The Evolution of Gospel Music

Following the Great Migration of Blacks from the agrarian South in the period surrounding World Wars I and II to urban cities, Gospel music evolved as the twentieth-century form of African American religious music.  Despite the fact that the musical foundation for this genre was laid in several contexts during the first quarter of the twentieth century, it was not until the 1930s when the term ‘gospel music,’ as well as the distinctive performance style and its repertoire, gained widespread usage among Blacks across denominational lines.  Thomas Dorsey, lauded as the “Father of Gospel Music,” relinquished his career during that decade as an accomplished blues and jazz pianist composer, and devoted himself entirely to the development and advancement of Gospel music. The development of gospel resulted from a complex intertwining of people, places, and processes that collectively generated a music representative of broadly shared African American musical values and cultural ideals. 

Thomas A. Dorsey- 20th Century Gospel

Thomas A. Dorsey (1899-1993) was the man who figured most prominently in the movements of this emergent form of Black gospel music from the margins to the mainstream.  Born near Atlanta in Rica Villa, Dorsey was the son of an itinerant Baptist preacher, who grew up playing organ in church.  Dorsey migrated from Georgia to Chicago in 1916 hoping for a better life, anticipating the elimination of indignities he had routinely encountered in the South.  However, as a boy in Georgia, Dorsey worked selling soda pop at a vaudeville theatre in Atlanta, where he was regularly exposed to blues performers such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith.  Dorsey chose to captivate his own musical gifts by learning to read music and apprenticing himself to pianists who played at the theatre where he worked.  By the age of 16 Dorsey was referred to as Barrelhouse Tom, building a reputation as the number one blues piano player for rent parties in the city.  Later in Chicago, he was known as Georgia Tom.  

Dorsey’s inspiring visit to the National Baptist Convention held in Chicago in 1921 prefaced a change in the level of his religious commitment, which prompted him to begin writing and performing gospel music.  Dorsey joined New Hope Baptist Church in the same year, becoming their director of music.  He also wrote his first gospel song, entitled “If I don’t get there.”  

21st Century Gospel Music

The distinctive style of gospel music still reflects the of African Americans to an ever-changing sociocultural and political milieu.  The similarities that exist amongst these forms are equally indicative of the existence of a self-defining core of cultural values that have persisted over time.  Arrangements and reinterpretations of spirituals, hymns, and other forms also represent a vital form that cannot be discarded. This is done while new compositions are constantly being added to the repertoire. 

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