African American Sacred Music
A Tour of Black Gospel Music in Northern America
A Tour of Black Gospel Music in Southern America
A Tradition of Excellence
by Don Robertson (2001, revised 2023)
One of the sources of African American sacred music were the jubilee groups that were formed in colleges, many located in the Southeast United States. The earliest of these groups were mixed male and female choral groups, but this evolved into smaller groups that employed quartet singing with four-part harmony. One of the earliest and certainly the most successful of these groups were the Fisk University Jubilee singers, a male quartet that sang Negro spirituals. The jubilee style of singing continued, while evolving, well into the 1940s.
Charles Albert Tindley
Another early source of sacred music was the work that was accomplished by Charles Albert Tindley (1851-1933), a Philadelphia preacher who composed nearly fifty hymns, including such standards as “Stand by Me”, “Nothing Between”, “Leave it There”, and the important “We’ll Understand it Better By and By” that was composed in 1905.
Meanwhile, another tradition of church singing sprang forth from the birth of Pentecostalism that first occurred at the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles a year later. This important outpouring of divine spirit spawned a new music called sanctified singing. It was pioneered by such people as Arizona Dranes, Rosetta Tharpe, Lucie Campbell, W. Herbert Brewster, and Kenneth Morris. It reached a zenith in the 1930s when Thomas A. Dorsey, in conjunction with such singers as Roberta Martin, Mahalia Jackson, Robert Anderson, and Sally Martin, gave birth to a new style of music that developed in Chicago as well as in other Midwestern and Eastern cities.
In 1921, The National Baptist Convention published Gospel Pearls, the first book of songs published by a black congregation that used the name “gospel” in relation to the newly evolving style of African American sacred music that would later be known as gospel music. The book included songs by Charles Albert Tindley, Lucie Campbell, and Thomas A. Dorsey.
In the 1940s, the jubilee quartets evolved into the harder singing style of such groups as the Blind Boys of Mississippi, the Spirit of Memphis, the Soul Stirrers, and the Sensational Nightingales.
The Mass Choir Movement
During the 1970s, black gospel music moved primarily in another direction. Pioneered by the gospel singer James Cleveland and based on his work with Thomas A. Dorsey, this movement was called the Mass Choir Movement. This movement produced some great music, but in our opinion, also some very mediocre music as gospel music began to more and more mimic the soul music of the secular world. Except for the few older groups that continued the older styles and the sacred traditions that continued in states like Alabama and Mississippi, African American gospel music had been all but been obliterated by the 1990s, and recordings found in record stores, still called “gospel music”, had begun to have little or no resemblance to the original, just as contemporary country music began to have little or no resemblance to the country music of the 1950s and 1960s and contemporary jazz had little or no resemblance to the jazz of bygone years.
Many styles of music peaked in during the 20th century, then began to dissolve along with the degraded culture that took hold during the last decades of the 20th century. That is why it is important to capture music styles when they were at their peak, and then relish them for years to come…something we can now do due to the same advanced technology that helped bring culture to its knees in the first place.
Read About African American Sacred Music
An excerpt from Musical Kaleidoscope Book 1
The Gospel Truth about the Negro Spiritual, by Randye Jones
Glory Hallelujah: The Golden Age of Gospel, by Michael Corcoran
The Roberta Martin Singers
Fisk Jubilee Singers
This page is dedicated to Barksdale “Barky” Haggins, proprietor of Barky’s Spiritual Store in Richmond, Virginia. He helped me learn about African-American gospel music and culture. (Don Robertson)