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By Ben Sandmel
Gospel music is a broad term for Christian religious music – much of which has folkloric roots – that is prevalent in Louisiana’s African-American and Anglo-American communities alike. Gospel music’s core practitioners are found in congregations of various Protestant denominations, although gospel music influence also permeates some Catholic choirs in south Louisiana. For many practitioners of gospel music, the act of singing constitutes a testimony about their personal belief, an effort to proselytize, and a strong sense of community involvement.
The term gospel music per se, to denote such music, came into use in the early twentieth century. Its emergence occurred due in large part to the efforts of the African-American songwriter Thomas A. Dorsey, a.k.a. “the father of gospel music,” whose compositions include “Peace in the Valley” and “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” But the musical traditions that gospel music encompasses can be traced back to diverse sources in eighteenth-century America, and even further back in both Africa and Britain.
African-American gospel music is rooted in such antebellum song forms as spirituals and ring-shouts. Many such songs used ostensibly religious lyrics and Biblical themes as code-phrases for survival during slavery, and for plans to escape from bondage. Numerous West African aesthetic traits were prominent in this music – sacred and spiritual alike – including rhythmic syncopation, call and response, melisma (the bending of tones, and the stretching of one-syllable words into polysyllabic form), improvisation, and the lack of a porous boundary between performer and audience. (One of the more unique manifestations of African-American gospel music in Louisiana is the traditional ritual ceremony known as Easter Rock, held in the town of Winnsboro, in Franklin Parish. This custom utilizes stylized stepping patterns and foodways traditions in addition to singing.)
While traditional African-rooted traits have continually flourished and remain popular today, a quite different African-American religious style emerged during the latter nineteenth century. Known as jubilee singing, it significantly re-interpreted traditional spirituals by utilizing the European system of precisely annotated non-improvisational music in performances by university/community ensembles and quartets. While jubilee singing is rarely if ever heard today, it left a significant imprint of the classical technique with which it was performed, which is especially prominent in contemporary gospel choral singing.
Anglo-American religious music shares many of the African-American traits mentioned above. It has also shared, along with the African-American community, the tradition of shape-note singing. This simplified system for reading music was devised in the early nineteenth century when large segments of the American populace were minimally literate. Instead of writing music in the full octaves, chromatic scales and bass/treble clefs of conventional musical notation, shape note singing’s a cappella four-part harmony utilized a simplified system of a triangle, circle, square, and diamond. (A modernized and expanded form of shape note singing, known as Sacred Harp, uses a seven-note scale, and retains a loyal core following to this day, among Anglo- and African-Americans alike, primarily in the South.) But Anglo-American gospel music also has roots that reach back further, to the religious music of New England – as compiled, for example, in The Bay Psalm Book, published in 1640 in Cambridge, MA. Much of this material, in turn, is rooted in significantly older music brought to America from Britain.
By the 1920s, a significant new form of gospel arose – a quartet sound that made exquisite use of four-part harmonies, sung in different registers that maximized the dramatic effect of contrasting voices. This style, predominately performed by male artists, remained popular until the latter part of the twentieth century. Popularized nationally by groups…