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Global Gospel: Gospel Music For Dealing With Hardship – Part I

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.

We weren’t going to post anything about Kanye West and his new album. Frankly, he gets enough press already and most of his music isn’t designed nor does it lend itself well to be considered “congregational.” But the latest news of him claiming to be the “greatest artist God has ever created” does open up an opportunity to explore that claim and learn about some church music history.

So here’s a list of 10 artists who Kanye obviously doesn’t know about that we think are worth mentioning when discussing the “greatest artist God has ever created.”

1. Theological Mastermind: Ambrose of Milan

Often called “The Father of Western Hymnody,” Saint Ambrose of Milan was a key figure in solidifying the idea that Christ was not a creation of God, but rather a full part of God from and of the beginning. Can many other artists in our history or today claim that they literally shaped and then defended a key tenant of the Christian faith? Check out one of his hymns we still sing today, “O Splendor of God’s Glory Bright.”

2. Composer & Theologian: Hildegard of Bingen

Given credit for founding scientific natural history in Germany, this 12th century nun is also one of the most well-known Pre-Reformation sacred composers. Just listen to this stunning performance of one of her chant arrangements.

3. Tune-Writer: Louis Bourgeois

You know the branch of Christianity called “Reformed” and “Presbyterian”? Well, the music that they sing was and is largely influenced by Louis Bourgeois who was largely responsible for the milestone “Genevan Psalter” in the 16th century. Most famously he’s credited with composing the tune OLD HUNDRETH, which is sung by countless congregations each and every Sunday. Here’s a great a cappella singing of the tune from a recent worship conference:

4. Composer & Theologian: J.S. Bach

It’s hard to find a composer who more carefully and skillfully combines music and theology than J.S. Bach. Organ, Orchestra, Voice…you name it. So many of his compositions are considered masterworks and are performed across the world each year by multiple ensembles that we don’t know where to begin. So here’s a playlist of the “best of Bach” for your listening pleasure.

5. Concertized Sacred Music: G.F. Handel

While much of Handel’s music is unremarkable when it comes to the “greatest” conversation, his oratorio Messiah has been continually sung/performed for over 270 years and counting. In 2014/2015, 13 of the 22 largest American orchestras performed the work 38 times. When people think church music, they think Messiah. Here’s a full performance:

Also, how can we mention Messiah and not also link to the “Soulful Celebration” remake from 1992?

6. Song Writer: Fanny Crosby

A blind woman living in the late 1800s, she wrote more than 8000 hymns and gospel songs and over 1000 secular poems. Her most popular hymn, “Blessed Assurance,” has appeared in over 900 hymnals and continues to be sung today. We were going to mention Charles Wesley, but we couldn’t leave out Ms. Crosby who wrote more hymns than he did!

Here’s another setting of Crosby’s hymn from the black gospel tradition:

7. Composer and Scholar: Harry T. Burleigh

The grandson of a partially blind ex-slave, Harry T. Burleigh did arguably more than anyone else in history to preserve and advance the music of Black Americans. For an introduction to his life and legacy, you can click here.

8. Secular/Sacred Crossover: Duke Ellington

One of the greatest and most influential jazz musicians, Sir Duke was not only a jazzer but a dedicated christian. His concerts of sacred music were a unique cross-over that paved the way for the church and the secular music industry to meet and influence each other.

9. Sacred Album: Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace

After her recent death, if you weren’t aware of the life and legacy of Aretha Franklin, you should be now. Her iconic album “Amazing Grace” was a game-changer for sacred music.

10. Contemporary Artist: Kirk Franklin

If you listen to Kanye’s new album and you’re familiar with the history of church music, and specifically black sacred music, you’ll hear a lot of influences in there. In fact, it’s hard to hear very much that is new at all. In particular, Kirk Franklin was paving the way for much of what you hear on Kanye’s album. If you’re not familiar with Franklin’s work, one of his most well known early albums is “Hero”:


Finally, this list is in no ways official or comprehensive. In fact, it’s very particular to a European and then white & black American history of church music. Other than Kirk Franklin we didn’t even mention any other music contemporaries like Marcos Witt of CanZion Productions whose music and educational ministries have reached Spanish-speaking Christians across the world with numbers in the millions (thanks for this tip, Adam Perez), or Shirley Erena Murray whose hymn texts are at the cutting edge of ecotheology, 21st century Christology that is in concert with scientific thought, and expressing non-western Christian worldviews. Our list is also hyper focused on music instead of art as a whole (remember the claim was on being the greatest “artist”). And, or course, there’s also the question of what the definition of a “great” Christian artist is, which most people would have to agree has to have different metrics than what the popular music industry gives us.

So, in short, no. Kanye is certainly not the “greatest artist God has ever created.” Seriously? Is there even such a thing? Probably not. We’re all made unique and are given a particular calling by God, not to mention there have been some seriously talented artists in the past and will continue to be in the future. Maybe a more accurate claim would be that Kanye is the greatest Prosperity Gospel Christian Rap/Hip-Hop Artist God has ever made who gave his life to Christ in the early 21st century. That’s probably true.


Author Brian Hehn is the director of The Center for Congregational Song.

Felicia Patton is a lifelong Chicago native and worship leader at Urban Village Church. Felicia received an undergraduate degree from North Park University followed by two graduate degrees from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.




Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord. (Isaiah 2:5, NIV)


How do we tell the story

How do we tell the story of Jesus through song? I have asked myself this question every year when starting to plan for the Advent/Christmas season. When I first started as a choir director, I pulled out all of the bells and whistles in order to give the congregation a story they would never forget. There were fireworks, and Jesus came down from the ceiling (please note that liberties were taken in the retelling of stories for entertainment purposes only). My conducting baton was a light-saber that would light up purple and lead the ensembles in a magnificent dance of liturgy and song. The ideas that flew out of my brain were endless. I loved everything about planning it. After every successful Advent/Christmas season, I would nap and have a good burger. I deserved it; I had made God proud. I could rest.  But after a few years of consistent work and fatigue, I found myself dreading the upcoming seasons. The expectations had been set, and I was struggling to find inspiration. The demand for something new and familiar had me stuck in my own head. My brain was empty and dark. I wondered how I could spark the light within myself while telling the story of the light of the world. See what I did there?

The expectations had been set, and I was struggling to find inspiration.


I struggled

I struggled to find a response to that question. How could I find new inspiration within the biblical stories that have been told for many years? In order to find new inspiration, I had to step away from what I knew, and I had to listen. I got so comfortable with what I thought I knew about these stories that I didn’t turn to God for inspiration. In order to get out of this rut, I had to stop and reflect on my practices as a leader and develop new practices in order to lead the communities that I have been privileged to serve in a thoughtful and informed way.

The first practice I implemented was to start each season with a renewed mindset. Think about it in relation to a physical light. When a light goes out in our house, we would change it, right? If we cannot find the light (inspiration), we might have a burned out light source. If we are depending on a burned out light bulb which initially had light, but is not a source of light anymore, then we should change it. Are we listening for the voice of God, the light, or are we depending on what God gave us in a previous season?  But what do we do with the light we have used?  We recycle it. We can recycle this wisdom and impart it in the people that we lead. When led by the voice of God, any light can burn out, but is not unusable.

Are we listening for the voice of God, the light, or are we depending on what God gave us in a previous season?


A Light Source

Working without a light source is not a good way to lead.  As leaders, we have to refresh and renew our ministries.  We cannot do this without a light source.  One of the texts in the 2019 planning guide for the United Methodist Church is Isaiah 2:5: “Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.”  That brings to mind the song, “Jesus, the Light of the World” written by Mrs. James Vincent  Coombs. The text speaks of walking in the light, a phrase that resonates with me deeply. If we are to have light in our ministries, we have to “walk in the light” of God in our everyday lives. If our relationship with God is constantly being renewed and allowed the space to grow, the light will never burn out. But the only way to have space for the “light” is to make space for it. We cannot get so weighed down by expectations that we do not allow ourselves to grow as leaders. If we do not make space or change the bulb periodically, the light within us is doomed to burn out.


Jesus, the Light of the world

Beautiful light (well it’s a beautiful light)

Come where the dewdrops of mercy shine bright (Oh Lord)

Shine all around us by day and by night

Jesus is the light of the world

— Mrs. James Vincent  Coombs, 1898, Public Domain


Find “Jesus, the Light of the World” on




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.

Click here to keep reading!




This episode is with music professor and leading expert on Music of the African Diaspora, African American Culture, the Black Church, and Christian Worship, Dr. Emmett Price. It was recorded at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship at their annual Worship Symposium.


Season 2 – Episode 4

In this interview with Dr. Emmett Price, we hear about his personal journey through song that informed his role as a pastor and now as a scholar focusing on the musics of the Black Church.



Listening time: 39 minutes


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