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date: 17 August 2019

Sacred and Secular in African American Music

Abstract and Keywords

Music, a source of motivation, well-being, entertainment, and survival in diverse lives of African Americans, has afforded them experiences of signifying their humanity amidst horrific oppression, while engaging in creativity, worship, and rituals of celebration. Rooted within African traditions, where sacred and secular are one, some African American musical genres are more fluid, engaging a tension between how people label and use music. This music shares common traditions and attributes. Using themes of poetry, praise, power, protest, philosophy, and politics, this analysis of African American sacred and secular music: (1) introduces the socio-historical, cultural, cosmological origins and terminology of this music; (2) examines selected musical typologies, from antebellum Spirituals to hip-hop and contemporary classical African American music that foregrounds tenets of so-called sacred and secular music; (3) explores a religious/spiritual impact of these cultural artifacts; and (4) concludes with a literature review of scholarship regarding African American sacred and secular music.

Keywords: African American music, blues, Gospel music, hip-hop, hymnody, jazz, racism, sacred, secular, spirituals

Music is incredibly important in diverse lives of African Americans, who have used a variety of music to do many things. Music acts as a catalyst of creativity, empowerment, inspiration, and celebration. Some use music for motivation, well-being, or for entertainment. Many persons of faith in the first African diaspora to the Western Hemisphere experienced God via music. Over time, parents sang religious music to their children, youth sang in a children’s choir, or they listened to Gospels and Spirituals on 78s, 45s, LPs, or CDs (if over fifty); and the Internet, downloading, and iPods (if under thirty). Recently, many African Americans have begun a reverse migration back to the South and Southeast, retiring to warmer climates, to renew family ties, and for less expensive economic environments. Just as music soothed concerns of the enslaved and twentieth century immigrants, and moved the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, today, music is a quintessential element within W. E. B. Du Bois’s souls of Black folk. Music is a life force in the so-called secular and sacred contexts of African Americans. In African traditions, however, there is no clear-cut separation between sacred and secular. Some musical genres are more fluid, and exist in both categories.

In some African American musical genres, there is tension between how people label and use music, what acceptable practice is, and what may be viewed in poor taste. There have been disputes over what is appropriate or not for music in worship. Some practices regarding use of instruments, appropriate performance style, and particular genres that were once banned are now incorporated in some church traditions. This chapter intentionally includes genres of music usually classified as secular, which may seem odd in a volume on religion and the arts. The substantive intersections and cross-fertilizations of the different genres of African American music require this inclusion; that is, demand this approach based upon the evolution of the music. A classic case in point is the connection between the blues and Gospel music via Thomas A. Dorsey, discussed later in this chapter.

(p. 499) Regardless of the particular musical genre, African American music shares various attributes in common, from contextual ramifications and audience to impact. From an old One Hundredth hymn to a hip-hop Praise song, African American sacred music honors God, offers thanksgiving, teaches virtue, recalls history and doctrine, celebrates special days, and honors the practices of Christian life. So-called secular music entertains and often provides commentary on life, including spirituality and transformation. Sometimes musicians use secular music in sacred settings. By changing words, tempos, or style, music can reveal numerous aspects and experiences of society. Sometimes church musicians will take a popular song and redact it to be church music, so that “You Are the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me,” popularized by Gladys Knight and the Pips, becomes “Jesus Is the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me.” Along with belief systems, music may indicate a church’s socio-economic class, referencing music typologies, number of choirs, role of the minister of music, sense of community outreach, and the immediate accessibility of recordings of worship services. From a so-called secular space, musical taste can indicate levels of education and access. One way to reflect on both types of music involves thematic development.

Poetry, praise, power, protest, philosophy, and politics create a tapestry for signifying major themes and trajectories within African American sacred and secular music. Poetry bespeaks a profound cornucopia of rhyme, texts, subjects, history, emotions, meter, artistry, contexts, content, theology, ethics, spirituality, and melody. Praise honors the connectivity of all life, all creation in traditional African cosmologies: no separation exists between the sacred and profane/secular, the living, unborn, or dead/ancestors. Power serves as an umbrella that holds categories of authority, authenticity, access, community, and justice in tension with systemic and personal evil, oppression, and injustice. Protest frames the genesis and catalyst for most African diasporan cultural productions that celebrate life and advocate in favor of the marginalized, those never forsaken by God. Philosophy concerns the complex thought and double entendres that emerge in the language and thought of, within, and behind the music. Politics references interpersonal, intrapersonal, and communal dynamics regarding identity, story, interpretation, performance practice, and music traditions.

This analysis of sacred and secular in African American music begins by briefly introducing the socio-historical, cultural, and cosmological origins and terminology of this music. Second, thematic, chronological examination of selected musical typologies, from antebellum Spirituals to hip-hop and contemporary classical African American foregrounds tenets of so-called sacred and secular music. The forms of expression include instrumental and vocal, solo, and collaborative. Third, a summary examines the religious/spiritual impact of these cultural artifacts. Fourth, the chapter concludes with a literature review of significant scholarship regarding African American sacred and secular music.

(p. 500) 37.1 Origins and Primary Characteristics

African American sacred and secular music arises out of a lived experienced of people transported like chattel, in inhumane conditions from one continent to another under duress, without choice, as they related to their understandings of the divine, themselves, and their surroundings. As captives considered unintelligent brutes, Africans brought with them a worldview, historical encounters, and their cultural legacy. African enslaved persons used music to bolster their morale, as well as to praise and protest. In the Du Boisian sense of an exponential double consciousness, persons of African descent, new to what later became the United States, have to wrestle and reckon with realities of being African, and American, and African American.

Black enslaved persons stolen from Africa brought with them a legacy of music, culture, politics, social organization, pedagogy, and ways of being and learning, which included religion, government, and social structures. According to Herodotus and other early historians, much of what has been attributed to Greece and Rome germinated in Africa. Music-making was part of everyday African life. Despite the horrific conditions of antebellum enslavement and later Jim and Jane Crow and its twenty-first-century resurgence, diasporan Africans in the United States have created a variety of music to name and signify their lived realities, joys, and sorrows, and to expose oppressive persons and systems. The term African Diaspora pertains to the people whose ancestors came from Africa, and who now live in other parts of the world due to antebellum slavery, legitimated by Pope Nicholas V’s 1452/4 papal bull, Dum diversas, which sanctioned and authorized Portugal’s invasion and the monopoly of slave trade in Africa. Within the United States, people often think of a Second Diaspora, where persons migrated from the South to the North and West (1940s, 1950s) for better economic opportunities and less blatant racism. Recently, many African Americans have begun a reverse migration back to the South and Southeast, as mentioned earlier.

Antebellum music by Black folks included Spirituals, blues, work songs and hollers. The songs have been tools of survival and overcoming, from experiences of the Underground Railroad through concerns regarding twenty-first-century economic downturns, street violence, and political disenfranchisement. African American music weaves together and depends on drama and dance amid complex, diverse improvisation shaping melody, harmony, rhythm, meter, textures, and instrumentation grounded in a rich culture of oral traditions, sacred and secular alike.

Black sacred music or hymnody involves music of praise or adoration of God, religious poetry as pronouncement and affirmation, appropriate for corporate expression. This music proclaims theological, doctrinal beliefs that define how particular groups understand God’s presence and work in the world. Traditionally, hymns express the truth claims that capture the Christian religious experience of believers for over two (p. 501) thousand years. African American hymnody arises from African socio-cultural, religious, aesthetic, and musical traditions of enslaved Africans mixed with European religious dogmas and musical styles within the United States. African qualities, myths, and hermeneutical strategies vital to African American musical development create continuity between African American hymnody and oral African cultural memories. Central to African American Christian hymnody are experiential issues that materialize from the horrific experiences of enslavement and ongoing oppression. Richard Allen (1760–1831), founder and a minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, published the first hymnal designed for African Americans, A Collection of Hymns and Spiritual Songs from Various Authors (two editions) in Philadelphia, 1801.

The music of the church helps to attract members and supports spiritual growth. This creative, inspiring, dynamic music often stands in tension between generational tastes, and boundaries between sacred and secular realities. Part of the challenge of engaging the diverse song in Black churches concerns the musicians themselves. Some musicians are trained in the Euro-American classical tradition, where the musical score is most important, and one is trained to honor that score to the letter. Some musicians play by ear; that is, many of them cannot read music, but can replicate the sound after hearing music played and/or sung. Some musicians read music and play by ear. Music in African American church performance practice often rests on oral tradition. Choirs and musicians may learn music by rote and expect to take a great deal of liberty with interpretation. The performance practice, couched in fluidity, involves timbre or sound quality, handling musical variables or techniques of delivery, and physical and visual dimensions of performance.

African American hymnody, notably music for congregational-style singing in an African American church setting, includes soulful, holistic, participatory, spiritual, celebratory, life-giving exclamations and experiences, reflecting theological, ethical, biblical, doctrinal, and socio-cultural history and consciousness of varied Black churches. Sacred songs are varied, transformative, and engaging: Spirituals (folk, jubilee, arranged, jubilee quartet, protest songs/freedom songs); Gospel music (folk, gospel-hymn, gospel quartets, choral, modern/contemporary, holy hip-hop, Christian hip-hop); Anthems (antiphonal, choral music with organ accompaniment); Revival songs (music with an evangelistic fervor); Hymns (standards by composers like Fanny Crosby, Charles Wesley, Isaac Watts, Charles A. Tindley); and Praise songs (toe-tapping music of deep adoration), performed either a cappella or with a vast array of instrumentation, from upright pianos to electronic keyboards, percussion, and guitar. Central to this African American music tradition is the ring shout, an expressive, cultural ritual combining the secular and sacred, where dance and holy music coalesce. Rooted in the African circle dance, the ring shout involves stamping, clapping instead of drumming, and feet shuffling, involving a shuffle step where one did not cross legs, a no-no for those Baptists who were against dance; and a hidden protest of counterclockwise movement in opposition to the sun’s movement. The movement symbolized the singers’ long, grueling days of arduous work during enslavement.

In addition to the ring shout, African Americans remembered and included many African practices and customs including cries, calls, and hollers; call and response; (p. 502) heterophony, multiple rhythms and polyrhythms; blue notes, bent notes, pendular thirds, hums, elisions; glides, grunts, moans, vocables, and other rhythmic-oral expressions, punctuations, and interpolations. Body movement, syncopation, parallel chords and intervals, melodic and rhythmic repetitions, and distinctive tonal resonances connected enslaved songsters and wordsmiths to their African traditions. These music-makers brought fragments of songs, rites, cultures, and doctrines with them to these shores. Many enslaved persons were familiar with the Christian God, because some practiced monotheism in West Africa as early as 500 CE. Some Africans followed Islam; others followed indigenous religions. Although separated from family and others with similar cultural backgrounds, some enslaved used music to make sense of the English language, White slave Christianity, and their oppression. In response, they created and sang Spirituals: the first Black hymnody in the United States, the foundational imprimatur for most African American music. Black religious music transmitted African American faith through song.

African American ethnomusicologist, Portia K. Maultsby, sees a three-pronged trajectory within African American musical roots: African American sacred traditions, African American secular traditions (non-jazz), and African American secular traditions (jazz). These traditions have multiple tentacles, reflecting a continuous connection, influence, and fluidity between the so-called sacred and secular.

Secular music sometimes drawing from sacred tunes with regard to performance practice, style, context, and themes, also engages, articulates, and responds to culture, life, philosophy, ontological and existential realities—a rich, complex, sometimes fluid legacy. Secular traditions include game songs, play songs, work songs, field/street calls and protest songs; the blues traditions of rural blues, vaudeville blues, boogie-woogie; urban blues, rhythm & blues, rock ‘n’ roll, rock, soul, disco, house, techno, rap/hip-hop, funk, electro-funk, go-go, and neo-soul; and jazz secular traditions, including syncopated dance music, syncopated brass bands, ragtime, New Orleans style jazz, stride piano, big bands, swing bands, bebop, hard bop, soul jazz, jazz fusion, new jazz swing, cool, and avant-garde/free jazz.

Some scholars will argue for a stringent line separating sacred from secular. Other scholars will see more fluidity. With some songs, only by listening to the lyrics can one discern whether they are sacred or secular because the melodies could go either way. The context of the particular church/denominational context can dictate the type of music, how one classifies the genre, and the amount of fluidity between sacred and secular. Where one stands on the assessment of the depths and breath of the tensions between sacred and secular music is often a matter of personal taste, socio-cultural and educational experience, religious context regarding performance styles as to the nature of the particular music, along with denominational dogma and practice. The chart shown in Figure 37.1 reflects a historical trajectory of the development of African American sacred and secular music.

See http://www.carnegiehall.org/honor/history/index.aspx

Sacred and Secular in African American MusicClick to view larger

Figure 37.1

Source: Courtesy Portia K. Maultsby.

(p. 503)

(p. 504) 37.2 Selected Thematic Typologies

37.2.1 Spirituals

The body of materials included under the rubric of Spirituals includes minstrels, jubilees, work songs, slave or folk songs, and religious antebellum songs. These spontaneously generated songs emerge out of ambiguity, regarding origins, functions, and designs. They operated at the physical and emotional levels, with multiple meanings. With major, minor, and mixtures of scales, Spirituals from the early eras were usually vocal, sometimes a cappella and other times with instrumental accompaniment. The Spirituals’ words and melody use many traditional African musical elements, particularly: ornamentation; rich tonality, often using a five-tone or pentatonic scale and flatted notes; a distinct blending of voices, creating a polyphonic sound; falsetto; moaning; humming; and gliding from note to note. This music uses hands and feet to create percussion, syncopation, call and response, spontaneity, improvisation, and building on drum rhythms, set in four-line stanzas with chorus. Spirituals become art songs during eighteenth-century reconstruction, notably with the concert performances of university choirs like the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

Spirituals, which are songs of expectation and justice and “chants of collective exorcism” helped an oppressed people deal with social, oppressive evils of racism and hegemony. Poetically, the Spirituals express an eschatological hope despite real threats of death through lynching, beatings, and inhumane treatment. The Spirituals exercised and exorcised a similar intensity and healing reality during the 1960s civil rights eras. They exercised this intensity in that the Spirituals affected such feelings and transformation. The Spirituals exorcised, that is aesthetically exposed and called out the evils of oppression and denied their veracity, toward healing the enslaved persons’ wounded spirits, scarred bodies, and bringing a sense of peace to their homes slave owners could legally breach. These inspiring, introspective songs are living, oral testimonies that offer confession, supplication, poetry, questions, and reflections. The Spirituals helped enslaved persons affirm God, and cope with their harsh lived realities. As praise songs, the Spirituals used biblical texts and religious imagery to signify a God who never abandons or fails. The Spirituals allow for healing and wholeness amidst struggle. They evolved in the womb of legalized slavery, between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Human traffickers kidnapped Africans against their will, as church and state legally objectified their bodies and personhood. Surviving the middle passage, enslaved persons surreptitiously hid their precious gifts of song and an indefatigable relationship with God. Spirituals engage power, as the trickster element in many Spirituals engages a double entendre and irony, a subtlety lost on outsiders who do not understand metaphors and irony amidst a sense of double consciousness, double voicing, double bind, and double philosophical thought. That is, one needs to have multiple levels of awareness, communicating a variety of different messages depending upon the context, framed by paradox (p. 505) and tension, as one posits belief and thought masqueraded beneath a play on words set to music. Believing they were created in God’s image, enslaved women and men created these songs communally. Together they incubated this music until singing these songs helped to liberate them, sheltering them from utter hopelessness. Philosophically, these songs tell stories of life and death, of oppression and freedom, of faith and hope, of salvation and transformation, of a determination to survive: creative, enigmatic stories of endurance and hope. Politically, the Spirituals reflect communal strategizing toward gaining freedom and accessing a better life. Using the technique of signifying, Black folk could hide their identity politics in an alleged mundane ballad, while plotting to escape and warn others of danger—through the power of song.

An energetic, powerful life force, Spirituals embody a collective folk aesthetic, blending African, American, and African American music and elements as they name and expose the dilemma of living amid good, evil, and injustice in a complex world. A Black aesthetic involves the quest for freedom and literacy, within socio-cultural, political realities of spiritual, embodied beauty. Spirituals embody an aesthetic of Black folk and formal traditions, as well as White traditions, that create the language of praises, reflections, and supplications. Spirituals signify figurative language, poetry, stories, and songs: shared communal wisdom. The songs signify and encode justice and humor. Derived communally, there are no particular individual composers. The graceful melodies and repetitive words insured that these songs passed orally from generation to generation. According to John Lovell Jr., enslaved African Diasporan peoples created some six thousand extant Spirituals. Popularized by the singing of the Fisk Jubilee singers, from the Emancipation years through today, some composers arrange the Spirituals, for congregational, solo, four-part harmony, and orchestral arrangements. These composers include R. Nathaniel Dett, Rachel Eubanks, Margaret Bonds, Edward Boatner, Undine Moore, Lena Johnson McLin, Hall Johnson, and brothers James Weldon and J. Rosamond Johnson. While the Spirituals include work songs, most would categorize the Spirituals as sacred music, whether or not the song explicitly mentions God. The focus on transformation, community, and well-being, as opposed to being victims, signifies the sacred.

37.2.2 Blues

Some call the blues secular spirituals. A key staple for urban Blacks, these songs poetically bemoaned the difficulties, destitution, depression, and despair African Americans experienced pre- and post-enslavement. The birth of minstrelsy produced ballads and blues. Ballads were romantic songs that signified a story of people, places, things, and love. Blues offered commentaries on similar realities regarding hard times. Minstrel composers included Thomas (Blind Tom) Bethune and James Bland in the late eighteenth century. Composers in the 1900s, like Will Marion Cook, J. Rosamond Johnson, and J. Hubert (Eubie) Blake created more sophisticated music, incorporating idioms from jazz, ragtime, and traditional European classical music. Later minstrelsy (p. 506) composers, too many to name, affected early jazz, vaudeville, tin pan alley type musicals, and burlesque.

Philosophically, the blues provided commentaries on Black life, displaying a vast array of emotion. Surfacing in the early 1900s and heard from tenderloin districts to street vendors, the blues relayed one’s personal response to a particular event, which presented opportunities for protest and political engagement. As a catalyst for power, singing the blues provides one a catharsis regarding her or his misery, making life bearable again. Blues originate out of sorrowful songs of roustabouts and stevedores, the enslaved’s field hollers, and from those Spirituals known as sorrow songs. Like the Spirituals, the blues engage a call-and-response technique, instrumental improvisation, syncopations, duple meter, and a poetic structure with AA’B in eight to sixteen measures. The blues have a unique harmony, with a chord structure of tonic, subdominant, tonic, dominant, tonic [I-IV-I-V-I]. Many scholars categorize the blues in three ways: rural or country blues, the earliest type, with solo male singers and guitar accompaniment, expanding to strings and jug bands; classic or city blues, involving women singers accompanied by orchestra or piano in 1920s and 1930s; urban blues, concerning blues from 1940s and later, using electric guitars, drums, basses, and brass instruments. Early anonymous blues singers were sometimes blind. They usually wandered from one black community to another, singing sorrowful songs. Blues singers sang in diners, honky-tonk nightspots, trains, and for community social events. Often associated with the poor, blues were well-received in saloons and brothels, usually dismissed by the middle and upper class. As praise songs, some blues include humor, jubilation, and spirituality. Most deem William Christopher (“W.C.”) Handy the father of the blues—the first person to both write a blues composition and to popularize the blues. Ma Rainey (Gertrude Malissa Nix Pridgett Rainey) toured, singing the blues. The context of performance, dynamics, and the meaning of the lyrics place blues in the secular category. At the same time, some of the vitality and freedom that emanates from the blues do have a spiritual or sacred quality.

37.2.3 Ragtime

Ragtime, an immediate predecessor of jazz and influence on the political factors of identity and interpretation of jazz, became popular during several worlds’ fairs, between 1893 and 1904. The term first appears in print in 1897. Scott Joplin and Tom Turpin created piano rags that contained multi-theme structures, simple syncopation, key change, and two strong beats per measure. Ragtime, Black dance music, poetically uses a two-step or cakewalk rhythm, simultaneously with an unsyncopated and syncopated beat. The right hand plays embellishments on the chord system established by the left hand; the left hand plays simple harmonies, philosophically reflecting the thought behind the music. The sections of this music follow three- or four-part form, with design of AABBACCDD, reflecting strong march influence. The rhythmic complexity of ragtime reflects power, a capacity of creativity as rags moved geographically, across the U.S., (p. 507) from a slow two-beat style (Joplin), to one of vigor and zest (James Scott), to romantic, strongly accented intertwined melodies (Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton), to the Harlem style of fervor rooted in classic praise and protest of ring shouts (Thomas “Fats” Waller and Eubie Blake). Ragtime faded from importance until its resurrection by Gunther Schuller in the 1970s. Because of its failure to develop further and because of Tin Pan Alley’s commercialism, ragtime was changed and consumed by jazz. With its dance-like acrobatics on the keyboard, scholars locate ragtime within secular music.

37.2.4 Jazz

Jazz as noun is a hybrid comprised of elements of jubilee songs, blues, jigs, shouts, clogs, and coon songs, with sacred and secular, popular and classic forms. As verb, jazz engages collective improvisation, correlating speech and dance, as instruments speak melody, inspiring listeners to engage through responsive motion in an experience of politics and electricity, which fuses player and instrument. Jazz engages surprise, signaling the challenge of unpredictability. Poetically, jazz is an art form and business, popular and relaxed, like a kaleidoscope, in perpetual motion of becoming; it is passionate and personal, inviting the listener to engage emotionally. As praise music, this evolved hybrid form engages spontaneity without pretense as it weaves a real, complex communion of souls. The beat is powerful, with syncopated rhythms, unique tone colors, and performance practices. Historically, jazz genres developed via a series of actions and reactions. These styles include New Orleans style (mass ensemble collective improvisation), swing (featuring solo improvisation, mid-1930s), Bebop (fiery, frenetic style, 1940s), Cool Jazz (relaxed, somber sound, 1940s-50s), Hard Bop (hybrid of blues and modern gospel), which commercialized to become soul jazz, losing some appeal. Free-Form Jazz emerged, involving strict thematic improvisation with structural unity, allowing jazz more freedom (mid-1960s). In the 1960s, jazz/rock fusion or electric jazz emerged, with wide use of electric instruments. Fusion morphed into rock ’n’ roll during the mid-1950s and ’60s.

The powerful thematic references of jazz emerge philosophically in major players: the bold brilliance of Louis Armstrong and his understanding of the jazz solo; the singing improvisatory genius of Lady Billie Holiday; the daring conceptions of Thelonius Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, and Bud Powell; the magisterial virtuoso pianist Art Tatum; the aggressive emotional music of Sonny Rollins, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Sam Rivers, Anthony Braxton, and jazz theosophist John Coltrane, as well as the jazz constrictions that predated him; the sardonic, dramatic Miles Davis; the protean force of Charlie Mingus; the daring, astonishing, revolutionary flight of Charlie Parker and the obsolescence of harmonic and rhythmic language preceding him; and the state of becoming embodied in Duke Ellington and his concept of the jazz orchestra. While others previously used jazz in the church, Ellington created three sacred concerts, which premiered respectively at New York’s Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church (1965); the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York (1968); and at Westminster Abbey, London, England (1973).

(p. 508) The original Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ) members—John Lewis (piano and director), Milt Jackson (vibraphone), Ray Brown (double bass), and Kenny Clarke (drums)—first performed together in 1946 in Dizzy Gillespie’s big band. Later, Percy Heath replaced Brown and Connie Kay replaced Clarke. Their Cool Jazz wedded jazz and European-derived classical music. Some critiques find Cool or Smooth jazz absent some historical African American music traits. The acceptance of MJQ, other popular 1950s and 1960s jazz ensembles, and African American jazz pianist virtuosos like Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum reflected a rapprochement between various jazz aficionados. The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and Jazz at Lincoln Center, with Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis, inspire and introduce new audiences to jazz. They produce year-round performances, education and broadcast events; they have a jazz appreciation curriculum, a band director academy, music publishing, and interactive websites, producing thousands of events in New York City and taking jazz around the world. Jazz as genre, performance style, and historical artifact is at once secular or sacred, and sometimes a blend, depending upon the particular composer, the setting, and the intent of the music. Even at its most secular, the elegance and improvisatory nature of jazz embodies a life-force that invokes spirit. As with all music, the listener must differentiate between the genre and the lived experience of the artist.

37.2.5 Gospel Music

Historically, the word “gospel” defines the first four New Testament books. Gospel music, connected to these texts, is both an African American music performance style and genre, one that focuses on the Christian message and life, centering on Jesus’ teaching and ministry, especially salvation by grace. While most twenty-first-century Black churches have Gospel choirs, this was not normative fifty years ago. Many churches, especially so-called “mainline” African American Baptist and Methodist churches, looked askance at Gospel music replacing the traditional Spirituals and hymns, in the same way as their parents had viewed the blues, as the devil’s music. Many saw Gospel music, which derives some of its piano and vocal technique from the blues, as too worldly, and thus initially rejected the music. Similarly, some congregants no longer wished to hear the Spirituals, wanting to forget the shame of slavery and Jim Crow.

Poetically, in the uses of its language and message, Gospel music ultimately left its Pentecostal origins to become mainstream in Black Churches across the United States. First, Southern, rural Blacks migrated by the hundreds to the urban North and Far West during World War II, taking Gospel music with them. Second, The National Baptist Convention publically endorsed the Gospel singing of major Gospel musicians at the Annual Convention in 1930, in Chicago. Third, the work, strategizing, and publishing enterprises of Thomas Dorsey (who played blues to pay the mortgage during the week and played keyboard at church on Sundays) and his friends pushed Gospel music front and center, especially through the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses.

(p. 509) Politically, Gospel singers moved into the secular world from the church, as many asked whether Gospel was religious or entertainment music as early as 1938, when Rosetta Tharpe debuted at the Apollo Theatre, Harlem. Conversely, Mahalia Jackson vowed to never sing Gospel music in a nightclub. During the mid-1940s, Roberta Martin was the first to organize a mixed Gospel choir by bringing female voices into her all-male group. Previously, Gospel choirs involved female singers and quartets, with four or five male members. With radio Gospel, programming audiences grew as Savoy Records began to record Gospel music in 1942. Philosophically, Gospel received its sanction and legitimation when Mahalia Jackson and Theodore Fry organized the National Baptist Music Convention as an auxiliary to the National Baptist Convention.

The first big all-Gospel concert in history debuted at Carnegie Hall in New York with Mahalia Jackson as the star attraction in 1950, and at Madison Square Garden, in 1959. Subsequently, Gospel singers appeared on television, at jazz festivals, coffeehouses, and in a few nightclubs. Gospel musicals, television programs, and Gospel singing in films became very popular. In 1968, Rev. James Cleveland organized the Gospel Music Workshop of America. Like Dorsey’s earlier organization, this one brought together thousands of singers and songwriters each year for training in the Black Gospel tradition. Since the 1960s and 1970s, Gospel songs have involved ensembles with electronic instruments, synthesizers, strings, and horns, performing in concert halls. By the 1970s, one could hear Gospel as praise and protest, across the nation, within all denominations; on college campuses, in concert halls, theaters, movie houses; on radio and television. The Gospel recording industry and literature about Gospel music flourished.

In 1980, Chicago celebrated the Golden Jubilee of Gospel Music, climaxing with the televised “The Roots of Gospel,” featuring performers to discuss its history: pioneers Dorsey and Sallie Martin; leading singers Jessy Dixon and Albertina Walker; and Clayton Laverne Hannah, official historian of the Gospel Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. In 1981, the landmark publication Songs of Zion occurred sixty years after an earlier landmark, Gospel Pearls, first made the songs of the pioneer black gospel composer accessible. Songs of Zion contains Spirituals and jubilees, early Gospel hymns of Tindley, Campbell, and Dorsey; contemporary Gospel songs of Bradford, Cleveland, Crouch, Hawkins, Martin, and Morris, along with standard and Gospel hymns by White writers. With the dawn of the twenty-first century, many African American churches experience power and transformation via their Gospel and/or praise choirs, sanctuary or senior choirs that sing Gospel music. The newest Gospel genre of “Praise music” has one to two verses, repetitive choruses, with electronic accompaniment, to offer praise and prepare congregations for worship.

Gospel music, a hybrid like jazz, emerges within the sacred tradition, with stylistic traits born in secular music, particularly the blues and R&B. Sometimes it is not clear whether a song is a Gospel or R&B tune. In the Mary Mary song “Yesterday,” the first three verses focus on the protagonist saying she cried her last tears yesterday, because yesterday she decided to trust you. The music and the words do not automatically indicate that the “you” pertains to God, until the fourth verse, where the text explicitly (p. 510) names God as the object of trust. In another case, Gladys Knight and the Pips popularized “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me,” naming a difficult life and celebrating the love of another person. Rev. James Cleveland redacted the song and, as noted earlier, it became “Jesus Is the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me,” using the same music and style. Such an example reflects the fluidity of the genre and begs the question as to how a significant root for a particular genre circumscribes or informs how one categorizes the synthesized form.

With contemporary Gospel music known as Praise Music, one hears similar percussion, instrumentation, and tonality as in R&B. In many church settings, there is a great deal of physical activity: swaying, clapping, and stepping. Some posit that if one dances and celebrates in nightclubs, when one gives one’s life to Christ, then one can dance and clap with exuberance to praise God. An issue for further research, beyond this chapter, is an assessment of the types of physicality in worship services, and how such movement expresses human sensuality and sexuality, as conscious and unconscious activity, and how such non-liturgical dance movement shapes the worship experience.

37.2.6 Rhythm & Blues and Rock ‘n’ Roll

Rock ‘n’ Roll and rhythm and blues (R&B) both emerged during early 1954, with the recording of a song, Sh-Boom, performed by The Chords, a group of young African American singers. This song made top ten on the national Billboard chart after only three weeks. Sh-Boom is paradigmatic for popular music development: big rhythmic beat, featuring teenage angst, composed in a studio, and originally recorded by Black artists for a segregated African American market. The songs often have the most success in cover versions by Euro-American singers. Singers and record labels made rock ‘n’ roll and R&B popular. One of the earliest influential African American performers of early rock ‘n’ roll was Charles “Chuck” Berry, who composed his lyrics and melodies. His use of electric guitar and voice, with a White rock ‘n’ roll vocal quality, strongly influenced English groups like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. The powerful urbanization of African American folk music changed classic and country blues into rhythm and blues; the latter incorporated African American swing band beats. By the mid-1950s, the offbeat rhythmic beats of boogie-woogie emerged in rhythm and blues and early rock ‘n’ roll just as the stomp or shuffle style apparent in artists like “Little Richard” Penniman, Fats Domino, and Chuck Berry appeared, shifting the politics of performance. The development of the electric bass guitar became more prominent. Poetically and philosophically, the African American music tradition influenced rock ‘n’ roll stylistically with Gospel chord sequences; blues notes; vocal aspects (falsetto, growl, shout), call-and-response pattern; emphasis on percussive sound qualities; and rhythmic dynamics. As rock ‘n’ roll developed, the distinctions between pop, country western, and rhythm and blues became more fluid. Between 1958 and 1963, popular folk music flourished, and embraced the social justice causes of African Americans, supporting the movement for equality and freedom irrespective of race.

(p. 511) Had it not been for the music, the 1960s Civil Rights Movement could not have happened. Civil Rights activists used traditional Protestant hymns like “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” adapted popular songs and changed the words, wrote original songs, and redacted antebellum spirituals. The singing protestors included soloists like Fannie Lou Hamer and quartets, like the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), Freedom Singers, Nashville Quartet, Selma Freedom Choir, Guy Carawan, Carlton Reese Gospel Choir, and Montgomery Gospel Trio. Other activist groups using music included SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference], CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), and the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). Politically, music helped to break the ice, bolster courage, and served as a response mechanism. Poetically, in terms of language and rhetoric, songs provided a means for community empowerment, self-assertion, defense, and offense. Philosophically, because of racism and hatred, death was a familiar companion to those who fought for freedom. Freedom songs proclaimed liberation was an aspect of God. From the time of slavery, hundreds were lynched, harassed, and brutalized. Singing and music-making were survival techniques, constructing vehicles of power, praise, and protest. When the rhetoric of Black Power resounds loudly and the music ceases, a dissonance of silence remains. The pinnacle of the movement parallels the peak of singing.

During this same time period, Pope John XXIII called for aggiornamento, a new wind blowing in the Vatican, resulting in the changes toward the vernacular mass, where communities would hear the mass in their own language, which led to Gospel masses for African American Catholics. Socially, this era reenergized the feminist movement begun in 1848 at Seneca Falls, New York, and birthed gay liberation, AARP, migrant worker movements, and other interests regarding societal change. The music reflected the times, and nationally, African American soul music became popular and commercially lucrative.

African American soul music generally fell into two categories. The sound popularized by Motown Records, under the leadership of Berry Gordy Jr., poetically mixed pop and rhythm and blues, as a crossover sound that hinted at Blackness, with a beat suitable for dance music. Significant performers of this genre included the Four Tops, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, the Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Jackson Five, and Marvin Gaye. The second category, with a more raucous, earthy sound, most represented by Stax Records and its subsidiary Volt Records, an integrated enterprise, had a style largely shaped by Otis Redding. Other performers in this genre on the Stax label include Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Albert King, Sam and Dave, The Emotions, Eddie Floyd, and Johnnie Taylor. Atlantic Records replaced Stax Records as significant promoter of this sound, the first studio to use written arrangements, studio musicians, and violins for rhythm-and-blues selections. Aretha Franklin was a major influence in changing Atlantic’s image, with an earthier, Gospel-like, Black characteristic. Other Atlantic label artists included Archie Bell and the Drells, Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Joe Tex, and Barbara Lewis. With praise and power, Little Richard introduced the Gospel frenzy, incorporating fast tempo, boogie shuffle tunes, and sermonic shouts, steeped in Gospel rather than blues. (p. 512) Most major R&B and soul singers began their singing in church, adapting the liturgical, emotional qualities to their popular singing. Philosophically, other factors shaping rock ‘n’ roll were dance fads where partners casually faced one another and engaged in unrestricted interpretation with distinctive movements. Politically, commercialism provided an impetus for artists inventing dances through their lyrics to sell records, and produced scandal through “payola,” where record companies paid DJs to play the companies’ own music. Rhythm and Blues and rock ‘n’ roll fall into the category of secular music. Simultaneously, there is a type of fluidity between sacred Gospel and R&B and rock ‘n’ roll, particularly when we consider an artist like Aretha Franklin, who sings R&B and Gospel, with similar stylistic artistry. As stated earlier, sometimes one knows whether the music is sacred or not by listening attentively to words of the music and being cognizant of the venue.

37.2.7 Hip-Hop

Hip-hop is a contemporary music that fluidly moves between sacred and secular categories. Birthed in the 1970s, hip-hop has three trajectories: poetically, from the initial music generated at block parties and on street corners, to Top 40s, through gangsta rap, and the moves of the 1990s with N.W.A., Ice-T, Snoop-Dog, and others. The second trajectory involved music of Hip Pop with risqué lyrics at one time no Black radio station would air. The third trajectory brings a type of historical awareness, with political revolutionary aspirations. Hip-hop is an international phenomenon of expressiveness that brings people together from across varied ethnic, class, gendered experiences of a living culture. Amid tensions, oppression, and violence of urban and ghetto communities, the genius of DJs created this matrix of performance power known as hip-hop to announce truth and freedom, juxtaposed against poverty and death. Amid urban renewal, resegregation, white flight, interstate highways that demolished many communities, philosophically, hip-hop emerged as a worldview or cultural context for diverse expressions, including music. Hip-hop, with a global influence, affects music, fashion, style, and purpose, across generations and geography. The language of hip-hop involves contemporary socio-political issues and those of religious faith. In its inception, hip-hop’s creators set out to encourage young people, provide them hope, toward experiencing transformed lives. Groups like Public Enemy began as a subculture group protesting disenfranchisement, history, racism, violence, generational disconnects, miseducation, and media misrepresentation. When hip-hop became hip-pop, and music became more about the market than the message of the disenfranchised, the language of gangsta, misogyny, and hypercapitalism came to fore as media moguls made hip-pop their newest source of income. Many Christian outreach ministries provide a space for youth to sing, praise, connect, and engage Christian thought and hip-hop music. Grasping hip-hop requires extensive study of the culture, music, physicality, sexuality/sexism, economics, and politics. Christian hip-hop provides a genre and venue for integrity, honesty, and truth-telling.

(p. 513) African American hip-hop embraces African philosophy that finds fluidity between sacred and secular, and engages irony and paradox. Hip-hop artists involve numerous faiths, multiple types of expressions, and diverse types of cultural production, from sampling, beatboxing, and scratching, to fashion, double-dutch jump roping, and graffiti art. Hip-hop involves a rich legacy of improvisation, sometimes framed by contradiction. Many adults hear the words and are ready to discount the music, forgetting some of the raunchy blues lyrics they heard as children. Hip-hop creates a space of spirituality and God consciousness. Hip-hop has forged a space where young people have returned to writing poetry, often speaking their truths if adults care to listen. Christian hip-hop raps the message of sin, salvation, beauty, community, and the prophetic. Hip-hop affords a conversation that inspires communication between people in pain and a God who loves and heals. Using biblical and religious language, Christian hip-hop witnesses to the lost and seeks to empower, to help youth make sense out of their world. While there are numerous challenges to working intergenerationally, some would argue that there is greater need for education in hip-hop’s rich heritage and discernment regarding the possibilities of Christian hip-hop. The phenomenon affords opportunities for transformation and for the diverse Black Church to fulfill its mission of ministry to sinners, as it must be shrewd in helping youth recognize right from wrong, discern the best of what hip-hop offers, own up to its sometimes detrimental characteristics, and recognize the complexities of hip-hop, of life.

37.2.8 Classical, Integrated Tradition

Black churches also incorporate music from European classical traditions, including anthems, oratorios, revival songs, and contemporary praise songs. This music arises as engaging, spirit-filled, glorious, holistic, life-giving expressions and experiences, as it codifies the theological, doctrinal, and socio-cultural history and consciousness of African American religiosity. Some of the musical performances occur in the concert hall from the creative genius of African American composers, sometimes under Black batons. Such music usually involves training in the academy and conservatories, growing out of an elite, European-based musical tradition. In the nineteenth century, African Americans did not produce a great many major concert-hall works, because racism banned them from majority-cultural sites of training and performance, so they were not exposed to the different world view of concert-hall traditions. Some African American composers did not or could not engage their own culture, and thus could not connect their traditional realities with those of the concert hall. That great music exists and needs to be perpetuated for societal greater good is the myth that frames the concert-hall tradition. In 1903, the Negro Music Journal and its constituents engaged the concert-hall mythic tradition and disavowed African American popular music, a music fueled by African and African diasporan cultural memory. Black “classical” composers had to negotiate both realms. African American composers who worked between the avant-garde, American (U.S.) musical nationalism and the Harlem Renaissance include (p. 514) the likes of William Grant Still, William Dawson, Howard Swanson, Ulysses Kay, Camille Nickerson, and Margaret Bonds. Other composers, too numerous to name, have used the tropes and styles of the classical tradition, framed and shaped by beautiful African sensibilities to celebrate life in sacred and secular venues, as composers, conductors, singers, and instrumentalists.

37.3 Impact

Having reflected on selected genres within African American sacred and secular music, there is fluidity, yet boundaries and expectations, and a continuing tension in African American churches regarding style, taste, and function of music in their services. Along with such aesthetic tensions are the issues around the balance between inspiring worship and the use of secular entertainment motifs to attract worshippers who would otherwise forgo attendance at formal church services, that is, drawing the line between encouragement to worship and the worship itself. The job of music is to enhance the worship event, not to overwhelm the service and anesthetize the audience toward their faith. When the music unfolds for music’s sake, the integrity and the meaning of worship is lost. This tension is not unique to Black worship: consider the use of trained choirs to edify passive worshippers by the beauty of their performances through the use of the Gregorian Chant in Latin, Handel’s Messiah as an integral part of many Christmas services, or the use of popular sing-along Messiahs. The integrity and meaning of worship are to praise God, to gather as community, to share the sacraments, and to embrace the preached word toward daily praxis. Such issues, relating to the use of music, are pertinent to those concerned with worship and liturgy that meaningfully engage congregants. While the vernacular Mass remains central in the Roman Catholic liturgy, those Roman churches geared to an African American ministry pride themselves in having a vital Gospel choir to engage the congregation and make worship relevant to the cultural realities of the parish. Similarly, most Protestant churches make music a priority. Music, within the communal worship service, is vital for helping congregations feel the presence of God and for honoring the great commission of Matthew 28, the call to disciple. Sacred music influences secular African American music and the reverse is also true.

37.4 Significant Scholarship

37.4.1 Anthologies, Surveys, Introductory Texts

Scholars and poets have provided commentary on African American life since they arrived on these shores to the present. Music has played a significant part in their writings. Several writers provide an overview of the topic, analyzing genres, geographical (p. 515) impact, socio-cultural realities, and historical moments, from the sixteenth century to the present. Musicologist, professor, scholar, the late Eileen Southern, in The Music of Black Americans: A History (1971, 3rd edition, 1997) provides an in-depth analysis of the music and narrates information about genres and concepts, and about the composers, singers, and instrumentalists who created this phenomenal body of music. She reflects on the attributes that characterize this music, from enslavement to hip-hop music of the late twentieth century. With her husband, Joseph Southern, Eileen Southern also founded The Black Perspective in Music in 1973, the first musicological journal on the study of black music. She edited this journal until it stopped publication (1990).

Hildred Roach authored Black Music: Past and Present, (1973, 1994), revised and expanded, which introduces those new to various types of Pan-African music, from Africa to the Americas, focusing on African American composers, using musical examples and illustrations to highlight early influences, the antebellum era, the emergence of the black professional, and contemporary trends. Her work unfolds the incredible moving and creative power of this music. The style, content, themes, and performance practices of early Black music, provided a foundation for African American music and for other music of the United States as well.

Samuel A. Floyd Jr., Director of the Center for Black Music Research, Columbia College, Chicago, celebrates the power of African cultural memory in his stellar volume, The Power of Black Music: Interpreting Its History From Africa to the United States (1995). Floyd breaks through boundaries between high and low art and shows the connections between African rituals, myths, and music and the ongoing evolution and enduring vitality of African American music, from the ring shout and music and dance of the antebellum era, to blues and beboppers of the 1940s, to jazz, rock, concert hall composers, and other African American music through the twenty-first century.

Tilford Brooks, a former music educator at Washington University, St. Louis, comprehensively explores Black music and how it influences the entire U.S. musical scene, with the intent to dialogue with performers, teachers, researchers, composers, and a general audience, in his America’s Black Musical Heritage (1984). Working through history and typologies of Black music, Brooks foregrounds seminal personalities and contributors for each genre, along with specific composers and musicians, in American society and in those incorporating European tradition.

37.4.2 The Spirituals

Several works examine the Spirituals from an anthropological and literary perspective: Slave Songs of the United States by William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison (1867, 1951) is a compendium of Spirituals with general socio-historical and stylistic commentary. Thomas P. Fenner’s Religious Folk Songs of the Negro (1909) documents those Spirituals popularized by Hampton Institute. The Book of American Negro Spirituals by James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson (1925) and The Second Book of American Negro Spirituals (1926) are two anthologies of (p. 516) Spirituals and include a general introduction. The Negro Folk-songs (1918) by Natalie Curtis Burlin is a compilation of nineteen traditional spirituals, works songs, and play songs. Each song has complete words and music, with an essay outlining the milieu and social impact of each category of song. Ethnomusicologist and concert pianist Burlin also analyzed, collected, and popularized the music of American Indians in the Southwest and African Americans at the Hampton Institute, believing that the music of these groups had the potential to help forge a distinctive American identity during an era of dramatic social change. Her field work includes the shifting dynamics of women in public life, marriage, and work, along with groundbreaking ideas about culture and race.

Miles Mark Fisher received the American Historical Association’s prize for the outstanding historical volume for his 1953 Negro Slave Songs in the United States. Fisher viewed these songs as oral historical documents, one of the first scholars to make this claim. He demonstrated that the Spirituals recorded the enslaved persons’ deepest views on slavery, religion, relations with their masters, desires for the future, and the complex, innumerable problems enslaved persons experienced. Black Song: The Forge and Flame; The Story of How the Afro-American Spiritual Was Hammered Out (1972), by English literature professor John Lovell Jr. is the premier definitive work on the Spirituals. He surveys the cultural, socio-historical, religious experience of the enslaved and provides an international bibliography. All works since Lovell must reference his remarkable research. The only shortcoming of his volume is that he does not analyze the music; but then, he was not a musician. The progenitor of Black Theology, James H. Cone, wrote The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation (1972), which examines terms, theological concepts, and cultural meaning.

Christa K. Dixon’s Negro Spirituals: From Bible to Folk Song (1976) explores twenty-three spirituals and reflects on the sources of the texts, writing with a homiletic flair. Her work on the spirituals and her hobby of collecting broken stained glass from church windows in war-torn Germany reflect her interest in a ministry of healing. Howard Thurman, mystic, philosopher, poet, and theologian wrote Deep River and The Negro Spirituals Speaks of Life and Death (1975). These two volumes, reprinted as one, celebrate the Spirituals as fonts of inspiration, hope, and self-respect. These deeply personal essays honor divine creativity that transcends deep personal tragedy experienced by oppressed people and Thurman, himself. Dena Epstein’s Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War (1977, 2003) explores sacred and secular music of Black folk up through the Civil War—the music’s development, instrumentation, function, along with sacred and secular uses of this music. Arthur C. Jones’s Wade in the Water: The Wisdom of the Spirituals (1993, 2005) explores the cultural and psychological meaning of the Spirituals. He explores African retentions, suffering, transformation, struggle, resistance, accountability, health, and healing in the Spirituals. My own volume, Exorcizing Evil: A Womanist Perspective on the Spirituals is an interdisciplinary analysis of the redacted Spirituals of the 1960s Civil Rights movement in dialogue with African traditional philosophy, Western thought, and the problem of theodicy, focusing on lyrical and melodic texts. Using womanist methodology, the analysis exams (p. 517) oppressions due to classism, racism, and sexism; explores double voicing, double bind, double consciousness, and double thought; and features women who lived, arranged, and performed the Spirituals.

37.4.3 Blues

In Blues, Ideology, and Literature: A Vernacular Theory (1987), Houston Baker Jr. connects blues to social, literary history and African American dramatic culture, at the level of language or vernacular. His work explicates the “blues voice,” with its economic undercurrents, critical to narrative in the United States, reflecting the African American manner of expression.

Urban Blues, by Charles Keil (1966, 1992), explores the power of blues performers and blues bands, and sees the powerful interaction between performers and audience. In the 1992 edition, viewing blues performers as signifying larger political culture, Keil examines blues amid black music and culture framed by diversity, capitalism, and globalization.

37.4.4 Gospel

Michael W. Harris’s The Rise of Gospel Blues: The Music of Thomas Andrew Dorsey in the Urban Church (1992) chronicles the trajectory and rise of Gospel blues through the life of its progenitor, Thomas A. Dorsey. Harris shows the context of this new musical form amid its socioreligious, cultural history, particularly via urban, traditional Protestant churches during migration and after World War I. Dorsey’s life epitomizes the polarities, tensions, and dichotomies within African American music, culture, and life. Dorsey’s secular musical experience informed the sacred.

Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of the Black female a cappella group, “Sweet Honey in the Rock,” edited We’ll Understand It Better By and By: Pioneering African American Gospel Composers. This volume begins with an overview of the pioneers and an essay on the impact of Gospel music on the secular music industry. The text then engages in-depth analysis of Gospel pioneers Charles Albert Tindley, Lucie Eddie Campbell Williams, Thomas Andrew Dorsey, William Herbert Brewster Sr., Roberta Martin, and Kenneth Morris.

37.4.5 Worship and Theomusicology

Melva Wilson Costen, with precision, vision, sensitivity, and passion, in her African American Christian Worship explores the holistic theology of African American Worship; African religious heritage; various expressions of worship, rituals, sacraments, ordinances, denominational and congregational trends; the impact of music, preaching, (p. 518) and prayer; and worship as empowerment. Her work contextualizes the worship experience and helps one to frame the discussion of Black sacred music.

James Abbington, organist, author, conductor, and arranger, compiled Readings in African American Church Music and Worship (2001), and wrote Let Mt. Zion Rejoice!: Music in the African American Church (2001). The former work contains articles, essays, and other twentieth-century works previously unpublished. The materials cover historical perspectives, provide an overview of hymnody and hymnals used in the African American church, examine liturgical hymnody, and include essays on worship, Black composers, and the organ and organist in the Black church. The volume concludes with contemporary perspectives on envisioning the future, conflicts, problems, and tensions in sacred music and worship, amid influences of culture. Let Mt. Zion Rejoice provides a praxis-based resource for all people who lead or work with music ministry in churches, from pastors, music directors, and church musicians to congregants, professors, and students of church music. This text reviews the state of Black church music, provides commentary on church musicians and the requirements one needs to meet to be successful; it also covers relationships between pastor and church musicians, the role of choirs, the planning of church worship, particular types of music used in the Black church, and the African American Christian liturgical year.

Jon Michael Spencer’s groundbreaking work juxtaposes and places in dialogue sacred and secular musics. Spencer coined the term “theomusicology” to explore musicology informed by theology, to theorize about the sacred, the secular, and the profane. He defines sacred as the churched or religious; secular as the unchurched or theistic unreligious; and profane, as irreligious or atheistic. He includes in this process “theomusicotherapy” in both the community and the church, using interdisciplinary practices. Spencer edited Black Sacred Music: A Journal of Theomusicology during the late 1980s and early 1990s. These journals explored topics including “Sacred Music of the Secular City” (essays on blues, jazz, soul, rock, and rap), “The Theology of American Popular Music” (articles on the philosophy of theomusicology thematizing the nonsacred, God in secular music culture, and particular artists, including Thelonius Monk, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Michael Jackson, Prince, and Run DMC). Spencer’s volume on sacred music, Protest & Praise: Sacred Music of Black Religion (1990), examines Spirituals, antislavery hymnody, social Gospel hymnody, civil rights song, and the blues under songs of protest. Under praise song, he examines the ring shout, tongue-song, Holiness-Pentecostal music, Gospel music, and the chanted sermon.

The scholarship of these selected authors provides insight into the complexities, brilliance, and power of African American music across the board. This music is contextual as it emerges out of the lived realities of the souls of Black folk. The music is profound and profane; it has at times a spiritual ethos and at other times a cutting, sensual familiarity; sometimes both. The music is real and signifies upon the lives of those stolen from Africa, as well as their heritage and the legacy others have created. Some of the music falls into specific categories of sacred and secular; other genres of music are more fluid. Together, the music in the sacred and secular African American traditions (p. 519) historically and contemporaneously affects lives and cultures globally. The interweaving of its endowments of poetry, praise, power, protest, philosophy, and politics has touched every system from expressions of faith to freedom fighting. This music affects matters of the heart and the pocketbook, education and sports, entertainment and liturgy; it ushers in life and death. Our world would not be the same without the contribution of the fluid, complex, aesthetically moving gifts of African American sacred and secular music—our world is a better place because of these contributions.

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Thurman, Howard. Deep River and The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death. Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1975.Find this resource:

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