Gospel & Blues
There are many Christians that believe religious and secular music should not mix, specifically Gospel and the Blues. This is because Blues is secular music and was non-religious. To many Christians worshipers anything other than Gospel was devil music. Both genres are very distinct from each other. Gospel is usually played in a choir or with a soloist accompanied by a choir and its lyrics are biblical and used for worship. While Blues is almost always played by a soloist and its lyrical content is based on personal circumstance and past experiences.
As genres, they seem like opposites however their origins tell us a different story. Their origins tell us that we should view them as complementary to each other and not as opposites. These Genres are two sides of the same coin, as they both grew during post-civil war time. A time where blacks struggled to be recognized as people and not property, assimilate into the rest of society, carve out an identity for themselves and be treated equally.
These Genres helped to establish a black American culture that did not exist in America. After abolition blacks could start to build their culture and one of the ways they did this was through music. Even though Blue is secular and based on the experience of the individual and Gospel is religious and communal, they both share similar influences and were born in the early 1900s. There are both influenced by sorrow, hope, despair, redemption, resilience, hope etc. Field songs sung by blacks during slavery and negro spirituals sowed the seed for these genres. When the US Constitution ended segregation in 1877 the political gains and civic protections blacks had gained post-civil war were suppressed and millions of blacks were economically and politically disenfranchised.
In the south black endured harsh condition which are included but not limited to an endless cycle of debt in tenant farming/sharecropping and lynchings. Those who migrated to the north also faced problems like segregation, second class status, substandard housing and subsequent wages. The inception of Jim Crow laws reinforced the discrimination, humiliation and violence African Americans endured. One positive of this time was that Blacks could be more culturally free, this is very important because slavery inhibited cultural growth and expression. When slavery ended blacks could more freely build and develop their culture, an example of that is Gospel and Blues.
The roots of Gospel stretch way back to the first settlers who brought folk songs and hymns from Europe. Therefore, the Gospel we know today has a longer and shorter history than the blues. Its roots stem from Europe but modern Gospel was not created until the 1930s after the advent of the blues. Traveling Preachers in the 1800s, preached to a white and black congregation. Slaves made a conscious effort to reproduce the hymns folk songs they heard but because blacks sang the songs in a different manner it affected the rhythm. Also, because the slaves could not understand some of the words, some words were changed which led to the creation of negro spirituals. The spirituals were a very important part of culture for blacks in the early 1800s. Toward the ending of the 1800s the differences between white and black Gospel began to widen considerably due in part to the rise of Holiness churches.
Before Holiness churches people sang hymns and read texts and listened to the pastors sermon. The environment was less lively, and the style of worship was comparable white whites. Pentecostal churches preached, sang and worshiped with a lot more emotion intensity. This style of worship was followed all over the country and especially adopted by the poorest people. This intense emotion came from being fed up with times and a need to worship with more feeling and emphasis to express their devotion to God and his ability to help their situation. Worshipers would dance scream shout jump and roll on the floor; this behavior is where the term Holly Rollers originated. These churches were the first to use instruments like guitar which was seen then as of the devil because it was used in non – sacred songs. This movement paved the way for Thomas Dorsey to invent modern Gospel.
Prior to the Civil war blacks and whites worshipped together but separated in the church. The church was very Europeanized, meaning European hymns, no improvisation, no guitar or blues scale. However, towards the end of reconstruction because of the implementation of discriminatory Jim Crow Laws black began to worship separately. As blacks worshiped in their own congregation, they incorporated spirituals in their worship. The singing of these hymns continued through the early 1900s and then in the 1930s Gospel as we know it as today was born. Gospel was reinvented by blues artist Thomas Dorsey. Dorsey reconceptualized the concept of Gospel we know today. Dorsey incorporated the 12 bar Blues with Christian hymns and songs of worship and implemented improvisation. That improvisation was followed by many Gospel singers including Mahalia Jackson and Sallie Martin. However, Dorsey fought for recognition against church ministries and musicians who opposed the use of his songs. Eventually, the National Baptist Church, which was created in Chicago in 1930, allowed the performance of two of his songs. This was an important moment where his form of Gospel was accepted and became the new Gospel. Dorseys most famous song was Precious Lord Take my hand, which was written after his wife and child both died in child birth. This renewed Gospel was used as a way of coping with lifes various challenges, by asking God for help. With the onset of the Great Depression, there was a need for uplifting and optimistic music. During the early twentieth century music in the church lacked the emotional support Dorsey later provided in his blues structured songs. Because of Dorsey sermons were more effective and led to a Golden age of Gospel. Unlike the various other forms of Gospel, black Gospel is distinctive and identifiable sound that evokes a deep feeling of emotion. Black Gospel of today was born from the expressiveness of Holiness and the improvisation/blues which was incorporated by Dorsey.
The blues originated from work songs. The emotion derived from slaves who worked tirelessly in the fields compelled them sing and express their emotions. The earliest recollection or report of the blues occurred in rural areas small towns and cities throughout the south. These areas were mostly plantations worked mainly be sharecroppers, some examples are the Mississippi delta and southeast Texas. Blues was also common among criminals, gamblers, hobos, hustlers, and people coming in and out of prison. This population was a mobile labor force cut off from plantation life, who lacked education and competed with white immigrant laborers. This where the negative stigma of the devil music came from, not only because it was secular music but because many people who played the blues had very unclean lifestyles.
The Blues was a way for black people who lacked a formal education and did not work in the fields to make a living. The optimistic view of black life created by the idea unraveled before it ever came to fruition. Reconstruction was a promise to freed slaves that they would be treated equally, given a fair shot in America, and would be assisted in their intergrade into American society. Instead, with the onset of Jim Crow law, were terribly disenfranchised. The new generation of blacks descendent of the freed slaves felt this the most. This generation in an era where they were supposed to be free but were resented by whites who lost the civil war and denied many opportunities to advance in life. A sense of individualism grew from this, so a solo music form that expressed the emotions of the individual was inevitable.
Blues artists used various techniques that included screaming, wailing, growling, falsetto singing, etc to express their hardships. Some examples of blues artist who used those techniques are Blind Willie Johnson, Howlin Wolf, BB King and Robert Johnson. Blues introduced a new frankness, assertiveness and deep focus on subject manner. It was performed to be taken seriously to be felt. A great blues song made you feel the pain inside the artist.The first blues singers sang with the accompaniment of a mobile instruments like guitar, harmonica violin, saxophone etc. Blues is played in an unorthodox way, performers use bent notes, creating sounds with the instruments that were never intended for and various percussive effects. Also, many characteristics of blues or African in nature including call and Response with their instruments, inner pulse, pitch flexibility, repeating rifts, and timbral variety. The Blues laid the foundation for all future American music and does not get enough credit.
In summary these genres should be seen as complimentary to each other as they were the first black American genres of music. They both originated during the time of Jim Crow and helped blacks get through very hard times. Gospel and Blues or different expressions for the same need, the need to express emotion.