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From Field Holler to Mass Movement to Concert Halls

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When I was a boy, I used to spend the entire summer with my grandmother in Hollywood, South Carolina. Growing up in big New York City, I was always eager for summer and life in the woods. Hollywood is a small rural hamlet south of Charleston. This was in the 1950s and at that time the whole area was comprised of maybe 5 or 6 black family surnames, so almost everyone was related. Hollywood was a farm community; people tended a small family garden and worked on the farms of white planters. This was a hard working community of poor oppressed African Americans set in a tyrannical era in the tyrannical South, so Sunday was a special day for black folks here. Sunday was a day when there was no work or contact with white Boss man; a day for self-reflection and worship, a day when the biggest and most complete meal of the week was prepared and joyously consumed.

I remember Sunday’s there at my grandmother’s house this way: Changing clothes after church service and sitting in the small, neat living room which stayed clean primarily because this was the only day of the week it was used. The sun shined brightly in the living room. The room’s brightly painted walls emitted a peacefulness that embraced the worldly carelessness of Sunday. A breeze gently moved the laced curtains through the open windows. In a little while the house would smell of sweet bread, collard greens, fried chicken, and macaroni. All the while the tan wooden-box radio showered this dreamy mood with spiritual music; The Blind Boys of Mississippi, Mahila Jackson, The Gospel Tones, The Clara Ward Singers, and Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers were among the gospel singers who herald Sunday from the radio. This radio that stayed silent on the end table between the sofa and the window during the rest of week came alive on Sundays. Throughout the hamlet from house to house on Sunday radios came alive. In each house, there was the same aroma of foods and the same sound of gospel Sunday and the same respite from the harshness of work days.

There was nothing like gospel music that could have created this lasting memory so deep in my soul, even though I hadn’t yet learned how my life was connected to this music but felt the music’s persistent pull on my life and connected to it intrinsically. This music that seemed a necessary part of existence with lyrics that promised that “God will make a way out of no way,” or that “Everything will be alright by and by,” or “God will lift that heavy load” and that “The storm is passing over.” This music renewed faith and offered hope that there was a higher power at work on behalf of this downtrodden people. The black people of Hollywood, South Carolina, like black people all

The Queen of Gospel Music

The Queen of Gospel Music

Sam Cooke of the Soul Stirrers.

Sam Cooke of the Soul Stirrers.

over America, loved this music for the power it instilled in them; for the hope it engendered and for the spiritual feeling it awakened in them.

Gospel music has a long history with African American people. It traveled in their DNA with them on slave ships to America. It revealed its power during laborious days in plantation fields when slaves cried out encouragement to each other in call and answer shouts that came to be known as “Work Songs”; “What time will it be when we finish this work? Sundown, Sundown. Where will I go when my work done done? Heaven, Heaven.” This type of crude, improvised field hollers gave slaves a spiritual left and brought them through more than just that day, but centuries of cruelty and deprivations. The lyrics of spiritual music offered faith and hope and later, instructions with night sky mapping directions North on the Underground Railway with free passes to Safe Houses on the way to “Jordan.” Spiritual music had, indeed, carried our heavy load.

It is written that the slaves on the first slave ship destined for the Americas sensed the advent of a long and brutal nightmare; they knew that they needed something to protect them from the coming centuries of bondage and tyranny so they sent out an exalted wail beseeching God’s mercy. God looked down on from where the sound came and saw that they had nothing; they were naked and bound in chains. God, in his wisdom, took the very sound of their lament and turned it into their shield and their weapon – and today we call that sound music. It is those majestic wails; that cry of despair, that music in its ever changing forms that has nourished our people through the centuries.

No matter what stylistic change came to black spiritual music, its mission remained the same – to carry that heavy load placed on a burdened people; to provide perseverance, hope, and a testimonial balm. At the turn of the twentieth century, spiritual music put on a golden gospel gown; stood up from the cotton fields to take hold in spiritual houses of worship; meeting halls and music stages. In its maturing stages it gave birth to a music genre that grew to rival its domination and primacy as caretaker to the injured and teller of the history of the burden – its child called itself the blues. The blues had a catchy beat, a haunting mournful whine, and a playful outlook, but it told the same story as the gospel, it just, most often, left God out of the picture.

The blues also had the uncanny ability to arouse some of the same high-pitched spiritual emotions as gospel music – truth is where you find it. The gospel and the blues sometimes interchanged melodies and personal. Early in the 1930s Gospel was sung to the honky-tonk beat of the blues. Thomas A. Dorsey, the father of black gospel music earlier in his life was a leading blues pianist known as Georgia Tom. He teamed up with Tampa Red (Hudson Whittaker) with whom he recorded the raunchy 1928 hit record “Tight Like That,” a sensation, eventually selling seven million copies. In all, he is credited with more than 400 blues and jazz songs. As formulated by Dorsey, gospel music combined Christian praises with the rhythms of early jazz and the blues. His conception also deviates from what had been, to that time, standard hymnal practices.

Dorsey’s first wife, Nettie died in childbirth in 1932. Two days later the child, a son, also died. In his grief, Dorsey wrote his most famous song, one of the most famous of all gospel songs, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” After that Dorsey’s style became gospel’s standard. The music world took a reverse turn in the 1950s when Ray Charles set blue lyrics to melodies and rhythms that had long with associated with gospel music only. Ray Charles was roundly condemned for doing so. But Ray’s style of gospel rhythms with blues lyrics was a big hit. Ray Charles was wildly applauded by fans in his audiences and solely reviled from black pulpits across America.

In the 1960s gospel went to war; it was often the spine of the civil rights struggle. When Fannie Lou Hamer led a group of frightened volunteers to register to vote in Mississippi, it was gospel songs that she sang to stiffen their resolve and buffer their courage. Much of the power of the civil rights movement came from speeches, but the movement lived just as actively through music. Whether it was blues, folk, gospel, jazz, or R&B, and whether the artist was part of the cause or simply feeling the same yearnings, the music of the civil rights movement provided focus, unity, strength, and power. Gospel music gave birth to another offspring during the civil rights era, “Freedom Songs,” the music of the movement, the most famous of which was “We Shall Overcome,” which became the anthem of the movement.

With “Freedom Music” came diversity and room for Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” and “The Times they are A- Changin,” and the Weavers, “The Hammer Song.” Pete Seeger was also a great contributor to the movement’s musical tradition.

Then came the 1970s and most of gospel music adopted the same rhythmic melodies as black popular music; the difference in the resonance of a Motown sound and a gospel tune was in the lyrics. Of course, there will always be the purest, a sector of gospel music that has not changed at all. The traditionalist carries on, but they are so many generations who have grown up with the newer versions that the only explanation for how the traditionalist survives is that the seed of the music is in our DNA. That’s why I can enjoy Mahila Jackson, a traditionalist and BeBe Winnans, a modernist. That is why I have been able to enjoy gospel music from my early days on sunny Sundays at my grandmother’s house in South Carolina to being entertained at Carnegie Hall by the likes of the Winnan Brothers.

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About Horace Mungin

  • Dr. Kathryn Kemp

    You have captured much of the power of the sung gospel referenced in my book “Make a Joyful Noise”. The true message of salvation, however, was omitted. Charles Tindley, the father of the gospel hymn, penned “We shall Overcome”.