In Psalm 95:1-3 we read: “Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song. For the Lord is the great God, the great King above all gods.” Even as David tells us of the need for the euphonic sounds of music, it would not be an overstatement to say that music is and always has been an integral part of the African American tradition. 

      According to genealogist Kenyatta D. Berry, as African slaves were transported to the colonies, they used music to search for relatives and to communicate their feelings. Even without the benefit of shared language, chants, moans, and rhythm forms remained and survived. Brought from the Motherland, these songs were passed down from one generation to the next.     

      “Speaking to yourselves with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:19) It is from this verse that the term “spiritual” is derived. Eventually, these songs became the basis of the African American Spiritual. The form has its roots in the informal gatherings of African slaves in “praise houses” and outdoor meetings called “brush arbor meetings,” “bush meetings,” or “camp meetings” in the eighteenth century. At the meetings, participants would sing, chant, dance and sometimes enter ecstatic trances. An integral part of the spiritual was what modern scholars refer to as the “call and response” nature of African song performance. Call and response refers to the manner in which a verse is sung by the song leader and subsequently repeated by the group. Then and now, the song leader was key because it is he or she who maintains creative control over the performance and improvises to suit the occasion.   

     As race based chattel slavery wreaked its brutal havoc on the bodies and spirits of Black people, they sang, and when these same slaves ran, the songs were there to help facilitate their escape. Spirituals are believed to have been covert protest songs. It is said that Underground Railroad Conductor Harriet Tubman used songs like “Go Down Moses” to reveal her presence in an area where there were slaves desiring to head north and “Wade in the Water” to warn other slaves of impending danger. 

     Today’s modern styles of music have their foundational roots in those African American genres. For example, gospel music first became popular in the 1930’s and came out of the experiences former slaves had during the Depression. This music has been categorized as “historical gospel.” Thomas A. Dorsey is considered to be the Father of Gospel music. Dorsey was the first musician to integrate the jazz style of music and traditional gospel music to form what we now know as Black gospel music. Dorsey’s integration would begin the transformation of Black Gospel Music and create legends like James Cleaveland, Andre Crouch, The Hawkins, Mighty Clouds of Joy, Mahalia Jackson, Mattie Moss Clark, Shirley Caesar, The Williams Brothers, The Winans, and Kirk Franklin. “Modern gospel” refers to the music we hear performed since the eighties and nineties.

     From time immemorial in Africa, no life event occurred without music. In The Ministry of Music in the Black Church, author J. Wendell Mapson Jr. writes, “The worldview of the Arican was a holistic world view…music was woven into the very fabric of life.” So it remains today. Neither wedding nor funeral, triumph or tragedy is celebrated or mourned or marked without some music which bears the stamp of the Africans of long ago. Our creativity, our resourcefulness, and indeed our amazing resilience can be gloriously heard in the Black church right here in 2020. Although cultural trends have influenced changes in other settings, there is nothing like the Black worship experience with its preaching and singing. “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!” (Psalm 150:6)

 

Playlist:

“Wade in the Water”

“He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”

“Let Us Break Bread Together”

“Lord, I Want to be a Christian”

“Oh Happy Day” 

“There’s a Balm in Gilead”

“Precious Lord, Take My Hand”

“We’ve Come this Far by Faith”

“Go Down Moses”

“Come By Here”

“Swing Low Sweet Chariot” 

“Lift Every Voice And Sing”

“My God is Real” 

“Ride on King Jesus”

“Hush,Hush, Somebody’s Calling My Name”

“Go Tell It on the Mountain”

“I Won’t Complain”

“Jesus You’re the Center of My Joy”

“When I Rose This Morning”  

“Steal Away”

“Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” 

“The Reason Why I Sing”

“Oh Happy Day”

“Soon and Very Soon”

“Stomp”

“In the Sanctuary”

“Cooling Water”

“Still Here”

“Something About the Name Jesus”

“Heavy Load”

“Joy”

“Stand” 

“Tomorrow”

“Shackles”

This article was written by Professor Tracey Anderson-Tellado. She is a member of the Core Faculty at SCS and is the associate pastor at South Shore Christian Church in Corpus Christi.