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African American Religious Music

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African American religious music is the foundation of all contemporary forms of so called "black music." African American religious music has been a fundamental part of the black experience in this country. This common staple of the African American experience can be traced back to the cruel system of slavery. It then evolved into what we refer to today as gospel music. The goal of this paper is to answer three main questions. What are the origins of African American religious music? How did this musical expression develop into a secular form of music? What is the future of African American religious music? These questions will be answered through factual research of African American traditions, artists, and various other sources.

The origins of African American religious music are directly linked to the Negro spirituals of enslaved Africans. One cannot research religious music of blacks in this country without first exploring these spirituals. The spirituals were part of a religious expression that enslaved people used to transcend the narrow limits and dehumanizing effects of slavery. It was through the performance of the spirituals that the individual and the community experienced their God, a God who affirmed their humanity in ways whites did not and a God who could set them free both spiritually and physically. These "sacred songs" were also used as secret communication. That is not to say that all spirituals functioned as coded protest songs or as some sort of secret language. The structure of the spirituals and the way in which they were created and performed allowed for flexibility in their function and meaning.

The primary function of the Negro spirituals was to serve as communal song in a religious gathering, performed in a call and response pattern reminiscent of West African traditional religious practices. During these ceremonies, one person would begin to create a song by singing about his or her own sorrow or joy. That individual experience was brought to the community and through the call and response structure of the singing, that individual's sorrow or joy became the sorrow or joy of the community. In this way, the spiritual became truly affirming, for it provided communal support for individual experiences. Slaves used the characters of the bible, particularly the Old Testament, to tell their stories. Jesus was called upon to help the individual find God, who would "set them free on the inside." The spirituals ultimately tell the story of a spiritual journey toward spiritual freedom. A spiritual journey dominates these songs, but the concern for physical freedom is there as well. The most pervasive image in the spirituals is that of the chosen people for the slaves believed that they had been chosen by God just as the Israelites had. They also believed that they understood better than anyone what freedom truly meant in both a spiritual and physical sense. The Old Testament characters that the slaves referred to in their songs experienced deliverance by God. The slaves believed that the same God that had granted them spiritual freedom would someday loose the chains of slavery. The wonderful flexibility of the spirituals allowed for that double meaning of freedom. For example, Frederick Douglass claimed that the line" I am bound for Canaan" in one of the songs he frequently sang meant that he was going North, not just that he would experience the freedom of the promised land in a spiritual sense. The flexibility and multiplicity of meanings also allowed for slaves to use these sacred songs as secret communication. Some songs, such as "Steal Away to Jesus," were used to call a secret meeting where the people could worship without the supervision of the whites. Other songs, such as "Wade in the Water" served as coded directions for runaway slaves. With the eventual emancipation of the slaves, religious music of African Americans became prominently found in churches throughout the South.

The role of the church remained central to blacks in America once they were emancipated. The Black Church evolved from a religious sanctuary away from the eyes of the slave holders to a sanctuary where black culture and music could thrive. Gospel music was developed and inspired by the blues and jazz that was storming the country. Many traveling, singing preachers began to accompany themselves with piano and guitar. An example of this can be found with a gentleman who many refer to as the "father of Gospel Music," Thomas A Dorsey.

The son of a minister, Thomas Dorsey was a consummate musician and as a young man, he accompanied some of the most famous blues singers of all time including Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. He also arranged and composed blues tunes. However, his penchant for bouncy tunes and bawdy lyrics did not keep him from attending the annual meeting of the National Baptist Convention. It was at these conventions that Dorsey first heard compositions of Charles A Tindley. Tindley inspired him. Musical historian Arna Bontemps argues that it was at this point in Dorsey's life when he began to write religious music. He abandoned his brash lyrics but not the jazz rhythms and blues flavor. Naturally, older conservatives considered this blending of sacred music, such as spirituals and hymns with secular music, such as blues and jazz, to be "devil's music." They shunned it and declared Dorsey's brand of gospel music unworthy of a hearing within sanctuaries of the day. The traditional church failed to see the positive influence contemporary music could have. A 1994 Score magazine article entitled, "The Father of Gospel Music" quoted Dorsey as saying, "when I realized how hard some folks were fighting the Gospel idea, I was determined to carry the banner." Carry it he indeed did. "I borrowed five dollars and sent out 500 copies of my song, 'If Your See My Savior,' to churches throughout the country," Dorsey emphatically stated. "It was three years before I got a single order. I felt like going back to the blues." Fortunately for Gospel music, he didn't. With pioneer singers such as Sallie Martin and Mother Willie Mae Ford Smith propagating his music, he stayed the course long enough to write over 800 songs and hear his music ascend from the first row pews to the choir stand, where it previously had been banned. To ensure the continual survival of Gospel Music, Dorsey founded the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses in 1932, an organization that is still in existence today.

Thomas A Dorsey was a planter. The fruits of the harvest were the exceptional singers who spread gospel music around the country and indeed, the world in the years that followed. Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward and James Cleveland are a few of



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