Bill Bois’ Music Theory For Non-Musicians™
…if there was ever an art where breaking the rules is one of the rules, it’s music.redditor u/COMPRIMENS
S2|E6 – What Makes Gospel Gospel ?
Religious music has been around as long as we’ve thought there was a higher power to worship.
That makes it prehistoric.
We’re pretty sure humans have been singing since the start of civilization, and we’re pretty sure humans have believed in gods for equally as long. Too bad that the mp3s of all those songs were lost in the Great Hard Drive Crash of 13,206 B.C.
The first western musical notation, meaning an early form of sheet music, was for religious chants, a thousand years ago. That doesn’t necessarily mean that religious music was the most important of the time. The most important music of the time could have been drinking songs.
However, it does mean that the person who invented notation, Guido of Arezzo, was educated and knew how to write.
And that because Guido was a monk, the music he worked with was religious.
In more recent history, the people who invented what we now call gospel music weren’t as educated. It’s a sad story.
One of our most performed gospel songs, “Amazing Grace,” was written as a hymn by a former slave ship captain.
John Newton was an Englishman conscripted into the Royal Navy in the late 1700s. Other sailors found him to be the most profane man they ever met. It takes some pretty salty language to make a sailor blush.
On one of his voyages, he was captured and enslaved in Sierra Leone. Years later, he was recognized by English sailors, freed, and brought home. His experience as a slave is not what made him an abolitionist. In fact, he became the captain of a slave ship.
A storm off the coast of Ireland nearly sank his ship and he called on God to save him. When he made it home, he wondered if he was worth saving.
When he saw that God saved a wretch like him, he changed. He left the slave trade, became an abolitionist, and began writing religious songs, Amazing Grace among them.
It’s one of the many old songs that have become part of the gospel cannon.
However, what we now call gospel, generally speaking, is African American Christian music.
That makes me exactly the wrong guy to write this article.
I’m not religious, and I’m a slightly greenish shade of off-caucasian.
My childhood church didn’t have music other than the same few hymns the congregation sang poorly, and I didn’t see a black person in the flesh until I was six or seven.
That’s what happens when you grow up in one of our whitest states.
When I started this series six weeks ago, I had no idea I’d talk so much about race, and I feel ill-equipped to do so.
However, most of the major American genres we have today were created by African Americans, then embraced and altered by white Americans. The history of American music reflects the history of America, and half the history of America is the history of race and racism.
One thing we’ve always done in America is to face difficult problems by ignoring them. This is the case politically, anyway. If we can put off talking about uncomfortable issues until tomorrow, we will. That’s what our founding fathers did. They allowed slavery to continue because without it, the southern states wouldn’t have joined the union. So they decided to let future generations deal with it.
We call it, “kicking the can down the road.”
That, of course, resulted in the Civil War a century later.
Working in the fields, slaves sang the songs they brought from Africa and taught them to their children. Eventually they were translated into English, and new songs, some about the religion the slaves had been converted to, were made up. I say “made up” rather than “written” because most slaves couldn’t read or write, which was exactly how the slaveowners wanted it.
These songs became known as “Negro spirituals” but they often had a double meaning. The song Steal Away To Jesus, for instance, also meant stealing away to freedom. Slight changes in lyrics were ways of passing information about escape plans and the like. Just because these people couldn’t read or write doesn’t mean they weren’t clever.
There was often one person who could read, so when new lyrics or news became available, that person would sing them. The others would repeat them or respond in song. This call and response is an integral part of gospel.
Call and response is a technique that comes from African music. It’s a way of making sure the message is passed along and understood. You can hear it in this version of Angels by Cynthia Liggins Thomas & Averriel M. Thomas.
When slave owners found that slaves could communicate with drums, they took the drums away. They couldn’t take the rhythm away, though. That’s why gospel music is often percussive.
There’s a lot of clapping hands. But sometimes it has no meter or tempo at all. (In music theory, we call this “a piacere” which means “at pleasure.”)
In the 1920s, Thomas A. Dorsey played blues under the name “Georgia Tom.” He played piano with Ma Rainey and Tampa Red.
Some of their songs were pretty risque, so you wouldn’t think that would be where gospel started.
In his early 30s, he lost his wife and baby in childbirth. He buried them in the same coffin.
It affected him so much that he didn’t play music for six months.
He had a real crisis of faith. How can a man believe in God when God would allow such a thing to happen? Eventually, he came to realize that his pain was nothing compared to crucifixion. One day he sat at the piano and played familiar blues chords, but sang these words over them:
Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I’m tired, I’m weak, I’m lone
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand, precious Lord
Lead me homeTake My Hand, Precious Lord : Thomas A. “Georgia Tom” Dorsey
Take My Hand, Precious Lord may well be the first gospel song that wasn’t based on an old hymn.. It’s blues, but it’s slow and devout. It’s a prayer. There are dozens of recorded versions, and here it is sung by the great Mahalia Jackson.
Dorsey took up music professionally again, and still played those risque blues songs because they brought in more money than his religious material. But he continued making gospel records and is seen today as the creator of gospel.
Early gospel can be thought of as blues music with Christian lyrics. It evolved into its own genre but the blues is as big a part of gospel as it is of rock & roll.
The main instrument of gospel in these early years was the voice. It might be one voice or it might be a choir. Often the only other instruments, if there were any at all, were handclaps. There might be a piano, as in Dorsey’s music, but the instrumentation was always sparse and nowhere near as important as the message of loving the Lord as the Lord loves you.
Gospel influenced other genres, like country, rock & roll, and rhythm & blues, but sometimes it would slip unaltered out of the black church and into popular, secular, consciousness. A good example is “Oh, Happy Day” by the Edwin Hawkins Singers. It was an update of an 18th Century hymn and reached #4 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 in 1969. It hit #1 in Germany, France, and Switzerland.
Its instrumentation is piano, bass, and drums, but they’re very low in the mix. The chief instruments are the voices and the glorious reverb of the church it was recorded in. The singers clap while singing, so that’s pretty loud in the mix, too.
But not all gospel put the instruments on the back burner. As time went on, gospel recordings mixed the vocals and instruments in the more popular styles of the day. There were even some instrumental versions of well-known gospel songs.
Mainstream artists did gospel songs. Jazz singers like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nat King Cole had gospel tunes in their repertoire. Jazz instrumentalists like Thelonious Monk did, too.
Notably, white country and early rock & roll singers added gospel songs to their repertoire, including Hank Williams and Elvis Presley. They weren’t cashing in on a trend or trying to seem more upstanding than they were. The music’s message and the music itself meant something to them. Something important.
Churches started putting more money into their music. They bought instruments and sound gear. Some churches installed light shows.
While there were some folks who saw this as commercializing religion, it had a very positive impact on musicians.
The term “woodshedding” is musicians’ slang for practicing. You go out to the woodshed and practice so no one can hear your mistakes. However, with church musicians, shedding is a slightly different thing. It’s where musicians play gospel music together. Sometimes it’s practice for a Sunday service, but sometimes it’s just a jam.
These sessions also became a safe space for young black people.
And when you practice that way and practice a lot, you get good.
I mean, really good.
Some of the most solid players I’ve ever jammed with were from the woodshedding tradition. Drummers especially. Take 16 minutes and watch this video about how these musicians get so good.
As the genre evolved, it split into different scenes, like most genres do. Some artists brought the Christian message to hip hop. Kirk Franklin, DC Talk, and TobyMac have each sold millions of records doing so.
The Contemporary Christian Music genre, or CCM, seems to appeal to mostly white audiences. It’s essentially soft rock, country rock, and some hard rock, with evangelical lyrics. If the lyrics aren’t explicitly Christian, they’re at least vaguely religious. Artists like Jeremy Camp, Casting Crowns, and Michael W. Smith are good examples of CCM.
There’s an important scene in the 2004 biopic Ray in which Ray Charles (Jamie Foxx) plays his new song for Della Bea Robinson (Kerry Washington). It’s I Gotta Woman, the song that would be his first #1 on the R&B chart. He sings about his love for her over a gospel piano part.
She calls it sacrilegious.
Gospel started as religious lyrics over secular music.
With secular lyrics over gospel music, Ray was on to something new.
Let’s talk about it next week.
Peace In The Valley
– Mahalia Jackson
Everybody’s Gonna Have a Wonderful Time Up There
– Sister Rosetta Tharpe
This Little Light Of Mine
– Clara Ward Singers
While The Blood Runs Warm
– Aretha Franklin
Bells Are Tolling
– The Fairfield Four
I Didn’t Have No Doubt
– Lloyd Reese Singers
– Andrae Crouch
Peace Be Still
– Rev. James Cleveland
Place In This World
– Michael W. Smith
– Jars Of Clay
– Kirk Franklin
– Jeremy Camp
Goodness Of God
– Cece Winnans
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