This section delves into the differing Gospel music styles. Below is a synopsis of the various styles up to the present day (for consitency and completeness). More detailed information regarding each style is given on separate pages, just follow the appropriate links below.
Spirituals (or Negro spirituals) are religious folk songs (‘work songs’ and ‘field hollers’) developed by black American slaves, who applied African musical traditions to Christian themes. Many Negro spirituals follow a simple call-and-response, making them suitable for singing both in church and while at work in the fields. Whilst primarily expressions of religious faith, some may also have served as socio-political protests veiled as assimilation to white American culture. Although numerous rhythmical and sonic elements of Negro spirituals can be traced to African sources, Negro spirituals are a musical form that is indigenous and specific to the religious experience in the United States of Africans and their descendants. They are a result of the interaction of music and religion from Africa with music and religion of European origin.
Traditional gospel, sometimes referred to as black gospel, was codified by the composer and singer Thomas A. Dorsey in the 1930s and generally features a large church choir, often fronted by one or more soloists. Traditional gospel has been the jumping-off point for a number of other styles.
Gospel blues is a blues-based form of gospel music (a combination of blues guitar and evangelistic lyrics). Notable gospel blues performers include Thomas A. Dorsey (the “founder” of gospel blues), Blind Willie Johnson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Reverend Gary Davis. Blues musicians such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton, Sam Collins, Josh White, Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Willie McTell, Bukka White, Sleepy John Estes and Skip James have recorded a fair number of Gospel and religious songs, these were often commercially released under a pseudonym. Additionally, by the late 1950s and 1960s some musicians had become devote, or even practicing clergymen, this was the case for musicians such as Reverend Robert Wilkins and Ishman Bracey.
Shout music, a type of gospel music performed by shout bands. The shout band tradition of the southeastern United States originated from the exuberant church music of North Carolina. African American brass players formed bands, predominantly trombone-based, inspired by jazz, blues and Dixieland, gospel and old-time spirituals: a more soulful version of a New Orleans Brass Band. The United House of Prayer For All People, an Apostolic denomination founded in 1919 in Massachusetts, is particularly known for its shout bands.
Southern gospel music as its name implies comes from its origins in the Southeastern United States whose lyrics are written to express either personal or a communal faith regarding biblical teachings and Christian life, as well as (in terms of the varying music styles) to give a Christian alternative to mainstream secular music. Sometimes known as “quartet music” for its traditional “four men and a piano” set up, southern gospel has evolved over the years into a popular form of music across the United States and overseas, especially among baby boomers and those living in the Southern United States. Like other forms of music the creation, performance, significance, and even the definition of southern gospel varies according to culture and social context. It is composed and performed for many purposes, ranging from aesthetic pleasure, religious or ceremonial purposes, or as an entertainment product for the marketplace.
Progressive Southern Gospel
Progressive Southern gospel is an American music genre that has grown out of Southern gospel. It is characterized by its blend of traditional Southern gospel instrumentation with elements of modern Country and pop music. Hints of other styles are frequently employed in the mix as well. In some progressive Southern gospel, you can hear a touch of Cajun, Celtic, Bluegrass, or even Southern rock.
Also known as Christian country or white gospel, country gospel is a cross of traditional spirituals with country and Appalachian folk music. Contemporary country gospel, however, has progressed over the years into a mainstream country sound with inspirational or positive country lyrics.
Contemporary / Urban Gospel
Contemporary gospel, pioneered in the 1980s, is a more polished version of traditional gospel, drawing influences from modern R & B, jazz, blues and even hip-hop. Most contemporary gospel is recording in a slick, radio-ready format and musically most resembles “urban” music.
Bluegrass gospel music is rooted in American mountain music. Bluegrass gospel is classed as a third subgenre of Bluegrass (the other two being “Traditional Bluegrass” and “Progressive Bluegrass”). Many bluegrass artists incorporate gospel music into their repertoire. Distinctive elements of this style include Christian lyrics, soulful three- or four-part harmony singing, and sometimes playing instrumentals. A cappella choruses are popular with bluegrass gospel artists, though the harmony structure differs somewhat from standard barbershop or choir singing.
Soul gospel was a variation on black gospel pioneered in the 1950s by a number of church quartets, including the Soul Stirrers and the Pilgrim Travelers, as well as solo artists, including Aretha Franklin. While religious in subject matter, soul gospel was marked by its raw, often sexually charged display of emotion. A precursor to Southern soul, many soul gospel artists, such as Sam Cooke, one-time lead of the Soul Stirrers, crossed over into mainstream, secular success.
British Black Gospel
British black gospel refers to Gospel music of the African diaspora (communities descended from Africa’s peoples), which has been produced in the UK. It is also often referred to as urban contemporary gospel or UK Gospel. The distinctive sound is heavily influenced by UK street culture with many artists from the African and Caribbean majority black churches in the UK.
Celtic gospel music is a hybrid of traditional southern gospel music infused with Celtic influences. The songs are usually derived from black gospel, but the arrangement is usually distinctly Celtic. Celtic gospel is particularly popular in Ireland.
Another hybrid form, reggae gospel is musically identical to reggae, with singers making use of the traditional off-beat accenting endemic to the genre, but the lyrics substitute Rastafarianism for Christianity. Reggae gospel is seldom found outside of Jamaica.
Sacred Harp Singing
Sacred Harp singing is a uniquely American tradition of sacred choral music. Whilst having beginnings in seventeenth-century England it originated as Protestant Christian music in New England and later perpetuated in the American South of the United States. The name is derived from ‘The Sacred Harp’ (1844) tunebook printed in “shape notes”. The “sacred harp” is the human voice singing hymns to God. “Shape notes” are a music notation designed to facilitate congregational and community singing. Sacred Harp music is generally performed a cappella (voice only, without instruments), although occasionally may be accompanied by piano, harmonium or organ.
Sacred Steel is a musical style and African-American gospel tradition that developed in a group of related Pentecostal churches in the 1930s.