Timeline of African American Music
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The Blind Boys of Alabama at Cosmopolite, Oslo, 2018

Tore Sætre, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The Blind Boys Of Alabama Cosmopolite 2018
He’s So Wonderful
The Soul Stirrers featuring Sam Cooke
Send a Revival
Keith Johnson & The Spiritual Voices
Do Right
Nu Beginning featuring Damon Little

Themes

  • Religion/Faith
  • Travel

Musical Features

  • Vocals
  • Syncopation
  • Vocal Sounds
  • Improvisation
  • Solo
  • Body Percussion
  • Repetition
  • Instrumentals
  • Harmony
  • Ensemble
  • Hymns

Instruments

  • Bass
  • Drums
  • Guitar
  • Organ
  • Piano
“We changed our name to the Jericho Quintet for the clubs. During that time [1940s] the gospel audiences weren’t ready for a night club group, so we worked under the Jericho Quintet in the [club] Café Society. But back in the church we were the Dixie Hummingbirds.”
Ira TuckerLead Singer, Dixie Hummingbirds

The gospel quartet sound began evolving in the1940s when jubilee quartets incorporated songs by pioneering gospel songwriters, such as Thomas Dorsey and Lucie Campbell, in their repertoire. The Dixie Hummingbirds, Golden Gate Quartet and the Soul Stirrers, among others, helped to introduce and popularize this new musical style, initially rejected by ministers of denominational churches, to the Black masses through their live performances and regular broadcasts on local radio. In the 1950s some jubilee quartets had begun slowly transforming into gospel quartets. This transformation included a repertoire of nearly as many gospels as jubilee songs, and the addition of instruments, particularly the guitar. Influenced by the bluesy melodies of Thomas A. Dorsey’s gospel songs and the sanctified singing style of Holiness-Pentecostal churches, gospel quartets emerged as a distinct tradition. By the 1960s, several quartets had also added piano, Hammond organ and drums.

Context and History

The Soul Stirrers is believed to have been the first jubilee quartet to shift completely to gospel music. They moved away from a collective group singing style to one that featured a lead tenor supported by refrain lines repeated throughout the song (“Glory, Glory, Halleluiah” and “Wonderful”). After World War II, from about 1945 to 1960, gospel quartets reigned supreme. Many semi-professional groups toured the country, and some made performing their full-time profession. They sang at special gospel programs held in auditoriums and other large venues. By the 1960s, the gospel quartet sound had acquired shouts, screams and growls, and other non-verbal utterances. Rhythmic thigh slapping and other bodily movements further intensified the style, represented best by the Five Blind Boys of Alabama led by Clarence Fountain (“Alone and Motherless”). New trends eclipsed the popularity of gospel quartets, but their sound resurfaced in rhythm and blues vocal groups, many of whose members began in gospel quartets, such as Billy Ward and the Dominoes and the Isley Brothers. Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls were lead singers in gospel groups before turning to rhythm and blues. A new generation of singers is currently reviving the gospel quartet, such as Keith “Wonderboy” Johnson & The Spiritual Voices (“Be Right” and “Send A Revival”) and Nu Beginning featuring Damon Little (“Do Right” and “You Can’t Straddle the Fence”).

Musical Features/Performance Style

Most gospel groups moved back and forth between two traditions: the jubilee and gospel. They sang jubilee songs in close harmony, using a call-and-response format in which the soloist introduced a phrase of text that is answered and completed by the group. The highly syncopated performance style emphasized an even blend of voices in which falsetto voices and changing leads were common. By comparison, the gospel quartet style featured a soloist who freely improvised, interjecting moans, screams, etc., over short repetitive lines or doo-wop syllables sung by the group members.

Lyrics

The gospel music repertoire reinterprets folk spirituals and hymns and adds original compositions. Texts are often based on stories and themes from the New and Old Testaments as filtered through the lens of African American experiences.

The Soul Stirrers featuring Sam Cooke
The Dixie Hummingbirds
Five Blind Boys of Alabama
The Sensational Nightingales
Keith “Wonderboy” Johnson
The Soul Stirrers featuring Sam Cooke

Bibliography

  1. Boyer, Horace Clarence. How Sweet the Sound: The Golden Age of Gospel Music. Washington, D.C.: Elliot & Clark Publishing, 1995.
  2. Gross, Terry; Miller, Danny. Fresh Air with Terry Gross: Interview with Ira Tucker; Interview with Joe Williams. WHYY Public Media. November 30, 1984. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aysq84_4tI8
  3. Jackson, Joyce “Jubilee to Gospel” in Mellonee V. Burnim and Portia K. Maultsby, eds. African American Music: An Introduction (New York: Routledge Press, 2015), 75-96.
  4. Lornell, Kip. “Happy in the Service of the Lord”: Afro-American Sacred Vocal Harmony Quartets in Memphis. 2nd edition. Urbana: Univeristy of Illinois Press, 1995.
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The Timeline of African American Music by Portia K. Maultsby, Ph.D. presents the remarkable diversity of African American music, revealing the unique characteristics of each genre and style, from the earliest folk traditions to present-day popular music.

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Jessye Norman

Carnegie Hall’s interactive Timeline of African American Music is dedicated to the loving memory of the late soprano and recitalist Jessye Norman.

© 2008 Richard Termine

Special thanks to Dr. Portia K. Maultsby and to the Advisory Scholars for their commitment and thought-provoking contributions to this resource.

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The Timeline of African American Music has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Democracy demands wisdom. The project is also supported in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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