They sang with all the strength that was in them, and clapped their hands for joy. . . . Their singing caused him to believe in the presence of the Lord; indeed, it was no longer a question of belief, because they made that presence real. . . . Something happened to their faces and their voices, the rhythm of their bodies, and to the air they breathed. . . .
--James Baldwin, "Go Tell It on the Mountain"
Mention gospel music to most people and it brings to mind scenes like the one Baldwin described--a 1930s Harlem congregation, clapping and singing joyously, conducted by a preacher crying, "Jesus, Jesus, Oh, Lord Jesus!"
This, of course, is a stereotype, but it is not wholly exaggerated or outdated, for gospel music is just as alive, well and ecstatic today as it ever has been in the Southland and nationwide.
Legend of the Art Form
In the coming weeks, gospel fans will have many chances to take in performances, including a major tribute to, and festival for, one of the art form's legends, the late Mahalia Jackson.
"Gospel today is bigger than a lot of people could ever dream it is," said James Bullard, general manager of the Black Music Division of Word Records, a subsidiary of Capital Cities/ABC Inc. "Whether it's in the Deep South or on the West Coast, everywhere black people gather to sing praises to God, the musical feel is basically the same as it always has been.
"Black gospel," he said, "has retained a traditional sense because it has more of a 'church' feel to it. Even the contemporary gospel performer goes back to the church. . . . There's no real separation of religion and music. That's the uniqueness of gospel, what makes it an art form."
Like jazz, blues and bluegrass, gospel is uniquely American. And it has exerted a profound influence on the country's popular music for more than 150 years.
Its dynamic singing style--highlighted by the widely acclaimed stage production "The Gospel at Colonnus" three seasons ago--can be detected not only in the work of black pop artists like Whitney Houston, Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles but also in white rock 'n' rollers and country performers, too. The black gospel style has also influenced the hortatory style of some television preachers such as Jimmy Swaggart.
A number of today's premier gospel artists live in the Los Angeles area: the Rev. James Cleveland, Andrae Crouch, Tramaine Hawkins, the Rev. Carl Bean and Linda Hopkins.
Singer of Jazz, Blues and Country
Hopkins--a Tony Award-winning nightclub performer and recording artist who has distinguished herself as a singer of jazz, blues and country--co-wrote and starred in "Me and Bessie," a musical about blues singer Bessie Smith.
"No matter where I sing, or what I sing, I always close with my gospel," said Hopkins, who was discovered while singing as a child in her father's church by gospel legend Jackson.
"To me, the blues and gospel are really the same," Hopkins said. "It's just different words. They both say, 'Thank you, Lord, for easing this
heavy burden off of me.' All the great blues singerswere gospel singers first; once you've sung the gospel, it never leaves you."
On Thursday, Hopkins will join Dionne Warwick, Patti LaBelle, Jennifer Holliday, Natalie Cole, James Cleveland and other gospel singers at the Shrine Auditorium in a gospel benefit for minority AIDS victims. Organized by Bean's Minority AIDS Project, the event, "Coming Home for Friends," also will feature a 200-voice choir drawn from local gospel groups. (Information: (213) 936-4949.)
Events of this sort underscore another of gospel's roles in a key part of American life: politics.
Its use in that fashion was strikingly evident as recently as two weeks ago, when the Rev. Jesse Jackson led supporters in singing gospel songs in an Atlanta park before moving on to the Democratic National Convention. Gospel music also has served to unite social activists and civil-rights leaders in other political rallies and events for decades now.
Historians agree that black and white gospel have been distinct stylistically, since their emergence in the mid-1800s; black gospel grew out of the Afro-American blues/spiritual tradition of Southern slavery; white gospel evolved primarily from British Protestant evangelical hymnody.
According to musicologists, the first gospel songs appeared in the 1850s, strongly influenced by popular secular music of the time--and vice versa. After the Civil War, gospel hymns or spirituals grew in popularity not only as religious songs but also as pure entertainment.
Early black performing groups, such as the Fisk Jubilee Singers, gained international fame and were hailed by the likes of Mark Twain and George Bernard Shaw. New hymns sold fast, encouraging a boom in gospel songwriting--by whites.
Songs Still Sung Today
Many traditional spirituals still sung today originated in this period, including "Go Down Moses" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," according to the New Grove Dictionary of American Music.