Every Sunday–and sometimes in between–you lift your voice to heaven and offer it to the Lord.
Maybe the sound is like a bird or a musical waterfall, the voice of praising angels or the sound of love on a sliding scale. Or maybe you can’t carry a tune in a basket, but you’re always willing to give back to God what he gave to you.
Either way, there are stories behind those songs you sing, and a lot of people who sang those tunes before you. In the new book “An Illustrated History of Gospel” by Steve Turner, (c.2010, Lion Hudson $29.95 / $32.99 Canada, 208 pages, including index) you’ll see where Gospel came from and how it changed music.
In her book, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” author Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote about “a meeting” in which slaves sang songs that were religious in nature.
Beecher Stowe’s fictional account was based on experience; in fact, Turner says that Gospel music was born on plantations, founded on spirituals, and raised on camp-style revivals.
By 1871, Gospel music had become enough of a “style” that nine Black men and women began touring with a White music teacher. The Jubilee Singers (later known as the Fisk Jubilee Singers) sang God’s praises all over the United States, including performances for Mark Twain and President Ulysses Grant, before taking their show overseas.
As America moved into the 20th century and White audiences flocked to see minstrel acts, Gospel music was added to the rosters of many shows, although it wasn’t without controversy. Some churches saw Gospel music as something for God and not for entertainment. Other churches encouraged a “rawness” in songs that told about life, and in doing so, Gospel gave birth to the blues.
But it wasn’t a one-sided relationship.
“Gospel music drew from the Blues,” Turner says, “and then years later the blues would draw from Gospel music, creating a new hybrid they called soul.”
R & B drew from Gospel music, too, and it moved from church to stage in cities like Memphis and Detroit. Female Gospel singers began to make waves by making their own music, and radio turned White teenagers onto the sound. Civil Rights protesters embraced Gospel music and made one of its songs into an anthem.
“An Illustrated History of Gospel” is one of those books you have to see to believe. It’s filled with pictures, jammed with memories for Gospel fans, and packed with names you’ll recognize, like Mahalia Jackson, the Dixie Hummingbirds, Rosetta Tharp, Ray Charles, Johnny Otis, Clara Ward, and others.
But despite the goodness within the covers of this book, it’s not easy to read. Turner admits early that he didn’t write chronologically, which could cause literary whiplash while reading. Also, because this book was published in the U.K., punctuation and capitalization (or lack thereof) isn’t like what you’re used to seeing, and that may add to the confusion.
Still, if you’re a Gospel fan–or you love any kind of music, really–you can’t miss this book. For you, “An Illustrated History of Gospel” might just be a little slice of Heaven.