In honor of Black History Month, the Board of Christian Education presents a series on black sacred music. African American music is American music, from blues to rock and roll, Motown, jazz, funk and hip hop. Within that, there is a rich heritage of black sacred music that evolved from spirituals to gospel, hymns, freedom songs and sacred jazz.
Note: The Hammond organ (pictured above) was introduced in 1935, and was quickly adopted by many African American churches.
In New Orleans, in the early 1900s, jazz arose out of blues and ragtime. It spread north with the Great Migration to Chicago and other large American cities. Jazz was improvisational, and in its original form required no formal training or ability to read music.
“When the Saints Go Marching In” was probably a Spiritual. It is a short, simple tune with only 5 notes ( do, re, mi, fa, and sol) and three chords (I, IV, V), but was transformed by jazz and is generally associated with New Orleans. There are numerous recordings, starting from the 1920s. Here is a famous recording of Louis Armstrong from 1938.
New Orleans is famously known for its funerals, featuring jazz dirges that flip into upbeat dance tunes. This clip features not only the jazz musicians but the second liners that accompany them. They are mourning a local jazz and gospel singer.
An early innovator, Duke Ellington (1899-1974) pioneered orchestral jazz, both arranging and writing original music. Although his composing career began in the late ‘20s, he did not reach his international fame until the 1950s. In his later years, Ellington focused on sacred music, composing three Sacred Concerts in 1965, 1968 and 1973. An earlier piece, “Come Sunday” (1943) became a jazz standard and was incorporated into the Second Sacred Concert. (You may recognize it as something our own choir has performed). This same melody was used for “David Danced Before the Lord”, here accompanied by tap dancing.
John Coltrane (1926-1947), jazz saxophonist, bandleader and composer, recorded “A Love Supreme” in 1965. He had struggled with addiction, which he eventually overcame. His comments on “A Love Supreme” note that he had experienced “by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.” The composition is a four part suite that can be found in its entirety on YouTube. Below is a short clip to one of the parts, “Psalm”.
Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981) – see picture – was a pianist, arranger and composer who began a brilliant professional career in secular jazz music at age 15. In 1954 she converted to Catholicism and took a three year hiatus from music, spending her time in mass (several hours each day) and running a halfway house for the poor and musicians grappling with addiction. She returned to music at the urging of her priest and began composing sacred jazz. In 1963, she wrote a mass called “Black Christ of the Andes”, which included this piece, “Anima Christi”.
Wynton Marsalis (1961-) is a trumpeter, composer, teacher and artistic director of Jazz at the Lincoln Center. This is from a 2015 NPR blog post “God is in the House: Five Sacred Jazz Recordings”: ‘Unlike many of his colleagues, trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis did not grow up performing in a church. But his awareness of such experience and its influence helped inspire him to write a sacred-jazz epic, 1993’s In This House, On This Morning. “Listening to all of [his fellow players] made me want to put that feeling in a long piece and reassert out here the power that underlies jazz by constructing a composition based on the communal complexity of its spiritual sources,” he said. Reverend Jeremiah Wright (he of 2008 presidential campaign fame) gave Marsalis a blueprint in the form of a 12-part African-American church service. In his structurally complex and blues-suffused emulation, Marsalis hits a variety of musical signposts along the way, illustrating calls to prayer, hymns, scripture readings and sermons.’
The piece is two hours long in its entirety. Below is a short excerpt: “Recessional- The Glory Train”. It’s fun, upbeat and a treat for the eyes as well as the ears. It will send you out into the world to do God’s work. Amen!
Prior to the Civil Rights movement that began in the 1950s and 1960s, there was marked segregation in American music production, venues and audiences. Then, for the first time, Black and White Americans were coming together on a large scale to protest for social change, and that included making music together. Many of the Freedom Songs of the movement had been traditional Black American songs, or were based on the Black call-and-response tradition. But at a time when white liberals were leaving church, there was a reexamination of the secular and the sacred. The lyrics of many traditional spirituals and Gospel songs were adapted to reflect current political issues, and sometimes remove religion.
There were, of course, holders on. Here is a clip of Mahalia Jackson singing “How I Got Over” ( gospel song written in 1951 by Clara Ward (1924-1973)) at the 1963 March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom.
Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977), Civil Rights and Voting rights activist, had an amazing singing voice. She added a few political verses to the children’s song, “This Little Light of Mine,” in this recording.
Not all the freedom songs had early roots. One of the best loved songs of the era was written by soul singer and political activist, Curtis Mayfield(1942-1999) who recorded it in 1965 with The Impressions.
Although this has been about American music, one can’t talk about freedom songs without acknowledging the international Black freedom movement. “We are Marching in the Light of God” is a Zulu song first transcribed in South Africa in 1952 and has become an international anthem. It is sung here by the Chicago Children’s Choir joined by visiting Ugandan singers.
And finally, here is “Redemption Song” from Jamaican, Bob Marley (1945-1981). It sums up the idea of redemption (being saved, perhaps not until the afterlife) versus freedom (in this life). “My hand was made strong by the hand of the Almighty. We forward in this generation triumphantly”.
I can’t pretend that this is a comprehensive summary of more than 100 years of music. The links below will give you tastes of what recordings and literature are out there. Black Gospel music developed in the years post Civil War and is very much a product of segregation and oppression. It evolved from spirituals in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and was influenced by the syncopated rhythms of ragtime and the development of the Blues. Below is a link to the Library of Congress information page.
Here is a link to a recording of Blues master Mississippi John Hurt (1892-1966) singing a spiritual Do Lord Remember Me in an early Blues style. I apologize that I do not know the year of the recording.
In the early years, Black Gospel was often sung in an a capella quartet style. This recording from 1943 is of The Four Brothers singing Death Come a Knockin. It relies heavily on use of the Blues scale.
There was a radical change in Black Gospel music beginning around 1930. The Father of Gospel, Thomas Dorsey (1899-1993), was the son of a Baptist preacher and a church organist in Atlanta. He left school at age 11 for a job in a local vaudeville theater. He left Atlanta for Chicago at age 17 as part of the Great Migration north and got work playing piano. For the next 12 years he struggled with mental health issues, traveled between Chicago and Atlanta, and wrestled between secular Blues music and sacred music. By 1929 he was exclusively writing sacred music but having trouble getting his music accepted by mainstream churches. Then, in 1932, his wife and son died in childbirth. He turned to his music and wrote “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”, which, he says, came directly from God. In 1933 he co-founded The National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses. He partnered with singer Mahalia Jackson (Queen of Gospel) six years later and together they ushered in what was known as the Golden age of Gospel Music. Below you will find a link to Jackson singing Precious Lord.
This is a solo concert version. It uses classic instrumentation of this time: piano (heavy on arpeggios) and Hammond Organ. Both of these instruments were more affordable for Black churches than a traditional pipe organ. The Hammond organ was an electric organ invented in 1935 for church use, but its popularity spread over the years to performers of jazz, blues, rock, reggae, etc…
Here Marion Williams (1927-1994) sings Dorsey’s Standing Here Wondering Which Way to Go. The recording is from 2005 and the accompaniment is Hammond organ and piano (but without the arpeggios).
Inez Andrews (1929-2012) was a Gospel singer-songwriter.. Below is a link to a recording from 1972 of her singing her Lord Don’t Move My Mountain. This music is much bluesier and swings. The Hammond organ and piano are still there but are joined by guitar, bass and drums.
By the 50s and early 60s, another genre, Soul, developed out of Gospel, Blues and Rhythm and Blues. The King of Soul (yes, lots of royalty here), Sam Cooke (1931-1964) had a highly successful secular career, but also made numerous Gospel recordings. Here Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers perform Were You There?
Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin (1942-2018), began her singing career in her father’s Baptist church and went on to launch a huge secular career. But in 1972, she recorded a double album (remember albums?) of sacred music called Amazing Grace. Backed by the Southern California Community Choir, they perform spirituals and Gospel songs, with remarks from the Reverend C.L.Franklin. Here is Mary Don’t You Weep.
In 1967, Edwin Hawkins (1942-2018) recorded Oh Happy Day. It was the first Gospel song to be a hit on a secular chart (reaching no.4) and become an international hit. Hawkins was an originator of the urban contemporary gospel sound. The song has been widely recorded; below is a link to The Edwin Hawkins Singers with Anthony Brown. This is a big church production, including horns and flag twirlers, from 2018. The message is changing here from faith and hope to something more proactive: “He taught me how to watch, fight and pray”. We’ll talk more about this with Freedom Songs and the Civil Rights movement.
The Father of Modern Gospel Music, Andrae Crouch (1942-2015) was a singer, songwriter, arranger, music producer, pastor, and winner of multiple Grammy awards. Here he sings Can’t Nobody Do Me Like Jesus. It starts to really swing at 6:43.
Lastly, Ron Kenoly (1944-) is a singer-songwriter of the contemporary tradition. Again, we’ve got a big sound: big band, big choir, call and response, and big energy. “His report says I am healed, His report says I am filled. His report says I am free, His report says victory.” Whose Report Will You Believe?” was recorded in 1992.
Spirituals proliferated on slave plantations of the south from the late 1700s through the end of legalized slavery in the 1860s. The songs arose from African music infused with Christian teachings that had been adopted by the enslaved persons. An in-depth discussion can be found at this Library of Congress link.
The preservation of this musical tradition can be largely credited to The Fisk Jubilee Singers. This student chorus was from Fisk University, a Black university established with limited funds during Reconstruction. Within a few years of its inception, the school was nearly bankrupt, and the Jubilee Singers went on tour in a fundraising effort. They managed not only to raise substantial funds, but to be ambassadors for African American music. The school is still educating, and the chorus is still touring. Below is a brief link telling their history.
And here are links to recordings of performances:
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, 1909
Wade in the Water, 2019
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the first Black Americans received classical musical education. Some, like Henry Burleigh and Moses Hogan, became composers and arrangers and wrote music based on spirituals. By the mid1900s, classical singers such as Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson were including spirituals in their repertoires.
In 1939, Marian Anderson was the most renowned singer in the world. She was invited, by Howard University, to sing in Washington D.C., but was denied permission to sing in Constitution Hall (the only hall large enough) by the Daughters of the American Revolution because of their Whites only policy. Below are two PBS links telling the story of her historic concert, instead, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter.
And her is a link to her singing Deep River, a spiritual popularized by Burleigh.
Here is Burleigh’s version of Let My People Go.
Below, Paul Robeson, singer, actor, and political activist, sings Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.
And lastly, a version of Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho, arranged by Moses Hogan
Lift Every Voice and Sing
Dear friends, Below you will find multiple links about Lift Every Voice and Sing, a poem written by James Weldon Johnson in 1900 and set to music by his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, in 1905 for the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. It has come to be known as the African American National Anthem. You will find more comprehensive information at the Smithsonian link below. Musically, a couple of things stand out for me. The song was written in the key of A flat. This is not typically a key found in the hymnal; it is a blues key, a jazz key, a key begging for horns. The verse has rich harmony, but then the chorus breaks into unison singing with a melody line that is first major and then repeats in a minor key. The second link is to a church version with congregation joining choir. The third is a solo version with commentary and references the “Take a Knee” protests of the NFL. The fourth is a concert version with an added harmonic line for the high voices. The fifth is a more stripped-down version with exquisite, clean vocal harmonies. Last is the jazz version. Enjoy, Diane Piraino