Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Black History Month-The Gospel Church, Thomas A. Dorsey

This article is written with the hope that (1)you will attend a gospel church service in your city during Black History month and (2)to promote an awareness of the importance and uniqueness of Afro-American worship.

Gospel music and worship styles discussed in this article refer to Black Gospel music, as opposed to Southern Gospel that has been traditionally associated with White people, and more connected to American folk and country music.

Certainly going back to African worship styles would give a broader understanding of what is now experienced in a modern gospel church, but a lot of those traditions have been lost due to different factors that occurred upon and during the time that has passed after the arrival of the first African Americans to America. This would require another article to discuss.

A visitor to a gospel church would notice some important differences compared to contemporary, pre-dominantly 'White' churches.

For one thing, dress styles in contemporary churches are moving more towards casual, whereas attendees in a gospel church will dress to the 'nines'.

White contemporary churches have moved into more modern music styles based on 'rock' music, and this has fractured such churches.

By and large, the older generation prefers traditional, lower-key services, whereas the the younger generation is looking for something more cutting edge.

You don't tend to see this kind of age-division in Afro-American churches. Young and old alike are seen worshipping under the same roof, listening to what white worshippers might consider to be contemporary music. However, that also demonstrates how influential gospel music has been in America. Practically all popular music in America has been influenced by this institution.

Traditional gospel music instrumentation would include at the least, a Hammond organ, with Leslie speakers(I will discuss this in greater detail in tomorrow's installment of Black History Month), a piano, bass, drums and guitar.

Larger churches may have additional keyboards and horns.

A contemporary White church attendee will also notice the dominance of the keybord/piano in gospel music as opposed to the usual dominance of the guitar in contemporary worship.

This is attributed to the way the guitar was introduced to the gospel church. When it was first introduced, the piano and organ had long established themselves as instruments in traditional Black worship, the guitar was seen more of something to be used in the world, and not seen appropriate for worship.

The gospel choir is the focal point of the music delivery. A choir with matching robes is common, larger churches may also feature a smaller group of worship leader singers.

Soloists are also commonly used.

There is some controversy more recently in gospel churches about whether or not to accept rap as a viable expression of spirituality in gospel churches. At this point the idea of keeping the local church together seems to be the rule.

My opinion for the reasoning for this is because the gospel church has long been an anchor for the Black community. Whereas many Afro-Americans may tend to feel that in their local communities they are in the 'White' world, a White visitor to a gospel church will definitely feel that they are walking right into the center of Black community.

In my experience of visiting gospel churches, I have found that gospel churches go out of their way to welcome visitors from other races, and there will be some who have made such a church their home.

In speaking with friends who regularly attend Black gospel churches and interacting with such congregants on internet news groups, the preacher or pastor is treated in a very high regard...respected since God has chosen him as a leader of the church.

A common thing that will be said by those visiting gospel churches is the sincerity of worship and the absolutely joyful experience that one receives in such an environment.

Preachers as well as congregants in a gospel church are generally more animated that those in White churches. The stage antics of singer James Brown and others were highly influenced by the gospel preachers they grew up seeing, though entertainers such Brown has certainly taken it farther.

Musicians in gospel churches by and large are very highly concerned with whether they are playing in the Spirit or playing to satisfy personal ego.

A discussion of gospel worship would not be complete without mentioning the important contributions of Thomas A. Dorsey.

Not to be confused with the big band leader, Tommy Dorsey, Thomas Andrew Dorsey(July 1, 1899 - January 23, 1993)is known as the Father of Gospel Music. As formulated by Dorsey, gospel music combines Christian praise with the rhythms of jazz and the blues.

Dorsey was the music director at Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago from 1932 until the late 1970s.

Dorsey was a well known and accomplished blues pianist and composer in Chicago during the 1930s, performing and working with such artists as Ma Rainey and Tampa Red, which were the blues stars of the day.

His direction turned toward gospel music after his first wife Nettie Dorsey died during childbirth. He then wrote his best known composition, "Take My Hand, Precious Lord", which was performed by Mahalia Jackson and was a favorite of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dorsey's influence extended far beyond that of the church. His music is still performed at churches all over the world, churches of all races.

When Ray Charles came along and started to write popular music from songs of the gospel music he heard growing up, the music of Dorsey was part of that which was he used. The energy of Charles' music comes right from that which has been regularly played for years at every gospel church across America.

Whether you are a regular church attendee, an atheist, agnostic, or really just have no spiritual interest, you will definitely find a gospel music worship experience beyond any of the words I have tried to communicate.

Make it a point during Black History month to visit a gospel church.


At 6:02 AM, Blogger jessica said...

Hi, Brian. My family and I will be visiting Austin in April and would like to attend Easter service at a gospel church similar to the ones you wrote about in your Black History Month blog. We'll be staying in the city and won't be renting a car. Do you have any suggestions? Many thanks. Jessica

At 6:57 AM, Blogger Brian said...

thanks for the post Jessica, happy to be of help.

I'll try to have something posted by noon, I need to get the addresses and all together.

There are plenty of churches near downtown-if you can give me the specific area of town you're staying in that would be helpful...either way, will have something posted by noon.

At 10:04 AM, Blogger Brian said...

the info you are looking for is now posted here:


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