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A Brief History Of Gospel Music, From African Rhythms To 'The Brooklyn Sound'

Mar 28, 2018

As Easter and Passover approach, University of Connecticut music professor Robert Stephens joins Here & Now‘s Robin Young to discuss the evolution of gospel music, from African rhythms to the Hammond organ that characterizes the popular “Brooklyn sound” in churches today.

Interview Highlights

On how gospels grew out of spirituals

“One of the distinguishing features between the two is that most of the spirituals’ text are based on the Old Testament. There was a strong identification with Moses leading his people out of Egypt, out of bondage. And so that possibly may be one of the reasons. The gospel, on the other hand, is about the good news, about Christ coming again. Much of it is based on the New Testament. There are some other factors, too, that I think are important and one of the things that was not looked upon with great favor during the period of enslavement was the use of instruments. There was this fear that instruments could be used to communicate and inspire uprisings. Drums were actually banned. And that played a critical role in how rhythm developed among African-Americans in the United States. But although the drums were banned, there were surrogates. One of the primary surrogates to create rhythms were hand-clapping and foot-stamping.”


Austin Coleman, Joe Washington Brown and group, “Good Lord (Run Old Jeremiah)” recorded by Alan Lomax, 1934

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On the African Methodist Episcopal Church and its role in the development of gospel

“One of the things that eventually evolved out of this is the use of refrain lines. It’s important to remember that a lot of the folks who attended these services could read. So audience participation or communal participation, which is conceptually a very African thing, was something that was important to them in their services and that became a part of what they did.”


Together As One Hymn Choir of Ebenezer Baptist Church (Rock Hill, South Carolina), “How Happy Every Child of Grace,” 2015

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Ella Jenkins and the Goodwill Spiritual Choir of Monumental Baptist Church, “Wade in the Water”

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On George White’s role in developing the spirituals for fundraising concerts for the Fisk Jubilee Singers

“He did two things to them. One, he helped to formalize them, he harmonized them. And he cleaned the language, as he would say, so that it could be understood primarily by whites, because these were the folks who were more likely to contribute money, and it would bring back a bit of nostalgia for them as well.”


Fisk University Jubilee Singers, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” 1909 recording

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On the turn of the 20th century, and a turn away from spirituals and toward gospel

“One of the things that has often plagued music in the African-American church is this idea of respectability. And so there were people who were just very uncomfortable performing in the old style.”

On the advent of the Hammond organ

“The Hammond organ, actually invented because people were looking for an answer to the pipe organ. Again, music making in the black community is vocally oriented, or certainly vocally based, and the Hammond certainly has the ability to approximate what the voice does. In the black church, the spoken word is not the be-all, end-all. Its significance lies when it’s paired with something else. So that’s why I said Robert [Irving] III says — gospel player and a jazz player — said that you had what was called talk music, or padding, as it’s called. So during the course of a sermon, as the minister introduces the text that he wants to teach about, and as the sermon evolves, then the organ player will come in and they have cues. Robert says that he’s worked with ministers who, beforehand, will tell him ‘This is where I want you to key up.’ And so they will listen, and then as the minister gets to what’s called a ‘hoop,’ they will punctuate that. There’s a great example of a sermon close. It’s a pastor, H.B. Charles, he’s on YouTube, and his sermon is ‘Something Good is Going to Come Out of This.’ And as he closes the sermon, we hear the organ player in the background working with him in conjunction. The Hammond does this extremely well.”


Sermon by Rev. H.B. Charles at Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church-Jacksonville, Florida, 2012

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More Music From The Segment

Mahalia Jackson, “Precious Lord,” 1961 recording

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The Jubilee Gospel Team, “Let Jesus Lead You,” 1928 recording

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Melvin Crispell

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Cory Henry tribute to Melvin Crispell’s “Wonderful Is Your Name,” 2014

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Doobie Powell instructional video, Wheatworks Productions

Robert Stephens III, Grace Tabernacle church, with Marcus “MW” Williams (drums) Dwayne “DW” Wright (bass) and Quanell Gaskin (keys)

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