Gospel Music and Its Performers

Gospel music is part of Christian music. It has strong vocals and is accompanied by hand clapping which acts as the rhythmic accompaniment. The heart of the gospel music was to be found in the churches of the Deep South of the United States where the majority of the worshippers were from the agricultural community. The style of the music was call and response and these gospel songs, or hymns, were written by a number of celebrated composers who specialized in gospel music. Although most of the early composers were white the congregations of many of the churches were coming from the American African communities.

Phillip P Bliss

As this music developed into the 20th century instruments were introduced into the churches to add to the rhythm. There was also the emergence of the holiness-Pentecostal movement which attracted white congregations and the musical instruments became more refined with electric guitars and tambourines being played. There is a spirit behind this form of music and performers need “to feel” before they perform. The lyrics of the hymns reflected people’s passions for their beliefs and also anguish from living in harsh environments.

The Phillip P Bliss Gospel Songwriters Museum in Rome, Pennsylvania celebrates the gospel songs written by Phillip Bliss. Bliss was a school master and when he moved to Chicago in the 1860s be started to write gospel hymns. Eventually in 1869 he became a full-time evangelist concentrating on preaching, singing and composing. He then worked with Dwight L Moody in composing more hymns and one of his more famous songs was “Hold the Fort” which recounted the tales from the American Civil war.

As well as gospel unearthing many fine writers there were many famous musical artists who started their careers singing gospel in churches. The Reverend Gary Davis lost his sight during infancy and of his mother’s 8 children he was the only one to survive. His family circumstance was not helped by the death of his father when he was only ten. He was raised in South Carolina but moved to Durham, North Carolina where he was ordained as a Baptist minister. During this period, he combined performing as a blues musician with being a gospel singer with many of his songs being recorded by the American Record Company.

The Reverend Gary Davis. An unbelievably difficult childhood

One of the most powerful female voices came from Mehalia Jackson who became the first gospel artist to sell one million copies with the release of:

“Move on up a Little Higher”

Duke Ellington tried to get her to sing with his band, but she famously replied: “Duke, my music is the music of the Lord”.  She sang at the 1960 inauguration of President Kennedy and during her career she inspired countless singers to take up Gospel singing.

Perhaps the most famous singer to emerge from the holiness-Pentecostal movement was Elvis Presley. He was born and raised in Tupelo, Mississippi where he attended the Assembly of God Church where he found his musical inspiration. As well as recording many great rock and roll records Presley also won a Grammy for his version of “He Touched Me”, and would constantly sing gospel songs. He never lost touch with his beliefs during his career, and the reverend Rex Humbard from the Pentecostal Church officiated at his funeral in 1977.

Gospel music has been the inspiration behind many different genres of music. It has produced great writers, composers, choirs and individual artists, and even today modern-day artists are appearing from the church onto the world’s musical stages.

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