Singing In The Gospel Choir

Did you ever ponder the origin of things and wonder why some things, although quite similar, have small differences. No? That probably is a good thing because I have this worrisome habit, and it troubles me sleepless sometimes. Let me tell you about my latest quixotic quest and the particular windmill involved.

As a child of the 40s and 50s, I attended a little country church located at the base of a small Appalachian mountain and sang in the church choir with a group of kin and friends. We sang from tattered, soft-cover hymn books whose copyright date predated me by 50 plus years. The notes were shaped but we did not know shape-note singing. In fact, there were probably not three of us who could read music notes of any kind. We learned these old hymns by listening to a lady pick out the melody on an old up-right piano while my great aunt kept time by waving her hand. Nevertheless, we were listenable in our mountain twanged sounding way, which leads me to wondering if the style of our singing was considered gospel singing—thus starting my latest trip down a rabbit hole.

African-American Roots
Gospel music in general has its roots in southern US African-American Christian churches of the late 1800s. The folks who made up these congregations gradually combined aspects of various music styles into their worship services and created a unique sound. They combined traditional hymns, spiritual songs (songs of hope orally, handed down by folks from their enslaved past), and sacred songs of the day all accompanied by lively foot and hand rhythms. This mix achieved a unique sounding worship music that had dominant vocals, strong harmony, lively rhythm, and Christian lyrics. In time, it became known as gospel music.

Gospel means good news, and gospel music instills good feelings in listeners that leaves them with a desire to tell others about the listening experience. Thus, gospel music helped spread Christian ideals throughout the land.

Gospel music was and is first choir music. The types of music sung by a gospel choir is a call-and-response format similar to that used in traditional hymns and sacred songs. The call and response is a phrasing format in which two different phrases are heard with the second phrase being a direct comment on or in response to the first. An example would be the verse/chorus structure in hymns. Enslaved Africans brought call and response music with them when they were forcefully imported into their new existence.

Father Dorsey
Many sources name Thomas A. Dorsey as the father of modern gospel music. Dorsey was a jazz pianist and composer and worked for Chicago’s Pilgrim Baptist Church. In the 1930s, he created a new style of gospel music which combined blues and jazz with the traditional style of gospel music of the day thus creating a new art form that became known as gospel blues. After a period of rejection, this style ultimately became accepted as the new traditional gospel music style. Gospel blues combines evangelistic lyrics with blues instrumentation.

Gospel music evolved over time into several sub-styles. These include: quartet style gospel where a small number of male vocalists sing music together with tight harmonies; traditional gospel that has a basic sound best suited for choir singing; contemporary gospel that places a strong emphasis on solo artists and rarely includes a choir; and praise and worship gospel that combines both contemporary and traditional gospel into a format where a song leader and a small group of singers lead a congregation in singing.

It did not take long for this genre of music to find appeal way beyond its origins. In the social structure of the segregated south with its severe racial divide that was particularly felt in the division between black and white churches, white congregations gradually adapted this black gospel sound into a separate hybrid sound that is now referred to as southern gospel music.

Southern Gospel 1910
Southern gospel music is mostly performed by a male quartet or sometimes by a mixed or same sex duet or trio group. Some musicologists date the establishment of southern gospel music as a separate musical genre sometime near the year 1910 when a professional quartet was formed and employed to sell songbooks for the James D. Vaughan Music Publishing Company. Others, however, claim this style of music existed for at least 35 years prior to that time frame. Nevertheless, southern gospel music originated as an all male, tenor-lead-baritone-bass quartet make-up. The early quartets were typically accompanied by a piano or guitar or sometimes a banjo. As it evolved as an art form, full bands were added. In the present day, accompaniment is often via pre-recorded media.

In its present evolution, southern gospel music also has several sub-styles. These include: southern gospel lead/harmony singing as performed by traditional all-male quartets and also by mixed sex trios; progressive southern gospel, which is really Christian country music that is sometimes marketed as country gospel; and bluegrass gospel music. Bluegrass gospel is simply southern gospel music performed by a bluegrass band using bluegrass arrangements and instruments, and sang with high pitched harmonies.

Back to my quest to determine what style of singing we did long ago in that old country church at the base of that mountain—I guess I am still not sure.

Celebrating Freedom
In an essay on the web site music, John D, Martin wrote, “Gospel songs are generally defined as songs with a refrain, written during the past two centuries. Growing out of camp meetings and mass revivals, these songs focus on getting saved and celebrating newfound freedom in Christ.” That certainly describes the songs we sang back then from those old frayed soft-cover song books. While our choir did sing gospel songs, we did not have any rhythm going on—no hand clapping and swaying—so we were not a traditional gospel music choir. Also, being the staunch United Brethren that we were, we certainly did not employ any devil’s instruments such as guitars or banjos for accompaniment. Thus, we were not a bluegrass group. Further, I doubt any of us would have known a lead or harmony part if we heard one so this rules out southern gospel singing even if some of us did form into quartets or duets from time to time.

I guess we will just leave it at this: we were a group of poor folks who loved to sing gospel songs at the top of our mountain twanged voices accompanied by an old out-of-tune piano. Maybe that made us just country folk who loved to sing gospel songs. Maybe we were a country gospel choir before any of us knew what that term meant.

By Ed Tutwiler