Calling for a “Contemporary Worship Music” Revolution: Part 2, Church Music for Common America

In my last post I declared my distress at the lacklustre state of Contemporary Christian Worship Music.  I am not, however, necessarily going to advocate a high brow alternative; it is good for churches to sing the music of the people if they want to.

Isaac Watts (1674-1748)

When Gospel music emerged, it provided church music for common America: the uneducated classes, the slaves, famers, and factory workers. It was a fusion of the protestant hymn tradition and the African music introduced by the slaves of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries (see the Gospel history timeline ).   By the 1770s, the most popular hymn composer amongst slaves was Isaac Watts (1674-1749), whose pioneering influence over the lyrical and emotional content of Gospel Music should not be underestimated.  Watts controversially diverged from the starch musical tradition of his calvinistic English dissenting church (who made up a core part of the settler American church).  Watts reasoned,

Where the Psalmist describes religion by the fear of God, I have often joined faith and love to it. Where he speaks of the pardon of sin through the mercies of God, I rather choose to mention the sacrifice of Christ, the Lamb of God. Where He promises abundance of wealth, honor, and long life, I have changed some of these typical blessings for grace, glory and life eternal, which are brought to light by the gospel, and promised in the New Testament. Click here for more about Watts

Soon the slaves took the lyrical ideas of Watts, and brought their own sound.  Thus, out of the darkness of the slave-trade God made something beautiful.  At the beginning of the nineteenth-century, the first clear examples of Gospel music emerged in the form of spirituals, shouts, lined-hymns, and anthems.    While this music was aesthetically attractive and deeply emotional, with the “fear” and “love” of Watts, it was also music of the people.  Which is why the revival-pentecostal tent meetings from later in that century, under the leadership of evangelists such as Dwight L. Moody, adopted this style.  Moody employed the music of Ira D. Sankey, George F. Root, and P.P Bliss who published the song book ‘Gospel Songs’ in 1874 which was the first time a publication used “gospel” in reference to a musical genre.

In the early twentieth-century, the Pentecostal-holiness movement continued incorporating Gospel music in their meetings using guitars, tambourines and harmoniums for accompaniment.  The genre subdivided under the influence of  related genres blues, bluegrass and country.  And it soaked into the consciences and culture of influential popular artists who would start recording in the 1950s such as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Mahalia Jackson.  Soon this music was broadcast over the newly invented radio playing the records of the Carter family, Arizona Dranes, the many gospel quartets and the songs of Thomas A. Dorsey.      In 1938, Sister Rosetta Tharpe sold one-million records with the single “This Train.”

After the second world war, the popularity of Gospel music elevated to the concert hall, and was appreciated by mass audiences for its true artistic significance.  Recording artists such as Mahalia Jackson, the Swan Silvertones, the Caravans, the Original Gospel Harmonettes, and the Clara Ward Singers all became world-wide hits.  This music inspired people because it was raw, it had ache and passion, it reached inside of you and connected you with God.

While Gospel music bloomed and became the staple for many American churches, the European hymn tradition continued in parallel for those churches who so desired.

In my next entry I’ll explain what happened when the logic of “church music for common America” evolved in the 1960s and 70s. 

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