By Mary Jane Walsh
In a popular and moving hymn, famed gospel music singer Bishop Walter Hawkins asks, “What is this that I feel deep inside that keeps setting my soul on fire?”
The answer preceded by the repeated “Whatever it is,” presents a beautiful example of what gospel music is:
- a musical testament of faith based on biblical texts
- a history of African Americans experience from the days of slavery to today
- a unique hybrid of rhythms, scales and tones from the African diaspora, 17th century European religious music, classical lyric style, American blues, hip-hop and rap
- an inclusive, ever-evolving musical form designed to include and invite everyone to participate, especially young people.
There is much more to understanding the rich history, passion and soulful peace of gospel music. Gail Lou, a singer, actor, musical education teacher and star in The Theater Project’s production of Crowns, explains. The traditional African rhythms are polyrhythmic, and the traditional melody in gospel music, she says, is based on the five black keys of the piano – the pentatonic scale.
During the centuries of the transatlantic slave trade (1500s to the 1800s) slaves were taken from various areas of Africa and spoke different languages unknown to each other. They understood, however, each other’s drumming sounds. They were able to merge them and communicate while aboard slave ships and later, where they were sold to live and work. Often slaves sang only wordless tones, or moans.
As they learned the hymns of the Englishman Isaac Watts, based on the eight-tone scale, they adapted them to their own tones and rhythms: the beginning of gospel music and the use of song to spread news, warnings and alerts for opportunities to escape.
Gospel music is known to have powerful influences on people. It’s said that English seaman John Newton, who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace,” was inspired to do so after experiencing the horrors of the slave trade and hearing the wordless tonal mourning (or moaning) sounds of his human cargo.
Over the years as African American churches developed, gospel music purists resisted change and deplored outside influences. They tried to block new sounds from their church music, especially those of the blues.
Even Mahalia Jackson, “The Queen of Gospel,” overcame her parents’ views and incorporated the blues into her music, adding to the rhythm and beat with bass and drum. “For me, she’s the mother of modern gospel,” Gail says. More rebellious was Sister Rosetta Tharpe who, in the 1950s, blended black spirituals with the blues and with the jazz of white, big bands.
Some of the many important figures in the history and continuing evolution of gospel music are Thomas Andrew Dorsey, the “Father of Gospel Music;” singer-songwriter Sam Cooke, known as the “King of Soul;” the Grammy-winning Clark sisters who crossed gospel with mainstream music; Kim Burrell, who calls her style “jazz gospel”; and the Harlem Gospel Singers who perform contemporary gospel with a touch of jazz and blues during worldwide concert tours.
“It’s wonderful and inspirational," Gail says. "And gospel music changes constantly so that it’s always inclusive, and always inviting.”