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 Day– Heritage 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 Singers. There 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.