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Early Discussions of African American Religious Music

African American religious music has been a topic of scholarly discussion for years. Long before Thomas Dorsey began writing gospel songs in Chicago, W.E.B. Du Bois was writing about African American spirituals. In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois maintained that spirituals were “the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side of the sea” and that this music was the greatest gift that African Americans could share with the wider American culture.16 Du Bois also went on to write about gospel music, and though he held spirituals in high esteem, he felt different about gospel. He rejected the idea that conventional African American religious music should be discarded for classical music and Protestant hymns, but he did not embrace gospel, which he described as “flippant music and mediocre poetry” in his essay “The Problem of Amusement.”17 St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton were also pioneers of the study of gospel music. Drake and Cayton’s work Black Metropolis was a massive volume that attempted to describe African American life in Chicago in the early twentieth century. Though this study covered a host of topics, the authors took care to discuss religious music and how the Great Migration changed the musical culture of Chicago. For example, they discussed the connection between social class and musical preference. According to Drake and Cayton, lower class and older African Americans tended to prefer southern folk or gospel music in their religious services while upper-class churches and younger church-goers often favored more restrained, classical music or white Protestant hymns.18 They also noted that between 1940 and 1945 gospel music became increasing popular and that by 1945 most large African American churches had gospel choruses, a “concession to lower-class taste.” Du Bois, Drake, and Cayton were some of the first scholars to discuss the evolution of gospel music, but scholarly interest in the genre did not end with them. While these men were discussing gospel music as it was becoming popular, later scholars have also looked at the emergence and impact of gospel music and have done so from a variety of perspectives.

Expansive Histories of Gospel

The literature on gospel has included a number of expansive histories. Though scholars have generally agreed that the twentieth century was an integral time for the development of gospel music, they have recognized that it did not develop in a social vacuum and therefore earlier musical forms undoubtedly influenced the genre. In order to better explain the music’s roots, many scholars have compiled long histories of gospel. Lawrence Levine’s Black Culture and Black Consciousness, published in 1977, was an important work in the historiography of gospel music, even though gospel was only rarely mentioned in the text. In this book Levine set out to provide a history of African American culture, and he wanted to connect it to its African past. Levine was one of the first scholars to take seriously the idea that aspects of African culture survived slavery and impacted black culture in America, and this was a much more significant contribution to the study of gospel music than his explicit discussion of the genre. Many later scholars used Levine’s insight about the influence of African traditions on America’s black culture in order to write histories of gospel, and this was his lasting impact on the study of gospel music. Robert Darden’s 2005 book, People Get Ready!, was an example of an expansive history of gospel music. Rather than focusing on a specific time or place, Darden attempted to trace the development of gospel music over hundreds of years, beginning with gospel’s African roots. Darden, like Levine before him, maintained that American gospel and West African music were similar in performance and musical styling and that this proved a connection between African and African American musical...
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