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What Does the Church Sing?

Blogger Shannan Baker is a postdoctoral fellow in music and digital humanities at Baylor University, where she recently finished her Ph.D. in Church Music (2022). She is a member of The Center for Congregational Song’s blog team.



How Little We Know

I recently became aware of how little we know of what the church sings though recent work with the Worship Leader Research (WLR) team.  WLR is a collaborative group that studies the contemporary worship music industry and church practice.  Some of the feedback to our findings largely focused on what was missing.  We identified the primary contributors of contemporary worship songs by looking at the Top lists from CCLI and PraiseCharts, but there were artists that are widely used that were not found on both lists.   Many churches that sing songs from other artists, such as Sovereign Grace, City Alight, the Gettys, etc., noted that our research didn’t include songs from those artists.  People commented on social media and in direct messages to our team about the songs that they sing regularly at their church that weren’t mentioned in our study because of our methodology for creating our list.

This made me wonder: what does the church sing?  I mean more broadly than contemporary worship.  Even what we know of the most used contemporary worship songs, there are gaps in the knowledge and powers at play that distort the data we do have.



Contemporary worship churches use songs that are under copyright.  Copyright allows songwriters to receive compensation for the use of their songs.  To streamline this process, companies like One License, CCLI (Christian Copyright License International), and (recently) MultiTracks provide licensing subscriptions.  This means that by churches signing up for their service they can use copyrighted songs in exchange for reporting the songs they use to those companies when asked.  CCLI is one such company that publishes a list of the songs that are most reported.  Many people, researchers especially, have wondered who those lists represent.  For example, what denominations, church sizes, geographic locations, etc., are these lists representing?  However, CCLI when asked will not provide demographic information about who reports.  Therefore, we do not truly know who is singing the songs that are represented on the CCLI lists.

But the lack of knowledge expands.  What hymns are being sung by the Church?  Many churches either exclusively or occasionally will sing a traditional hymn.  Many of these hymns are written before 1923 and are therefore no longer under copyright.  So, the hymns that are selected for congregational singing do not have to be reported to anyone.  Furthermore, the use of a hymnal instead of a projector instantly relieves the burden of any reporting since songs that are sung from a purchased book do not need to be reported.


The Hymnal

So how do we know what hymns are being sung by the Church? Well, the answer may seem simple—look at the hymnal.  But which hymnal?  There is a vast number of hymnals and many denominations have their own hymnals which contain a careful curated collection of songs that is different from other denominations. Even if one focused on a singular widely used hymnal, the Church does not simply start at #1 and go to the end of the book.  Specific hymns are selected each week for worship.  Again, churches are not required to report what hymns they are singing.  So how do we know what the church is singing?



Another common type of song used in church is gospel music.  Gospel music is often the primary type of music used in predominately black churches.  What gospel songs are sung every week?  While gospel music is copyrighted, much of it is missing from CCLI’s list (for various reasons that should be explored further). Since it is not on CCLI, there is no way to report the songs that are used.  Unfortunately, there isn’t a singular book that contains a collection of gospel songs from which to choose.  If there is no requirement to report, how do we know which gospel songs are being used the most? How do we know what the church is singing?


Questions Remain

The different types of songs used in churches could continue, but the point remains.  We do not know what the church sings.  The feedback given to Worship Leader Research (WLR) has prompted this new conversation related to the gap in our knowledge of the Church’s song.  While I’ve identified some of the problems about why we don’t know what the Church sings, the question remains:

So what does the church sing?

While we do not have the answers right now, Dr. Monique Ingalls and I are working to create a project that will discover what the church is singing.  What hymns are sung most?  What songs are sung in smaller churches that can’t afford a licensing subscription?  What service music is used in various liturgies?  The goal of this project is to provide people and researchers with a picture of what the church is actually singing across denominations and worship styles.  The collection of songs that are sung will continue to change and expand over time; however, what we hope is that over time we will discover the richness of the variety of songs that are sung by the church in worship.


Part I of this blog, including the introduction and the first six examples can be read here.


Don’t Give Up- Panam Percy Paul

Next is Panam Percy Paul (Bakulipanam Percy Paul Mokungah) out of Nigeria.  “Don’t Give Up” comes from his album Cheer Up that was released in 2013.  As the album’s title implies, all ten songs were written to encourage people going through hardship.  It is amazing to see that Panam produced such an album because he has had his fair share of tough times.  His father disowned him at age 19 and removed his name from his will because he made the decision to become a gospel musician instead of joining the Nigerian Army like his father.  Panam has also grieved the loss of his older brother.  Through it all, he has had a successful gospel career of over forty years.

Panam’s style is referred to as a mix of gospel and highlife.  Gospel highlife is the most popular style of gospel music in Ghana and throughout West Africa.  It emerged in the 1980s, and it features fast tempos and dancing, especially by women.  Highlife songs address numerous topics including praises to God, promoting morals, and condemning evil.  Gospel highlife music has had a huge influence on commercial music such as Panam Percy Paul’s.

“Don’t Give Up” is one of the slower songs on the album, but not in a way that drags.  Drums come in as the song builds.  The chords are simple and the texture of the music is light, both which make the song approachable for any listener going through a hard time.  The song is strophic in nature, so it would be a nice fit for congregational singing.  Backup singers join Panam on the chorus each time.  The song modulates a whole step for one more repetition of the chorus in a way that just lifts your spirits.

Panam introduces the song by saying: “It’s not time to give up now.  This is time to stand.”  We cannot move forward by sitting down.  Standing up is the first step to getting through a situation.  In the first verse, Panam encourages the listener by reminding them how strong they have been in the past.  Here in the present, with God’s help, we can overcome once again.  The chorus says: “Don’t give up.  It’s not over.  When you give up, then it’s over.  Hold on to the Lord, and trouble not your heart.  Even when you fail, it’s not over.”  When we decide to quit, the devil has won the battle.  God can help us to keep going.  Panam also references 1 Peter 1:7 in the second verse, assuring us that fire will make our faith as pure as gold.


Many Rivers To Cross/Going Down Jordan/Amen (Medley)- Soweto Gospel Choir

Next is the Soweto Gospel Choir out of South Africa.  This combination of songs appears on the choir’s 2005 album Voices from Heaven.  “Many Rivers to Cross” is initially a reggae song written and originally performed by Jimmy Cliff.  The song was released in 1969 on his self-titled album Jimmy Cliff.  Cliff wrote this song to bring attention to the emotional struggles he faced as a musician in England after moving from his home in Jamaica.  The “rivers” he mentions is the English Channel, and he also talks about the white cliffs of Dover, both of which he faced as he travelled across the continent to do shows.  Many sacred and secular covers of this song have been produced.  “Goin’ Down Jordan” is originally a calypso song written by Irving Burgie and Theophilus Woods.  It was written in 1961, and the song’s best known performer is Harry Belafonte.  And “Amen” is a traditional African-American spiritual most likely born in the context of 20th-century slaves having their own worship.

Though two soloists lead the songs, the choir is present throughout the medley as backup singers, and then everyone sings together for the ending along with some ad libbing.  Instruments used are piano, electric guitar, and drums.  The choir features bass singers in contrast to American gospel choirs where bass parts are rarely heard.  Even though reggae and calypso are Caribbean genres, the Soweto Gospel Choir is still successful in bringing a distinct African sound to the music.  The sound of African voices blending together to create harmony is like none other.

The choir’s medley starts with an instrumentation of a slow groove.  This immediately calms the listener and helps them forget about their worries for the time being.  The chords and harmony are simple, and the medley maintains a major tonality throughout.  As the music shifts to the second song, the key remains the same but a faster tempo immediately begins.  The rhythmic motives in the instruments shift as well.  There is a lot more syncopation as it begins to sound more like islander music.

The Jordan River has had multiple connotations in music.  In Charles Tindley’s hymn “Stand By Me”, “chilly Jordan” is referring to death.  In the spiritual “Roll, Jordan, Roll”, the Jordan river is a symbolic border between earth and heaven.  The reference to the Jordan River in “Going Down Jordan” seems to be similar.  Once we go down Jordan, keeping the faith to press on no matter whatever life brings us, we will be able to walk the heavenly road.  Most of the “mourning” in this song is performed a cappella to provide contrast, and it is driven by the basses to depict the low, gloomy nature of mourning.  The soloist sings flatted sevenths to emphasize this.

The faster tempo is maintained as the choir transitions to sing “Amen”.  “Amen”, mostly known as the last word of a prayer, means “truly” or “it is so”.  By placing “Amen” at the end of the medley, the choir is affirming what they just said about getting to walk the heavenly road.  The amens are accompanied by acclamations like “hallelujah” and “glory to Jesus”.  The order the songs appear in gives a nice progression lyrically.  The choir tells us that life gets hard and it will be that way as long as we are down here on earth.  But it is worth it because the journey we are on is preparing us to go to heaven, and that deserves an “amen”.


I Don’t Feel Noways Tired- Reverend James Cleveland and the New Jerusalem Baptist Church Choir

Now we are back in North America with “I Don’t Feel Noways Tired”.  This song was written by Curtis Burrell in 1978, and it was arranged and released by James Cleveland in the same year.  It is said to have been inspired by an elderly black woman.  She dealt with swollen feet and back pain daily as she walked a long, dusty, beat up road.  People hated her and mistreated her just because of who she was.  But she continued to walk that road because she had God on her side as her protector and liberator.  The song has similarities with songs that came before and after it.  The spiritual “I Am Seekin’ For A City” was published in 1917 and features the phrase “I don’t feel no ways tired” in the refrain.  There is a gospel song by Mary Mary called “Can’t Give Up Now” that was released in 2000.  The chorus of the song is almost exactly the same as Burrell’s except for the first line: “I just can’t give up now”.  It is considered a sample or cover of Burrell’s song.

“I Don’t Feel Noways Tired” is in a major key.  The melody falls mostly within the pentatonic scale, a concept that has roots in spirituals.  There are quite a few syncopated rhythms in the melody which bring out the soulfulness of the song.  There is quite a bit of vamping as the song goes on to portray the constant plea for Jesus to stay with us as we continue on the journey of life.  Changes in dynamics provide some variation when the choir vamps on “I don’t believe He brought me this far”.  The music builds back up as the choir returns to the chorus.  The recording fades as the choir continues to sing, showing the flexibility of a song’s length in gospel contexts.  The lyrics speak to the stress and fatigue and difficulty of life, but they also acknowledge that God has brought us through it all and that will not change going forward.

In James Cleveland’s performance, the choir is accompanied by piano, organ, bass, and drums.  It is standard for the piano to lead in gospel music, which is evident in this recording.  The rhythmic feel is a slow groove in a meter like 2/2.  While the piano provides an introduction to the song, James Cleveland emphasizes some of the lyrics in the song and encourages the audience on their journeys in doing so.  The choir comes in with a confident tone.  The melody of the words “I don’t feel no ways tired” ascends in the span of an octave which portrays a sign of hope.  There are multiple instances where the instruments cut out temporarily, which is a common feature in gospel music.  Cleveland encourages the audience to sing along with phrases like “Can you help us sing that” and saying respective lyrics before the entrances.  In the choir’s third repetition of the chorus, they start a vamp on the phrase “I don’t believe He brought me this far”.  The subtext of this is something like: “As I look back on my past, God was always with me.  Surely He will continue to be with me”.  Then the melody is slightly adapted as it becomes a prayer saying “Stay with me, Jesus.  Stay with me, Lord” and “Don’t leave me, Jesus.  Don’t leave me, Lord” as if to ease any doubts.


We Shall Overcome- The Savettes

“We Shall Overcome” began as a song in Baptist and Methodist congregations who sang the phrase “I’ll overcome, someday”.  The original author is unknown, but it was adapted by multiple musicians including Zilphia Horton, Guy Carawan, Pete Seeger and Frank Hamilton.  It was Pete Seeger who made the change from “will” to “shall”, and he also added additional verses to the song.  The song also takes roots from Charles Tindley’s hymn “I’ll Overcome Someday”.  “We Shall Overcome” was originally written sometime in the 1940s, but the version we know today emerged in 1963 in the South as a result of the Civil Rights movement.  The words were a response to the severity of racism, injustice, and struggling for equality.

“We Shall Overcome” is in a major key.  If it was in minor, any hope of overcoming would sound harder to believe.  The melody is mostly conjunct, which could signify the step-by-step pace it takes to accomplish this freedom.  This conjunct nature also makes the melody accessible and easy to retain.  The triplet in measure 7 adds to the soulfulness of the piece.  The lyrics give an example of gospel songs combining sacred and secular.  The secular aspect is dealing with the oppression of daily life, and the sacred aspect is putting hope in God.  The African-American Heritage Hymnal links this song to 1 John 5:4-5, a text referring to the fact that our faith will give us the victory in overcoming the world.

The Savettes are a gospel choir that was formed in the 1950s in Philadelphia.  Their recording of this song was released on vinyl in 1963, the same year it was made famous in the fight for justice.  The album is called I’ve Worked Too Hard.  The choir is accompanied by organ, piano, and drums.  The arrangement features hints of two other songs.  The arrangement starts with the spiritual “Listen to the Lambs”, a text made popular by R. Nathaniel Dett in the choral tradition.  The Savettes sing “Listen to the lambs all a-cryin’” as in the original text, bringing to light their own personal crying.  Then they sing: “What are they saying?  We shall overcome.”  Dett’s rendition goes on to talk about how God will lead His flock.  The Savettes’ transition is very similar, trusting and believing that God will lead His people to freedom.  As a soprano soloist sings the words of “We Shall Overcome”, the choir provides militaristic background singing with the words “we are marching”, hinting at the Peter Wilhousky arrangement of Battle Hymn of the Republic which was released 20 years prior.  This could be a subtle plea to have the same kind of independence that whites have.  The same format ensues with the verse “We’ll walk hand in hand”.  At the end of this verse, there is a vamp on “we shall”, declaring the stance to never stop fighting and the faith that it will pay off.  There is a turnaround at the end of the vamp which goes to the flat submediant.  The choir sings “we must, we shall, we will overcome!” as the song ends on a strong, resolute tonic chord.


Brighter DayHeritage of Faith

Next is Korea with the choir known as Heritage of Faith.  “Brighter Day” is a song by Kirk Franklin that was released on his 2002 album The Rebirth of Kirk Franklin.  This was Kirk Franklin’s first solo album, giving the word “rebirth” a musical connotation.  Kirk Franklin has also been through a lot, especially in his growing years.  He was born to a teenage mother and never knew his father.  At the age of fifteen, he witnessed one of his friends getting shot accidentally, and Kirk made an intent to turn his fairly rebellious life around.

In the original song, Kirk Franklin says “Young people, come on and stand up real quick” and “everybody come get your bounce on”.  Kirk Franklin’s contemporary style was initially criticized for sounding too secular.  But he has embraced such a style so that his music could reach people, so that gospel could gain the same type of respect as other genres, and so that young people could be engaged.  He once pointed out that Christian young people like the beat and feel of urban music, but complain that the lyrics are too nasty.  Because of artists like Kirk Franklin, younger people can ride in their cars and listen to music with a beat that talks about Jesus.

Heritage of Faith is a choir that was founded with singers in their twenties.  Surrounded by a country-wide culture of “bel canto” singing and CCM music, Heritage of Faith is regarded as Korea’s first authentic black gospel group.  Their cover of “Brighter Day” came out in 2020.  The choir translated “Brighter Day” into Korean along with other popular gospel songs for this album.  Everything else about the song’s music and instrumentation is virtually unchanged.  One of the choir’s members pumps the choir up as Kirk Franklin would with acclamations like “Come on, sing it!” and “Clap your hands!” The main line of the song is also heard in English: “It’s gonna be a brighter day.”

The lyrics are a direct conversation with God.  In the first verse, the choir says that when they take a second to think about God and all that He has done, it is hard to imagine life without Him.  The fact that Jesus died for us is so amazing, and it makes us want to love Him more.  The chorus says that because of God’s love, we are happy and secure and “it’s gonna be a brighter day”.  The second verse acknowledges the lower moments in life where all hope seemed to be gone.  But Jesus was the friend that kept us and never left us alone and showed us what true love was.  The bridge affirms how much joy Jesus brings us and how our lives have been changed as a result of His love.


For Every Mountain- Tokyo Mass Choir

The last song of my discussion is a cover by the Tokyo Mass Choir representing Japan.  “For Every Mountain” was written by Kurt Carr.  It first appeared on his 1997 album No One Else with Yvette Williams as the lead soloist and the Kurt Carr SingersThere was a six month hiatus between finishing the album and releasing it.  Carr said: “I needed to become ‘Kurt Carr’ and for the ministry to go where it is, and I couldn’t see it because I took my focus off of trusting God and put it on looking at the situation I was in.”  But once the album was released, it brought success.  “For Every Mountain” became a gospel choir standard.  Soon after, Kurt Carr and the Kurt Carr Singers began touring around the country and around the world which included Japan.

One day, Carr was sitting at the piano of West Angeles Church of God in Christ where he was the music director.  The entire chorus of “Every Mountain” came to him, after which he said he fell off the piano bench and worshipped for an hour.  Surely Kurt Carr’s time in Japan led to Tokyo Mass Choir adopting this song.  As of 2014, the choir had over 100 Japanese students.  Only a few were English speakers, and possibly even less were familiar with gospel music.  Richard Hartley, their director, trains the singers to learn the basics of the style.  He spoke to how liberating the music made them feel.  Tokyo Mass Choir does not have any albums, but they do travel to churches in the United States performing songs like this one to show what they have learned.

“For Every Mountain” begins with a solo in no set meter.  The use of rubato and improvisation enhances the reflective nature of the words as the soloist thinks about all the times God has blessed her.  The solo is almost like a cadenza except at the beginning.  The melody starts low, builds to the top of the soloist’s range, and comes back down.  The soloist continues to sing, listing all the ways God has blessed her as the choir responds each time: “That’s why I praise You.”  The choir comes together to repeat the line: “For this, I give You praise.”  The choir inverts to portray their excitement for all God has done as the soloist continues to improvise.

Then the main chorus comes in.  “For every mountain you’ve brought me over, for every trial you’ve seen me through; for every blessing, hallelujah! For this I give You praise.”  Trials can feel as big as mountains sometimes.  But God saw us through them, and He is worthy of praise.  This text repeats multiple times as if to say: “If I had 10,000 tongues, I couldn’t praise You enough.”  The range of the choral parts matches the intensity that the lyrics need.  The song starts in minor, modulates twice, and ends on a triumphant major chord.



In conclusion, I hope that this list of songs is helpful for those researching global gospel music.  With the help of books, articles, digital collections, and dissertations, I learned about all of these artists and was able to find recordings.  I had no idea how popular gospel music was around the world.  This research really broadened my perspective of the genre as well as my general knowledge.  A second reason I did this research was to inspire worship leaders and church music directors.  Many churches have commemorations like International Day or World Communion Day.  Incorporating music from other countries and cultures can help to make these celebrations more authentic.  Some global gospel songs are probably more suited for performance, but many others could be retained and sung by a congregation.  It could be as simple as the chorus of a song.  And even if it is just a normal worship service, including songs from other cultures broadens the congregation’s perspective.  It is also reflective of our increasingly diversifying country and God’s kingdom in the world to come.  A third reason I researched and discussed these songs was to encourage anyone who may be going through challenges in life.  All of these artists have had their fair share of trials, yet they found the strength to not only go on, but also to write these songs.  Through prayer, faith, and perseverance, we can also make it through.  As the Ladysmith Black Mambazo song says: “Tough times never last.  Strong people do.”



Guest Blogger Austin-Sinclair Harris is a graduate student from Houston, TX. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in Vocal Performance from the University of Texas at San Antonio and is set to obtain a master’s degree in Church Music from Baylor University in December 2020.

Guest Blogger Austin-Sinclair Harris is a graduate student from Houston, TX. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in Vocal Performance from the University of Texas at San Antonio and is set to obtain a master’s degree in Church Music from Baylor University in December 2020.



Over the course of the semester, I have studied the history of gospel music, its development as a distinct genre, and its consequent dissemination to other parts of the world.  Gospel music’s predecessor was the Negro spiritual, a style of singing that grew directly out of slavery and the oppression that the slaves faced.  When times continued to get hard, labor became more and more overwhelming, and slave masters became more and more harsh, music helped them through.  As time progressed into the twentieth century, gospel music emerged as a musical genre.  Blacks continued to face oppression and unfair treatment as the genre took shape, and they participated in sit-ins, marches, and similar events for civil rights in the mid-1900s.  Through these efforts, gospel music held a similarly therapeutic purpose with songs like “We Shall Overcome”.  After the civil rights movement, gospel music continued to develop through artists like Edwin Hawkins, Andraé Crouch, Richard Smallwood, Kirk Franklin, Anthony Brown, and many more.

As gospel music continued to become popular in America, it also spread to other parts of the world.  This began with the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ international tour and the English revival tour of Dwight L. Moody and Ira Sankey, both occurring in 1873.  Mahalia Jackson, Donnie McClurkin, and Take 6 are some of the other performers that have toured internationally since.  As the genre developed, black gospel labels and choir promoters put forth efforts to create international markets, offices, and marketing teams.  New media technology also played a role in its global dissemination, starting with the popularity of cassettes and eventually the ability to find music on the Internet and download it.  An additional contributing factor is the growth of Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity around the world.


Songs of Hardship

I have researched multiple gospel songs throughout the semester from the United States and around the world.  The songs I have chosen for this paper are all tied to the theme of dealing with hardship and getting through tough times.  2020 has been a hard year for people in so many ways.  But music has been a key factor in keeping me positive, and I’m sure many others can say the same about music’s power.  All but one of the songs I discuss are in English.  Each country has their own opinion on whether to retain the original language of gospel music or not.  Also worth noting is the diversity of styles that gospel music lends itself to.  Gospel’s direct influences are jazz, blues, and R&B and rap for more contemporary artists.  The songs in this paper also feature influences of reggae, calypso, pop, and folk.

I hope that the order I chose for the songs provides a nice progression lyrically.  The first song states the theme of the album, bringing to light the trouble we face.  The next two songs are prayers for God’s help in the hard times.  The next two songs depict God Himself promising that He will take care of us.  After this set, perhaps life has taken another unexpected turn.  Therefore, the next three songs are finding the strength to keep going.  The next two songs acknowledge that Christ gives us the strength to keep going and that we will make it through.  And the last two songs are celebrating the fact that God made everything alright.


Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen- Louis Armstrong

“Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen” is one of the many Negro spirituals that preceded gospel music.  As is the case with other Negro spirituals, the exact author is unknown.  Judging from the time period discussed in Mellonee V. Burnim’s book African American Music, it was probably written sometime in the 1800s.  The song was born in North America among the slave community on the plantation.  It was first published in Slave Songs of the United States, a collection of songs sung on plantations that was released in 1867 through the collaboration of William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison.

This song was written to emphasize the indescribable anguish that slaves dealt with, which was far more than the average person could imagine.  As I reflect on this song, I can only guess that female slaves might have felt a strong connection to the words.  A lot of female slaves were raped by their slave owners against their will, but yet they found comfort that God was still with them.  In general, the slaves were glad to know that Jesus was aware of their hurt.  He knows everything, and all of the times He was tempted and His painful journey to the cross connected with the amount of suffering that the slaves experienced.

A key musical characteristic of this song is that it is in a major key.  A lot of Negro spirituals are in minor keys, so the major tonality further speaks to the hope that the slaves had.  In the lyrics, the phrases “Glory, hallelujah” and “Oh yes, Lord” appear multiple times.  These sound like acclamations that would be heard in worship.  Descending intervals happen on the phrases “sometimes I’m down” and “almos’ to de ground” which provides some slight text-painting.

Louis Armstrong smiled as he performed this song, which may be a little unusual considering the lyrics.  But it was generally his personality to smile while he performed, and I’m sure he also found great joy in the fact that Jesus knows our struggles.  Mahalia Jackson’s recording of the song is quite famous as well and is even featured as one of her “Greatest Hits”.  Her rendition picks up in tempo as drums join the accompaniment to make it more lively.  Armstrong performs the song himself with piano accompaniment.  He plays the refrain once on his trumpet and then sings the rest.  The song is given a black gospel feel where there is no set meter and the pianist is following the singer.

The key Armstrong sings in is Gb major, which gives the listener a sense of calmness and relaxation.  The refrain he plays on his trumpet features some turns and passing tones to provide subtle improvisation.  Some critics might say this is too early to stray away from the melody, but the changes are subtle and it is a fairly familiar tune.  The pianist provides an interlude before the repeat of the refrain which almost gives the piece a classical feel for a moment.  Armstrong plays a lot with rubato when he begins to sing, slowing down at certain points and then rushing subsequent rhythms to catch up again.  He really takes his time with the phrase “sometimes I’m almos’ to the ground” as if you’ve just heard some bad news and you slowly fall to your knees as you process what happened.  He takes even more rhythmic liberty as the refrain returns.  The orchestra on stage joins him on the last two syllables of the song to provide a sense of closure.


Precious Lord, Take My Hand- Etta Cameron

I have chosen Etta Cameron to represent Denmark.  Etta Cameron was born in the Bahamas, grew up in Florida, visited Denmark as a guest artist in the mid-1960s singing jazz, and moved to Denmark permanently in 1972 being intrigued by the opportunity to promote gospel music.  “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” is a song that was born out of hardship.  It was written by Thomas Dorsey in 1932.  He was attending a revival in St. Louis where he was asked to sing, and there he received the news that his wife had died from childbirth.  When Dorsey returned home to Chicago, his newborn son also died.  After days of grief and isolation, Dorsey was persuaded by his friend Theodore Fry to come to church.  Dorsey made his way to the piano, and this song was born.  It is said to have been Martin Luther King Jr.’s favorite song, and it was sung often by black men and women during the civil rights movement who longed for equality.

A key musical characteristic of the song is the peak in the contour of the melody.  Each verse starts low and gradually gets higher until the peak in the fourth phrase.  This is a depiction of being down in the dumps but consequently pleading for God’s help in a hopeful way.  Flatted sevenths appear in the harmony which is typical in gospel music.  The tempo is slow and meditative as one would pray.  The lyrics are said to draw similarity to the psalms of lament such as Psalm 6.  The common factors are confessing one’s own helplessness, uttering a cry for divine help, and finding confidence in God’s power even in the face of death.

Etta Cameron’s rendition takes on a moderate tempo and creates a slow groove.  The change of meter from 3/4 to 4/4 helps to create this.  She is accompanied by piano, electric bass, organ, and drums.  Cameron begins the song by ad libbing, a musical feature shared by jazz and gospel.  As she begins the first verse, a choir joins her in the background.  It is common in gospel music for soloists to either initiate or echo what the choir sings, and Cameron chose to initiate.  The flatted seventh first appears in the phrase “take my hand”.  Cameron takes a fair amount of rhythmic freedom throughout, which is even more possible due to the extra beat in each measure.  The dynamics start soft and build up to “through the storm” as the peak of the verse.  The flatted seventh is heard again on “through the night”.  The end of the verse takes on a plagal cadence instead of going from dominant straight to tonic.

In the second verse, Cameron takes more rhythmic and melodic freedom as she continues to build the intensity of the song.  The plea is becoming more and more earnest and heartfelt.  She goes back to the first verse next and builds even more as she incorporates more and more riffs and belts.  Then the second half of the first verse and the second half of the second verse are repeated, creating a vamp which is another key feature of gospel music.  The song ends with another plagal cadence, and she continues a series of riffs.


Rescue Me- Papa San

Now we move to Jamaica with Papa San (formally known as Tyrone Thompson) and his song “Rescue Me”.  This song was written in 2012 by Papa San for his album My Story.  The inspiration of the overall album is a journal of his life experiences, issues that he has faced, and his triumph over it all thanks to God’s healing and deliverance.  Violence took the life of two of his brothers while he was being raised by his Rastafarian grandmother.  But through it all, he came to know Christ and he dedicated his life to proclaiming his faith in God through music.  “Rescue Me” is a prayer for God to provide a loving shield to protect us in life’s storms.

This song has been described as a gospel ballad.  It is an interesting contrast from Papa San’s default style.  A lot of his gospel songs are heavily influenced by reggae and dancehall.  The beat has some sense of reggae, but the overall feel of the song is slow and laid-back.  One could bob their head to the beat or rock from side to side, but getting up and dancing would be less likely.  His collaboration with Grammy nominated artist Trey Lorenz certainly had some influence on the song as well.  Lorenz’s R&B style was a good fit for the heartfelt passion that “Rescue Me” needed.

The song is in a minor key, but this does not take away from the song’s quality.  In the bad times, we can find hope and we can find the strength to cry out to God for help.  The instrumentation all sounds electronic.  The pulses from the keyboard on two and four also provide a subtle sense of reggae.  As Trey Lorenz sings the first verse, it stays fairly low in his range.  As he transitions to the pre-chorus, the passaggio gets higher.  And in the chorus, the passaggio is even higher as Lorenz reaches the peak of his prayer.  When the pre-chorus and chorus come back later, he takes more melodic freedom to provide contrast on what has already been said.

Lyrically speaking, I like Lorenz’s use of the word “love” as in “I’m calling on love to stop the rain” and “love’s gon’ rescue me”.  God manifests the best example of love, and it even says in the Bible that “God is love”.  So referring to God as “love” is a natural fit.  Papa San even sings the word “Jesus” in the background after Lorenz says the word “love”.  Papa San’s first verse hints at hymns with phrases like “you shelter me from the storm” and “sinking sand”.  I like how Papa San encourages Trey Lorenz in the background as he sings with phrases like “share your testimony” and “you know”.  In the vamp as the song prepares to wind down, Lorenz lists different challenges that people may be facing and provides a common solution: “Say ‘Love, come rescue me.  Please come and rescue me’”.


Bridge Over Troubled Water- Café of the Gate of Salvation

Next is Australia with the choir known as Café of the Gate of Salvation and their cover of “Bridge Over Troubled Water”.  “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was written by Paul Simon in 1970.  Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. had recently been assassinated.  The Vietnam War was well underway.  And Richard Nixon was the current president.  With all of these things in mind, Paul Simon searched for words that would provide comfort.  He sang words that had been in his head for a week: “When you’re weary, feeling small; when tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all.”  He got writer’s block after coming up with those words, but then he was inspired after listening to one of his favorite records.  The Swan Silvertones had a cover of the song “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep”.  Claude Jeter, the lead singer of the group, sang the words: “I’ll be your bridge over deep water if you trust in my name.”  Simon took this line and became inspired to finish the song.  His other albums of the 1970s show his increasing love for gospel music.

There has been some debate about whether this song is considered a gospel song, but the level of influence that gospel has on the song cannot be debated.  “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is similar to “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen in that it features religious phrases and lyrics, but it is not necessarily sacred.  However, the lyrics of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” are so broad that it can be used as a sacred or secular song.  Aretha Franklin could be argued as the artist to have made the song popular in gospel circles.  With her Baptist upbringing and blues inflections, Aretha provides a “bridge” between folk music and gospel music with the song.  Connecting to the exodus of the Israelites from Egyptian captivity, Aretha promises God’s friendship and presence in times of trial.

Café of the Gate of Salvation follows Aretha Franklin’s version.  Backup singers introduce the song.  The mere fact that a choir accompanies the soloist gives it more of a gospel feel as opposed to Simon’s original.  The choir also provides “ah’s” under the solo and echoes or doubles some of the soloist’s phrases throughout the song.  The tempo provides a moderate groove.  The instrumentation is keyboard, guitar, bass guitar, and drums.  Australian singer Diana Rouvas is featured as a guest soloist.  Her voice provides a gospel and pop feel to the song.  Another distinct characteristic of Café of the Gate of Salvation’s cover is their choice to end the song on the subdominant rather than tonic.

As discussed earlier, the lyrics are flexible enough to be used in a sacred context.  God is the “bridge over troubled water” in this setting when the troubled waters of life get us down.  In the introduction, the choir sings “Don’t trouble the water; leave it alone.  Why don’t you, why don’t you let it be.”  To me, this says: “Don’t try to handle your problems alone.  That will only make things worse.  God is already the bridge.  God’s gonna trouble the water.”  The phrase “sail on, silver girl” has brought up controversy over its meaning.  In Paul Simon’s original, it is an inside joke about his first wife who he began to call “silver girl” when he started to see gray hairs on her head.  In a gospel context, “silver girl” could be a metaphor for anyone.  At the end of the third verse, Café of the Gate of Salvation does a vamp on the introduction of the song as Diana does some riffs.


In The Father’s Arms- Diante do Trono

The next song comes from Brazil.  “In The Father’s Arms” is the title cut of the group’s album In The Father’s Arms that was released in 2006.  However, the roots of the song trace all the way back to 2002.  Diante do Trono had recently begun a Brazil campaign.  The second location they chose was the Esplanade of Ministries in Brasília, home to one of Brazil’s biggest stages.  1.2 million people came to the event, making it the biggest Christian event ever held in the country’s political capital.  The music of In The Father’s Arms was featured at the event.  Pastor Márcio Valadão, the father of two of the group’s singers, said this about the event: “The greatest disclosure about the Christian faith is to know God like our Father.  This concept of heavenly paternity leads us to prove, through Christ Jesus, the grace of living as children of God and as a part of a great family.  It’s ‘in the Father’s arms’ that our faith is no longer only a doctrine and starts becoming a relationship.  On July 13, 2002, as a prophetic act, 1,200,000 people got together at the Ministries Esplanade in Brasilia, the country’s capital, to worship our Father that revealed His heart to each of His children and to our nation.”  Nos Braços do Pai (In The Father’s Arms) received a Talento Trophy award in 2003 for the “Best Worship and Praise Album”.

Brazil’s musical scene is home to two types of gospel music.  The Brazilian definition of “gospel” is actually referring to contemporary Christian music.  “Black gospel” is a term that is used to refer specifically to black gospel music in Brazil, which started to appear there around the late 1990s.  Diante do Trono’s music falls under the contemporary Christian side.  The albums are mostly in Portuguese, but In The Father’s Arms was released both in English and Portuguese.  The lead singer of the group is Ana Paula Valadão, who is featured as a soloist in the song “In The Father’s Arms”.

The musical accompaniment is piano, strings, guitar, and drums.  Contemporary gospel music similarly features orchestration and a wider use of instruments in many cases.  The chord texture is very simple throughout.  The song increases in voices as it goes on.  After a solo in the first verse asking for God’s presence, an ensemble of four joins Ana Paula for the chorus.  The chorus is God’s response, inviting us into his arms.  This is the first instance of vocal harmony as if to musically suggest that God’s voice is soothing and pleasant and provides solace from whatever we are facing.  The ensemble singing the chorus is all male which was surely intentional.

On the repeat of the verse, a choir joins in as Ana Paula ad libs.  As the chorus returns repeating God’s promise, Ana Paula and the choir sing together as if to say: “I heard God promise His faithfulness to me.  Now let me assure you.”  A vamp is done on the last two lines of the chorus: “Come, my child.  Come just as you are.”  Then “my child” is substituted with “all nations”.  After a few repetitions, the voices cut out for an interlude.  This moment feels like an altar call at church where time is given for the Holy Spirit to move people to walk up.  After the interlude, a child’s voice begins another vamp with the words: “Father, my Father, Abba Father, my daddy.”  This further communicates Pastor Valadão’s point about God’s paternal relationship with everyone.  The song modulates as these final words are repeated some more before the song ends.  The key word of the song is “father”.  Saying “in God’s arms” is comforting, but saying “in the Father’s arms” makes it feel even more special and personal.


Keep Moving- London Community Gospel Choir

Next up is London with the song “Keep Moving”.  There is not a lot of background information about this song, but it was released in 2008 by a portion of the choir called “The Edge of LCGC” on their album Keep Moving.  The song was also featured on London Community Gospel Choir’s thirtieth anniversary album released in 2013.  LCGC invited other choirs and individual singers to sing this song and “O Happy Day” as part of an attempt to break the Guinness World Record for “Largest Mass Gospel Choir”.  30 choirs gathered and broke the previous record of 1,138 voices, proving how much gospel music can foster community.

London Community Gospel Choir’s music is generally very energetic, and this song is no exception.  The synthesizer and drums automatically create a groove that makes you want to get up and move.  Electric guitar is also added into the mix.  Bazil Meade, the founder of the choir, pumps the audience up and encourages them to get up and dance.  He keeps this going throughout the song with phrases like “put your hands together”.  This song is an example of a happy song being in a minor key.  Minor keys have been used in American gospel music as well to provide the tonal color that major keys might not always provide.

The lyrics are an embodiment of the famous proverb: “Fall down seven times; get up eight.”  The choir encourages us to keep moving forward.  Sometimes we fall, but we can’t stay down.  We can find the strength to keep going no matter what gets in our way.  Bazil details the difficulty of life’s journey in the verses, but the chorus comes back as encouragement.  The first bridge says: “Connect with the Spirit.  Follow the Spirit.  Move in the Spirit, every day in the Spirit.  Live in the Spirit.  Stay in the Spirit.  Nothing can stand in your way.”  As the Holy Spirit gives us discernment and guidance, the Holy Spirit also gives us strength as shown in Colossians 1:9-11.  This is further elaborated with the second bridge that assures us that when we take a step, God does the rest.  The choir inverts parts in this bridge, another common feature in gospel music.  The choir sings “take a step” a few more times and the song ends.



Part II with another six selections and the conclusion of this blog will be posted next week.


Guest Blogger Austin-Sinclair Harris is a graduate student from Houston, TX. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in Vocal Performance from the University of Texas at San Antonio and is set to obtain a master’s degree in Church Music from Baylor University in December 2020.

Guest Blogger Joslyn Henderson is a full-time graduate student at Truett Seminary and Baylor School of Music, having first earned her Bachelors in Music, Vocal Performance from Spelman College in Atlanta. 


Part I of this blog post can be found here.


Moving down into the 2000s, the following entries reflect gospel music as a global phenomenon. Though all of these songs were originally recorded by American artists, most of the performances referred to here display the broad impact of gospel music across the world. Beginning with Judy McAllister out of California and ending with Café of the Gate of Salvation out of Australia, let this music help to affirm that Black gospel music is as valuable in the canon of church music as anything else.


“Like the Dew” by Judith Christie McAllister

“Like the Dew” is one of Judith Christie McAllister’s most well-known songs, likely second only to “Oh Give Thanks” from the same Send Judah First album released in the year 2000. Though the song was also recorded by Juanita Bynum, most gospel music listeners would agree that Juanita Bynum is not a singer. The song’s writer is Tom Bynum, and the song follows a rather basic structural pattern. There is an A section that simply repeats, “like the dew in the morning, gently rest upon my heart” with two different melodies. The B section of the song is a chorus that repeats, “rest, Jesus” three times and ends with “rest.” The rest of the song I would say is a B prime section that uses the same chord that dominates the chorus as the background vocalists repeat verbs that Jesus will do: “rest, reign, rule, move…” This song began an era of praise and worship music released by Black artists (though the composers and writers may not be, as is the case here).

This was a song that was appropriate for use in the Black church that somewhat resembled the Contemporary Christian Music of the mainstream white congregations. Compared against Martin Nystrom’s “As the Deer” from the Wow Worship album that was released the same year, they are quite different sonically but follow the same basic structure. The song opens with an introduction of the melody by the artist and the ensemble joins. Though “Like the Dew” employs some really distinct rhythms, the chords are pretty much the same throughout. Contemporary Christian Music is built off of simplicity, and this song is just that. There is a simple opening phrase that is repeated, then the end is repeated as well.

This music was a bit of a contrast from what many contemporary gospel artists were doing in 2000. This was when Mary Mary was being introduced and when Kirk Franklin’s music was starting to shift and get “radical with [their] message.” While gospel music was changing form and shape, many artists held to the sound and feel of contemporary gospel music during this time. The sound of gospel music of the 1990s held over into the year 2000, but Judith Christie McAllister came with a sound that resembled something different. A classic in its own right, “Like the Dew” is now and continues to a favorite of the writer’s and many praise teams of yesterday and today.


“There Is No Way” by Ricky Dillard & New G

Chicago is generally credited as the birthplace of Black gospel music. Chicago is responsible for the careers of hometown heroes like Chicago Mass Choir, New Direction, Jonathan McReynolds, Milton Brunson and the Thompson Community Singers, Dexter Walker and Zion Movement and so many others. The one who has been consistently releasing music for the church choir since the late 1980s is still doing so up until today. Ricky Dillard grew up in Chicago and has been involved in gospel choirs since he was five years old. Dillard was an early member of the Thompson Community Singers under the direction of Milton Brunson. Percy Bady wrote “There Is No Way” and it was released on the Miracle Live album recorded in 1984. Ricky Dillard’s remake of this Brunson classic was well-received partially because of Nikki Ross being featured as a soloist. Ricky Dillard had the idea of reclaiming the church choir and this album did just that with a more traditional sound. Unplugged: The Way Church Used to Be was released in 2004 and “There Is No Way” was one of the featured songs.

Like the album title alludes, this music is intended for church. There was a sound on this album that did not necessarily fit in with the sound of the day. The early 2000s was a time for gospel music to sound electric, with many MIDI instruments and plug-ins. “There Is No Way” featured a Hammond organ and would be used for what might be called a traditional service today. Nikki Ross’s melismatic phrasing and virtuosic use of her instrument lets the listeners know the type of musician she is, and the type of singer she is. A pianist, the way that her ear can pick up on chord progressions and sing runs that fit the chord being played is something only attributable to the ear that she has as an instrumentalist. In comparison with the original 1984 recording, it is clear that Nikki Ross being an instrumentalist contributed to the way she interpreted this solo. Her being a part of this recording is what gives this track legendary status.



“Oh Happy Day” by the Soweto Gospel Choir

“Oh Happy Day” changed the world of gospel music in America, but the impact of the song traveled abroad as well. The song I found as I looked for music by the Soweto Gospel Choir was this classic, reimagined by this group of South African musicians released in 2005. The song was written by Edwin Hawkins and its most popular recording is the original recording from 1969. The song was also made popular by its feature in the 1993 film, Sister Act 2: Back In the Habit. As we have seen and experienced, “Oh Happy Day” was unlike the gospel music that came before it. This song being part of the Grammy award-winning Blessed album by the Soweto Gospel Choir is just about the same, in that it is distinctive from the other tracks, consisting of native African music genres, Negro spiritual, and even the South African national anthem. This is probably the only Black gospel track on this recording. It begins with a strong bassline. The other instruments come in slowly and the soloist introduces the melody, much like the original. The most noticeable harmonic change is the repetition of the I-IV progression. The progression is played three times before VII is introduced. This changes the tonic center before the return at the end of the verse with “washed my sins away” on the tonic chord. The syncopations differ and the song is rhythmically divergent at the end.

The Soweto Gospel Choir is a performance choir. The auditions for the group brought out over 600 people. They are not only a touring musical group but serve as unofficial ambassadors for the country of South Africa. This song was originally arranged for SGC for performance but can be used in church, with the understanding of difference from the original version.



“Show Up” by Heritage Mass Choir

The New Life Community Choir, led by John P. Kee, had a major influence on my childhood and upbringing. A couple of weekends ago, a certain sector of Twitter was embroiled in a hearty debate about hiring a youth choir director in 1998 and John P. Kee was one of three choices. Though not my first choice, John P. Kee is one of my favorite gospel artists. Imagine my delight in looking for a song by the Heritage Mass Choir and finding one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite artists. The Heritage Gospel Choir is in concert in 2009 doing their live recording singing John P. Kee’s “Show Up.” Though the original recording of this song was released in 1995, this song evidently transcends musical era.

The Heritage Gospel Choir recorded this song for their “The Gospel 2” album release and sticks very closely to the original composition. Translated for their context, this song can be used in worship or in concert (as it is here). I would not be surprised if the Heritage Mass Choir reached out to find the exact loops and musical instruments that were used on the original because this 2009 release sounds very similar to the 1995 original. Only because I see the musicians in the video, I am convinced that this is not a sing-along track. Musically, there are no differences between the original composition and this recording. Sonically, the music is being sung in Korean but the rhythms are also true to the original recording. Even the adlib is singing identically to what John P. Kee does. Near the end of the song, they sing, “show up” in English before ending with a repeat of the end of the B section. The soloist on this track does so much to add to the richness of the text written by John P. Kee by adding his South Korean flavor to it.



“Don’t Trouble the Water” by Café of the Gate of Salvation

Simon and Garfunkel originally recorded “Don’t Trouble the Water” back in 1970. Widely considered their biggest hit, it was no surprise that Aretha Franklin took the song as her own in 1971. She achieved major commercial success spending weeks on the top of the Billboard charts and even winning a Grammy for her “gospel-inspired” version. Written by Paul Simon, this song has been recorded by many other artists including Elvis Presley. It is no surprise then that Australia’s premier a cappella gospel choir took up this song to sing. With the help of Australian singer-songwriter, Diana Rouvas, Café of the Gate of Salvation records this song live at The Basement in the Sydney in November of 2017. The setting of this recording is in a pub with space for live music, so it is safe to say that this song is not intended for use in worship.

Quite frankly, the song is not necessarily a black gospel song in the traditional sense, in that it only alludes to God without naming God. It is assumed that the friend that is sung about in the song is a higher power or presence like Jesus, or even God. This live performance features a really skilled vocalist and a very present bassline. The rhythm in the bassline makes the song emblematic of its earlier recordings. The bassline also connects it to the blues genre that relied heavily on the bass guitar. Although blues takes root in the United States, this country’s music travels further to places that the originators may not visit. Though I am sure Simon and Garfunkel traveled to Sydney, Australia, I don’t imagine they envisioned a white, non-religious gospel choir in Australia singing one of its most famous rerecordings.




In conclusion, these songs might not have been nearly as memorable had another soloist been chosen to lead them. Any time I am asked to sing “I Love the Lord,” it is referred to as the Whitney Houston version. Before writing this paper, I did not know that there was a recording of “There Is No Way” that was released twenty years prior to Nikki Ross making it her song on Ricky Dillard’s album. Without the Strong Black Lead, Black gospel music, especially choir music of the genre, would not be what we know it as today. There is hardly a Sunday at my church where the choir sings and there isn’t someone up leading the song(s). The gospel soloist is crucial to the music because they introduce the melody, help the choir to know where to go next in the music, and add to the music in a way that cannot be done on an instrument. The contributions of gospel soloists are immense, changing the landscape of individual songs and of the genre as a whole. I refrain from mentioning that the choir benefits greatly from the soloist, but even the ensembles and the worship teams have much to gain from a power soloist in front. I believe that one day, a student will be writing about power gospel vocalists in the 21st century and mention me. This legacy given through Nikki Ross, Lecresia Campbell, Dorothy Morrison, Karen Clark-Sheard, and so many others is one I personally hope to carry.


Resources Mentioned

  • Berkley, Gail. “Bishop Walter Hawkins Mourned.” Sun Reporter, Jul 15, 2010. 1, Accessed 6 May 2019.
  • Bernard, A. J. (2011, Aug). Rejoice and sound the trumpet for the glorious return of Judith Christie McAllister. New York Beacon Retrieved from Accessed 16 Feb 2019.
  • “Bridge Over Troubled Water” With choir “CAFE OF THE GATE OF SALVATION” (2017). Accessed 25 Mar 2019.
  • “Carlton Pearson.” Contemporary Black Biography, vol. 140, Gale, 2017. Biography In Context, Accessed 8 Apr 2019.
  • “CARLTON PEARSON ROCKS THE CHARTS WITH WARNER ALLIANCE RELEASE ‘LIVE AT AZUSA’.” PR Newswire, 9 Nov. 1995, p. 1109LA022. Academic OneFile, Accessed 8 Apr 2019.
  • Ely, Gordon. “Soweto Gospel Choir: Blessed.” Billboard, 28 Jan. 2006, p. 54. General Reference Center GOLD, Accessed 23 Feb 2019.
  • Horn, David. Popular Music, vol. 13, no. 3, 1994, pp. 366–369. JSTOR, Accessed 7 May 2019.
  • Hunter, C. (2016). The politics of real spirituality in gospel music discourse and practice (Order No. 10120465). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1796054276). Retrieved from ntid=7014. Accessed 5 Feb 2019.
  • Jackson, Irene. “Rosetta Tharpe.” Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, Macmillan Reference USA, 2006. Biography In Context, Accessed 5 Feb 2019.
  • Johnson, E. Patrick, 1967. Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity. Durham [N.C.]: Duke University Press, 2003.
  • MacSwain, Robert, and Taylor Worley, eds. Theology, Aesthetics, and Culture: Responses to the Work of David Brown. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Oxford Scholarship Online, 2013. doi: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199646821.001.0001. Accessed 6 May 2019.
  • “Ricky Dillard.” Contemporary Black Biography, vol. 134, Gale, 2016. Biography In Context, Accessed 6 May 2019.
  • “Rosetta Tharpe.” Contemporary Black Biography, vol. 65, Gale, 2008. Biography In Context, Accessed 7 Feb 2019.
  • “Soweto Gospel Choir ambassadors of the ‘African spirit’.” The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 18 Dec. 2008. Opposing Viewpoints in Context, Accessed 25 Feb 2019.



Guest Blogger Joslyn Henderson is a full-time graduate student at Truett Seminary and Baylor School of Music, having first earned her Bachelors in Music, Vocal Performance from Spelman College in Atlanta. When she finishes at Baylor, she will add a Master of Divinity and Master of Music in Church Music to her education. She is a prolific gospel singer and worship leader who travels across the state and country magnifying God’s great name. In addition, Joslyn is also an active member of the Waco Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated.



Black Gospel Music Tradition

I grew up going to a church deeply rooted in the Black gospel music tradition. No matter the Sunday or the choir that was singing, I was sure that on that morning I’d be hearing Black gospel music when I got to church. In a lot of music belonging to the genre, the soloist can make or break the songs. I think of the classics that I remember from my childhood, and the songs I remember the most are the ones with highly adlibbed vamps from anointed, gifted, and skilled soloists. In the following entries, I will talk about some of my favorite gospel music songs that feature a power gospel soloist, someone whom without their rich, vibrant, strong voices, these songs would not have the same impact. Though everyone who leads on these tracks is not a Black person or an African-American person, the genre being Black gospel music justifies using a title like Strong Black Lead to describe these soloists. They seat themselves in a musical tradition deeply rooted in Blackness, therefore even though they may not share the culture with those from whom it derives, their musical presence signifies a Strong Black Lead.


“Don’t Take Everybody to Be Your Friend”

by Sister Rosetta Tharpe

“Don’t Take Everybody to Be Your Friend” was written by Rosetta Tharpe and was performed by she and the Sam Price Trio. Though there have been over 30 recordings of this song, this is the original recorded by the composer for Decca Records. The recording that I heard was part of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project, and the date of its original release is unclear. The site says between 1955-1975, while other sites say 1947 for the earliest release. The lyrics speak of the singer’s relationship with other people. It is quite clear that this song is not meant for use in church, though it mentions God at the beginning. God is brought in as a mediator between Tharpe and friends, the song warns the listeners of people who may enter into friendship with you for their own personal gain. She tells us repeatedly, “don’t, don’t take everybody for your friend.” The song feature Rosetta as the main vocalist and the Sammy Price trio as the instrumentalists. Tharpe is a guitarist herself, and subsequently accompanies herself on this track. The song is an example of a subgenre known as the Gospel blues. Horace Boyer says that Gospel blues specifically denotes a sixteen-bar form linked to AABA song structure. Michael Harris, however, says that Gospel blues signifies a blending of sacred texts and blues tunes. Both of these are apparent in this song. While Georgia Tom (Thomas Dorsey) was spreading his music around Chicago and the world thanks to Gospel Pearls, Tharpe and her gospel blues toured all across America and Europe. Around the time that this song was recorded, rock music was just beginning to gain traction. Gospel blues is considered a predecessor to rock-and-roll, and Tharpe is credited as the mother of the genre. Because of this, the gospel blues style is what made Tharpe a name to be remembered up to this day.




by the Walter Hawkins and the Love Center Choir

In June of 1975, Walter Hawkins and the Love Center Choir released the Love Alive album, containing a track that would that would heavily impact Black gospel music for decades to come. Employing such musical techniques as secondary dominant passages and shifting tonal centers, the title of this song is exemplified musically throughout the song. This song was written by Walter Hawkins. This album also contained “Goin Up Yonder” and “God Is Standing By” and sold over 250, 000 copies, becoming one of Black gospel music’s most successful albums of the 1970s. It is likely that he wrote this song with his then-wife, Tramaine, in mind. She was featured as the lead vocalist. The song is intended for use in church and wherever people need to know about the change that has come over you since encountering Jesus Christ. One of the distinct features of this song is the beginning of the track where there is a bit of a call and response between the choir and the lead. Tramaine begins the song with, “A change, a change has come over me…” and is followed by the choir singing, “He changed my life and now I’m free.” In this phrase the musicians move from an Eb tonality to that of Ab. The music is “changing” along with the lyrics. The Hawkins brothers, Walter and Edwin continued in the vein of gospel musicians that stretched the boundaries of traditional harmonies. The chord progressions that dominate this song were uncommon for that time, and the way that he uses imagery to convey the lyrics is different from those who were making gospel music prior to this era. This was a fresh sound, and the evidence of that “freshness” is apparent in its longevity.


“He Cares for You”

by Milton Brunson and the Thompson Community Singers

There are distinct names, voices, and sounds that came out of Chicago gospel music. Milton Brunson and the Thompson Community Singers are the people who come to mind first when I think of Chicago gospel. Milton Brunson was for Chicago what James Cleveland was for Southern California. He broke boundaries, set records, and gave Chicago what the city had been used to for years: a healthy appetite of gospel music. Written by Percy Bady during the early 80s, “He Cares for You” was an instant hit featuring Tina Conley-Watson on lead. This song first appeared on the If I Be Lifted  album released in 1987. Tina’s biting soprano timbre cuts through the choir at the end of the song, demonstrating her expansive range. She begins the song singing softly with “so you think that you can’t make it through.” By the time she builds up to the repeat of that phrase after having sung through the verse once, she sings with much more fervor and intensity. This song was written for a community choir with the understanding that it would be used in churches across the city (and eventually, the country). The rhythmic acceleration to handclapping in the vamp at the end of the song is typical for Percy Bady/Milton Brunson collaborations, as we will see the same thing return on “There Is No Way” later in this paper. The piano plays a prominent role in this song, but Tina Watson is truly the star of this recording. When this song was released, many other gospel artists were on the scene doing music, but this sound, the instrumentation, and the lyrical content was characteristic of Chicago gospel music. The sounds that Andraé Crouch, Edwin Hawkins, and Walter Hawkins were using in California varied in that their music was very electronic and held on to stylistic elements of popular music in 1970s. This was not the case for Milton Brunson at this time. He used 4-piece rhythm section, spectacular soloists, and gifted writers to carry the music he released. This formula is what keeps us talking about the Tommies in the 2010s when they had their album debut in the 1980s.



“Take It By Force”

by Carlton Pearson (ft. Karen Clark-Sheard)

Any gospel music aficionado would consider Karen Clark-Sheard and her sisters one of the royal families of gospel music. On Carlton Pearson’s first live album, Live at Azusa, Karen Clark-Sheard lends her voice to a track with a 100-voice choir in a large arena at Oral Roberts University. The album was released in October of 1995, but the music has lived on to this day. The Live at Azusa recordings (of which there are five) grew out of the Azusa conference that took place yearly. Though the music is contextualized, it can be used widely. This is a choir song with a strong lead vocalist, so it would easily translate to a Sunday morning service. Karen Clark-Sheard is known for her belting skills, guttural sounds, precise melismatic phrases (runs), scats, and grunts used in her vocal performances. This song features all of those typical “KCS” characteristics. Even as a child, I memorized every adlib and lyric of this song because I wanted to sound like her when I grew up. The Live at Azusa album climbed to #5 on the Billboard Gospel Charts within weeks of its release. Featuring many other strong vocalists such as Daryl Coley, the album’s success was due in large part to the event people were attending. With the sound of the Hammond organ, bass guitar, drum set, keyboard, and synthesizer, this music was very reminiscent of the gospel music genre in 1995. Carlton Pearson did not seem to be creating a new sound in gospel music but jumping on the wave that had already worked for Kirk Franklin, Helen Baylor, Donald Lawrence, and John P. Kee. Pearson, however, found a sound that worked for him and had a very successful music career building on “Live at Azusa” and the street revival Pentecostal legacy.



“Now Behold the Lamb”

by Kirk Franklin

There are not very many Christmas seasons that pass in mainline Black churches where someone doesn’t sing or dance to Kirk Franklin’s “Now Behold the Lamb.” Making its premiere on the album Kirk Franklin & The Family Christmas in November 1995, this song has had a lasting effect on gospel music today. The composer of this song is Kirk Franklin and this track from his Christmas album is the most well-known recording of it. As I mentioned at the outset, this song is contemporary gospel music meant for use in the church. This was long before Kirk Franklin moved from choir music to that of ensembles and background vocalists. This song can be sung on a Sunday morning during the advent and Christmastide season in church. The song features two soloists and a choir. It opens with a distinct melody in the piano, that when played gives the listeners the signal they they’re about to “go in” (common Black church jargon for being slain in the spirit). The acoustic piano is the main instrument in this track, but Kirk Franklin layers in the musicians, beginning only with piano and drum set. As the choir repeats the verse, the synthesizer joins, padding underneath the melody in the piano. After the synthesizer enters, the Hammond organ is heard entering the musical landscape. The bass guitar is also heard on the track. Musically genius in its arrangement, this song is emblematic of the compositions of Kirk Franklin. The types of poetry that Kirk Franklin writes on this track leads the way to the future of gospel music with lines like, “born into sin that I may live again.” Kirk Franklin comes up with metaphors and similes that transport the listener into a euphoric state of reading as they listen to his music. The two soloists on the track are Tamela Mann and John Gray. Tamela has gone on to see major success in gospel music, radio, film, television, and the play stage with and without her husband, David Mann. John Gray is a popular television preacher known for his television shows, marriage, and work in Lakewood Church and at his new church, Relentless Church. It is hard to believe that this song would have reached the success that it did then and still does now had Kirk Franklin chosen different soloists to lead it.



“I Love the Lord”

by Whitney Houston

The 1982 album that contained Richard Smallwood’s “I Love the Lord” spent over 80 weeks on the Billboard gospel chart. Composed in the basement of the Fine Arts department at Howard University, this song would gain him international acclaim over a decade later. Whitney Houston loved the song and knew that when she filmed The Preacher’s Wife that the song had to be included. There are quite a few songs that become popular largely because of the soloist and not the composer or the arranger; this song was one of them. Though Richard Smallwood had already achieved commercial success with his albums with Howard Gospel Choir, he would never have never foreseen the success of this recording. This song has great crossover appeal, evidenced by the many people who have taken it and arranged it for choir, solo, instruments, and more and is a personal favorite of the writer to perform, the most recent performance being for an Ash Wednesday service recently. This 1996 release features string instruments and many other instruments that most musicians would expect to find in classical music. However, this is the characteristic of the writing style of Richard Smallwood. Though many of his compositions are quite classical in arrangement, he also composes music for 4-piece rhythm sections on a Sunday morning. Much of his earlier music shows off the breadth of musical knowledge he brings to his compositions. Even in this track, in addition to the stringed instruments, brass can be heard on the part where the choir (and soloist) sings “and trouble rise.” This song is not only a beautiful solo, but a work of art. Employing great musicality, Whitney Houston flips between her head and chest voice varying dynamics to deliver the melody and the lead of this great gospel standard. Her voice being featured on most of the album made The Preacher’s Wife soundtrack the best-selling gospel soundtrack of all time, even to this day. Undoubtedly, this track had much to do with that success.




Part II of this blog, including a list of resources mentioned in this post, is now posted.

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