Ben Cumberlidge is a graduate of Regent University M.A. in Journalism program. During his JRN613 (Feature and Specialty Reporting) course, he researched and wrote the following story. Cumberlidge notes that he served as a member of a gospel choir at his church during his teenage years, and there he developed a love for gospel music. This inspired him to explore the rich history of gospel music, infused with the cultural perspective of a respected undergraduate alumnus and fellow minister of music.
Haines City, Fla. – “Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us. Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.” These lyrics – from the song the NAACP dubbed “The Black National Anthem” – reflect what Gospel music means to many Black Americans.
“Gospel music carries in it the essence of what pain, struggle and overcoming sound like,” said Clinton Anderson, the music minister at Trinity Church in Haines City, Florida. “From the very old songs that are ‘Negro Spirituals’ to the very modern sound today, they all have in common the language of how to survive.”
According to the Library of Congress, Gospel music rose to prominence in the 1930s. It drew from the spirituals that predated it as well as contemporary rhythm and blues.
Thomas Dorsey, considered the “father of Gospel music,” was a prolific rhythm and blues singer before he turned his attention to sacred music. He is largely credited for Gospel music’s transition from spirituals to the more energetic form it developed. Another key factor in this transition was the worship style of Black Pentecostal churches.
Anderson said he grew up in one of those churches that “was heavy on congregational singing.” He was similarly surrounded by music at home. “My dad was in a male group and sang in choirs, and my mother was a choir director and a pretty outstanding vocalist,” Anderson said. “My grandfather was also a quartet singer.”
Anderson also recalls his parents playing records from myriad Gospel artists from early pioneers, such as James Cleveland, to contemporary icons, such as Shirley Caeser and the Winans.
“Together, those influences molded and inspired me to want to be a music leader,” he said.
Piano and organ accompaniment are a core component of Gospel music. Clinton Anderson taught himself to play before earning a degree in music ministry at Warner University, Lake Wales, Florida. Here he plays for a music video. Photo courtesy: Clinton Anderson.
For Anderson, a defining moment came at a concert where Andraé Crouch, “the father of modern Gospel,” was performing.
“I remember my dad putting me up on his shoulders and letting me take it all in,” he said. “I remember the euphoria I felt that night. It was life-changing as a child to see thousands of people sing unified regardless of race, color or creed. It was almost like magic.”
Gospel music is now enjoyed by Christians from a variety of backgrounds, but it is intrinsically tied to the experiences and struggles of Black America.
“Gospel music tells a story of where we come from as a people,” said Anderson. “The songs are a monologue of what we as a people were encountering at the moment, and the emotion of it was displayed in even the chord structures played in musical arrangements. We would sing joyfully about a God who we read loved everyone the same yet be living in a society where even churches were segregated.”
Throughout its rich history, Gospel adopted the musical flair of the time while also reflecting the challenges of the time.
“Gospel music tells of the journey as its evolved, and we’ve evolved in our faith because of it,” said Anderson.