Gospel music can trace its roots to African-American spirituals, and spirituals can trace their roots back to the “corn ditties” sung by early slaves. As the slaves developed a new musical tradition for themselves against the backdrop of racial tensions and the hardships of slave life, they turned to the Christian Gospel (the Bible) as a source of musical inspiration. In the 20th century, as the old spirituals became an uncomfortable reminder of slavery, a new form of gospel music began to flourish, and by the 1950s, both gospel music and spirituals came to represent African-American heritage.
African-American music dates back to the earliest days of slavery in America, according to NegroSpirituals.com. As early as the 1700s, slaves would gather together after church or in their own secret meetings to sing songs expressing their feelings and faith. Some of these meetings saw the gathering of thousands of slaves for hours at a time. The slaves of this era called their songs “corn ditties.”
Slavery, Church and Escape
While slaves sang the standard hymns during church services, by the 1850s, their own original songs took inspiration from the Bible, particularly its message of salvation and promise of a better life to come. The slaves also began to refer to the Underground Railroad, the organization dedicated to helping slaves escape to the North, in the song’s mentions of “Jordan,” which was code for the Ohio River as a boundary between slavery and freedom. After the abolition of slavery, slaves felt burdened by the memories of slave days that spirituals evoked, making them ready for a new, happier form of religious music.
African-American culture reached new heights of mainstream popularity in the “Black Renaissance” of the 1920s. As spirituals gained new audiences through performances by stars such as Paul Robeson, a man named Thomas A. Dorsey began writing new Christian songs directly inspired by spirituals, dubbing his songs “gospel music” and earning a place in history as the official originator of this new genre.
While spirituals had developed increasingly sophisticated performance practices, with groups at Quincy College and elsewhere forming groups of trained musicians singing in harmonies, gospel music found its way through the channels of popular music, including not only churches, but also theaters, concert halls and nightclubs. Choirs of gospel singers accompanied famous preachers such as James Cleveland throughout the country, while during the same period, many Southern African-Americans migrated North, bringing gospel music to new audiences and creating more demand for this musical style.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, in which African-Americans fought for desegregation and equal rights as American citizens, threw the national spotlight on gospel music as spirituals and protest music provided the soundtrack to this national struggle. In the years that followed, events such as Martin Luther King Day and Black History Month helped raise awareness of spirituals and their descendant, gospel music, as an important American art form.