The sound of faith is one that has contributed to America’s soundtrack by laying the foundation for what would become known as religious music or gospel. The National Museum of African American Music will feature a gallery called Wade in the Water to document the history and influence of religious music: The indigenous African music that rose from the Continent centuries before slavery, to the formation of African American spirituals and hymns, to the Golden Age of Gospel all the way to the chart-topping contemporary gospel of today. The gallery highlights the influence gospel vocal groups had on secular singing in genres such as doo-wop, R&B, soul, and the impact religious music has had on the industry as a whole. 

African American religious music has always aimed to ease the rough times while celebrating and uplifting life and the feeling of hope. From open fields to meetings in houses of worship, the core sound of gospel has remained consistent with a unifying message and praise.

African Roots and Early Development

Music and dance were significant parts of daily life in Africa. Forced to convert to Christianity, African Americans used the power of creativity and transformed hymns of European origin and psalms, by adding call-and-response singing and ring and shout dancing. Over time, new elements such as ad-libs or improvised refrains added to existing hymnals, and emotion-filled sounds helped to distinguish Black worship customs from other types. 

Early African American Churches and Music

Eventually, independent African American churches began to emerge across the United States, but not without some problems. Independent Black churches flourished in the slave-free North, but in the South, several slave uprisings led whites to destroy the congregations in the early 1800s. This prompted hidden churches in fields,  woods, and even living quarters to protect the nature of worship. The desire to connect music, dance, and faith prevailed and the bridge was formed to connect humans to the spiritual realm through praise and worship. 

Incorporating Song and Dance

The celebrations, commemorations, and consecrations that accompanied events incorporated the infusion of traditional music and dance. Those traditional dance patterns included the counterclockwise circle dance that was common place in spirituals and worship during the slavery era. Ceremonial music involved an entire community, and festival-like gatherings celebrated everything from hunting to weddings. African musical characteristics like polyrhythm and syncopation added to the vocal timbres and textures of underlying music. The call-and- response method, when a singer makes a statement that is answered by a group, is a tradition that traveled across the Atlantic to America and remains a mainstay in both religious and secular music. 

Spirituals Go Mainstream

Formal staged concerts introduced spirituals to a mainstream audience. It adopted a more European style but still kept African American roots, so it was acceptable for both Black and white audiences. This particular model has survived even today among performers who specialize in this concert format, including choral groups at Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Acclaimed artists who bridged the gap between classical and spiritual include Harry Burleigh, who is best known for introducing vocal solos with piano accompaniment; Roland Hayes, who made history as the first African American vocalist to sing with a major orchestra (the Boston Symphony); Marian Anderson, and Paul Robeson. Some of the most popular spirituals include classics like “Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Had,” “Roll Jordan Roll,” “There’s a Meeting Here Tonight,” and “Rock My Soul (In the Bosom of Abraham).”

Gospel Hymns

Gospel hymns emerged in northern city churches, and reflected the growing impact of African Americans moving from the South to the North seeking better economic conditions. Reverend Charles A. Tindley played a key role in developing gospel hymns in the late 1800s. He opened the multi-racial Tindley Temple in 1924 and, over the years, composed and copyrighted scores of originals including “Stand By Me” and most notably, “I’ll Overcome Someday,” which was famously adapted as “We Shall Overcome” and became the anthem of the Civil Rights era. 

Religious Music Records

Record companies began to cash in on the sound after the unexpected success of theatrical blues singer Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” in 1920. The companies recorded anything that resembled the blues and resonated on both sides of the proverbial sacred and secular fence. Pastors recorded sermons, songs, and ceremonial baptisms to highlight the multi-faceted Black religious music. “Something Within, “ the first gospel composition, was published by a 19-year-old African American woman named Lucie Campell. Her 10- plus compositions eventually made their way to artists such as Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Sam Cooke to record. 

Thomas A. Dorsey, known as the Father of Gospel, blended blues and jazz with religious themes. His song, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” recorded in 1937, has sold millions of copies over the years. He also organized the first gospel chorus and co-founded the annual National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses. He is also credited with discovering the Queen of Gospel, Mahalia Jackson, and coaching her to her crossover path of becoming a major voice of the Civil Rights movement. 

Gospel’s Impact

Over the years, gospel music has become a booming part of the recording industry. It is estimated that more than 100 million Americans listen to some form of the genre every month. Rhythm & Blues performers like Sam Cooke, Shirley Caesar, Aretha Franklin, and more won crossover success by bringing their sanctified sound and style into secular music. This trend continues with today’s artists, who find common ground with mainstream popular music from hip-hop to pop. 

For more information about Wade in the Water Gallery and others that will be featured at NMAAM, visit our galleries page.