GOSPEL ROOTS

BY RON SCOTT
WRITER AND DEDICATED WITNESS TO MUSIC, ART, AND CULTURE

Based on the blues, like a John Coltrane ballad, the shouts of Big Maybelle, or Gregory Porter songs, gospel music is the melodic cadence of ancestral sounds, call and response from the cotton fields and prison chain gangs to the Black Church. On Sunday mornings, these spirited components resonate in church pulpits where one can witness that vocal melodic cadence form and choirs, now accompanied by live bands.

The sounds of our ancestors were heard long before the American sound of European instruments. In Slave Culture (1987), Sterling Stuckey noted, “The ring shout was the main context in which Africans recognized values common to them, that is the values of ancestor worship and of contact, communication, and teaching. The ringhelped preserve the elements that we have come to know as the characterizing and fundamental elements of Black music: calls, cries, and hollers; call and response; additive rhythms and polyrhythms; blue notes, bent notes, hums, moans, grunts; constant repetition of rhythmic and melodic figures and phrases (from which riffs and vamps would be derived); hand clapping and foot patting.”

The jazz and blues composer/arranger Thomas A. Dorsey (1919–1993), the “Father of Gospel Music,” wrote 3,000 songs including “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” For him, song lyrics were just a supplement to spoken word preaching, based on a preacher’s cadence and intonation that invariably became the gateway to hiphop. His original concept opened the door for gospel hip-hop, which introduced gospel singer/songwriter Kirk Franklin and his urban contemporary gospel choirs The Family, and One Nation’s Crew. Kendrick Lamar, the only rapper with the distinction of winning the Pulitzer Prize for Music (2018), has occasionally used his music/ lyrics to express his Christian faith.

Pioneer gospel singers Mahalia Jackson and Sister Rosetta Tharpe were early influences of R&B and rock & roll. Tharpe’s unique style influenced Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, and British guitarists Jeff Beck and Keith Richards.

One of the most revered gospel elders is 88-yearold Dorothy Norwood. At 19 years old, she toured with Mahalia Jackson (1956-57). “She taught me so many things,” said Norwood. “Most importantly she taught me showmanship, not to stand in one spot but move around.” In 1958 she joined The Caravans, which already included James Cleveland and Cassietta George. This ensemble (that began in 1947) later helped launch the career of Shirley Caesar.

At the beginning of her solo career in the early 1960s, Norwood toured as an opening act for the Rolling Stones. At first, she felt odd opening for the big rock act but The Stones said they were moved by her music in a different way and wanted her on the tour. “I was really humbled to tour with them,” she says. Slowed down by the recent pandemic, she still performs. “I’m moving out there slowly,” said Ms. Norwood.

U.S. and international tourists and their on-going curiosity with Black people and gospel roots are known for visiting Black churches to be entertained by gospel choirs and perhaps touched by the pastor’s deliberate rhythmic cadence passing on the Word. The Abyssinian Baptist Church with its music ministry has served as a central pillar of the church’s worship while delivering an outspoken voice of activism in the village of Harlem and the City of New York for more than 200 years (while hosting Sunday tourists). Choir Director LaFrederick Coaxner explained, “the choir under my leadership is The Inspirational Voices Of Abyssinian (IVA). IVA brings diversification to the music ministry with more contemporary gospel music as well as traditional gospel and spirituals. The popularity of gospel music has always been there. There has always been a gospel radio station or a show dedicated to Sunday morning gospel music.”

Positive Community Radio continues the long tradition of gospel radio with its daily, early morning gospel show. The 24/7 programming at thepositivecommunity.com also boosts the Black experience in R&B, blues, jazz, and hip-hop.

Over 400 singers came out to audition for the Jubilation Choir in 1998, but only 100 earned the honorto wear the Jubilation robe. Currently 35 of the original members are still performing. The choir was founded by Councilman Donald Tucker and then President of New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) Larry Goldman. Reverend Dr. Stephanie Minatee was named choir director and artist-in-residence. Under her leadership, Jubilation released six albums and were Grammy award winners. They appeared on the album Ray Charles Celebrates a Gospel Christmas with The Voices of Jubilation (Madacy 2004). “When I flew out to California to meet Ray, we hit it off immediately,” said Rev. Minatee. “I will never forget that experience of performing with him.” Secular and gospel artists who’ve enlisted Jubilation’s heavenly harmonies include: Queen Latifah, Dionne Warwick, Bishop Walter Hawkins, and Donnie McClurkin. “There is a message in our music,” stated Rev. Minatee. “We do various genres of music to enlighten, not to entertain.” After more than two decades, Rev. Minatee retired in 2021 during the pandemic. “It is time to passon the torch and I thank God for all he has done for us,” she concluded.

Gospel music will continue to marry R&B, classical, and jazz. Young people will continue to add their fireto the brimstone as the Black experience evolves. It’s all Black music from the soul of Black folks. All praises to the power of Black gospel music, it heals, it soothes, it gives comfort in times of need. “Mary Don’t You Weep,” “We Have a Friend in Jesus.”

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