interior top image

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.