual, which had already been around for well over a century before Gospel music began its rise to popularity starting in the 1930s. Songs written by African American composers in the decades following emancipation that focused on biblical themes and often drew from spirituals were the source for the development of Gospel.


    When many African American communities migrated from rural to urban life during the first half of the twentieth century, they brought their worship culture with them. Echoing the ways of the single-room churches of the agrarian South, the storefront churches of the northern cities became the key setting for the development of Gospel."


    From "African-American Gospel," Library of Congress


    At Left: See the evolution of Gospel in 2 performances of the Gospel classic, "How I Got Over," one by Mahalia Jackson at the 1963 March on Washington, and the other by contemporary Gospel artist Yolanda Adams.

Jacob Lawrence

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    From Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series, 1941


    In 1941, a young artist named Jacob Lawrence set to work on an ambitious 60-panel series portraying the Great Migration, the flight of over a million African Americans from the rural South to the industrial North following the outbreak of World War I. Their work songs, spirituals, and blues went with them, and evolved to create Gospel.

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