An Introduction to Gospel Music
The term gospel music was first used in the 1930s that became widespread in terms of its use among African-Americans and its distinctive style. Gospel music is a black form of religious music that evolved over time from the South to the North during the Great Migration. Key elements of gospel music include the shout, call-response, hymns, blues elements, and negro spiritual components.
Gospel has been a defining component of many African-American churches and has become a central part of the the black church culture, experience, and form of spirituality and worship. Ever since the modern form of gospel began in the 1930s, it has evolved over time. Tow of the most beautiful and distinctive voices of gospel music are Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin.
Mahalia Jackson: The Queen of Gospel
Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul
Mahalia Jackson was raised around both secular music and scared music. Hymns and blues were part of her musical background. Mahalia’s music was influenced by the blues, but she also centered a majority of her music around spirituals and hymns. However, Mahalia made sure that she never mixed the two genres with each other since she understood the blues to be more of a sad genre, while she believed gospel music to be more uplifting and hopeful. At the time of the success of Mahalia’s career, which was during the 1940s-1960s, jubilee quartet groups were very popular at the time. Groups such as The Soul Stirrers were singing, and their style was directly influenced from negro spirituals. All jubilee quartet groups did is just put a beat to negro spirituals.
In the video below of Mahalia singing “Amazing Grace”, her performance was very powerful. She held nearly every note out for a very long time. There is a very strong negro spirituals feel to her style of singing the song. Her posture and singing was professional and serious. When Mahalia sings, she often moved her hands, body, and sways to the beat and singing of the song and her voice. However, she still wanted to maintain her respectability and have her voice be the central focus for audiences. Mahalia’s style of singing “Amazing Grace” can be best described as being traditional gospel music, which is black religious music that emerged during the 1930s and is still prevalent today in many African-American churches.
Aretha Franklin has been called The Queen of Soul because of her powerful vocal range and singing abilities. Aretha was known best as a soul singer because she often mixed elements of blues and gospel in her songs. Aretha was also was known to sing rhythm and blues songs. Aretha’s signature song is “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”, which highlights her soul and gospel singing style, but has rhythm and beat to it.
In the video below, Aretha is singing her own rendition of the song “Amazing Grace.” Like Mahalia, Aretha had a very rich and powerful vocal range. She was able to hold out notes for different words for a very long time. However, what can be noted is since she did sing soul and rhythm and blues, there was a little bit of a more soulful feel to Aretha’s version of “Amazing Grace” than Mahalia’s. Aretha sang “Amazing Grace” in 1971, which was when soul, R&B, and the newly emerging funk were becoming popular. When you listen to the song, many people are cheering in the background to each note of each word that Aretha sang out. Aretha even started to respond to the crowd and become part of the crowd. Towards the end, she starts adding in extra words to the song “Amazing Grace.” While Mahalia did this at the very end when she sang “Amazing Grace”, for the majority of the song she stuck to the lyrics that were originally in the song.
When you listen to Aretha sing “Amazing Grace”, she’s performing in front of a live audience, except that their engaging in her singing and shouting. Mahalia’s audience did not do this. This is why Aretha’s version of “Amazing Grace” can be more described as traditional gospel, but there is definitely so more emotion, energy, and soul when Aretha sings the song than when Mahalia sang the song.
Personal Reflection on the Evolution of Gospel Music
My own personal response to the evolution of gospel music is that as popular music changes, elements of gospel music change as well. When Mahalia Jackson was at the height of her career and success, many black artists were still wanting to gain respectability from white audiences and wanted to be taken seriously. There was also some backlash to gospel music and to Mahalia Jackson in the earlier days because some black people did not think gospel was holy/Christian music or appropriate for church.
However, as the decades progressed and time went on, black people began to embrace gospel music more and more. During this time, R&B came. blues, soul, funk, pop, hip hop, and rap have become very influential genres of music. Since Aretha’s career began in the 1960s and she remained popular throughout the 1970s and 1980s, it is inevitable that a little bit of soul was going to be reflected in her cover version of “Amazing Grace.” During the time that Aretha sang “Amazing Grace,” it’s important to note that this was post-The Civil Rights Movement and at the beginning of funk music. Black people were having a sense of black pride and being proud of their musical creations. This sense of black pride carried over into churches, in which black people were now very embracing of gospel music and not afraid to shout and show their appreciation for whoever was singing.
Gospel music continues to be evolving as contemporary gospel continues to evolve, as well as traditional gospel having a more “secular” or even at time R&B feel to it.
Burnim, Mellonee V., and Portia K. Maultsby. African American Music: an Introduction. Routledge, 2015.