About the Gospel Folk
Our repertoire includes songs from various musical genres and styles – folk, African, popular, classical – but most of all we enjoy singing gospel songs. Here’s a brief account of where gospel music comes from and why it’s so much fun to sing.
Gospel - uplifting, satisfying music that everyone can sing
Gospel music is a distinctly American art form with links to ragtime, jazz and blues. Gospel grew out of 19th century black spirituals and slave songs. Many early gospel songs conveyed coded messages about slavery and liberation, disguised as lyrics about Christian salvation. Songs that mentioned the ‘railway to God’ were in fact songs about the Underground Railway that helped slaves from the Southern States escape to freedom north of the Ohio River. For example, the 1872 gospel song The Gospel Train (Get On Board)
Get on board, little children,
Get on Board, little children
Get on board, little children, There’s room for many a-more.
Gospel also owes its development to the emerging Pentecostal strand of Christianity that became very popular with black Americans in the 1920s. In the Pentecostal church, preachers spoke in the everyday language, idioms and dialect of their congregations, encouraging a lively call-and-response dialogue. Pentecostal churches welcomed noisy music making on everyday instruments – tambourines, pianos, banjos, guitars and even brass instruments.
As a vernacular, expressive and everyday art form, gospel marked a radical contrast to the formal, restrained and high art style of traditional church music. The lyrics of gospel songs are about personal struggles and emotions and the demonstrated power of faith and forgiveness in ordinary people’s experience, rather than about abstract theological concepts. Take these lines from the great early 20th century gospel songwriter Thomas Dorsey’s Precious Lord, Take My Hand:
Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand,
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn. Through the storm,
through the night, lead me on to the light;
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.
Because it developed as a vernacular music that everyone could participate in – not just those with formal musical training – gospel is characterised by its catchy, straightforward melodies, harmonies and rhythms. The melodies are easy to learn and gospel sounds great in four-part choral harmony because it mostly uses simple chords and chord progressions. Like jazz, gospel rhythms are irresistible – try not tapping your toe or clapping your hands to Oh Happy Day! Rhythms often use syncopations (where singers sing on the off-beats) and anticipations (where singers sing just before the beat). Quavers are often ‘swung’ or ‘shuffled’ and songs are often repeated multiple times, each time modulating up a tone or semi-tone to build excitement and intensity.
So the Gospel Folk enjoy singing gospel because the songs are lively, harmonically satisfying, rhythmically irresistible and because they celebrate ordinary people’s commitment to making music despite whatever struggles they face in their lives.