Gospel music is one of the oldest, classic and most popular music traditions, with roots in the Christian revival movement of the mid-to-late 1800s. Early gospel music blended Celtic hymnal traditions with the spiritual songs of enslaved Africans. The openly religious and prayerful lyrics were often sung a cappella, a nod to the songs enslaved field workers sang in the pre-Civil War antebellum era.
In fact, according to the Gospel Music Association, to qualify as gospel music the song must be based on Christian orthodoxy or worship. It’s a style of music that has attracted an array of popular singers, with artists like Whitney Houston, Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, and Bob Dylan all exploring the genre. At the same time, many gospel singers make music their primary style of expression. And gospel music encompasses various styles and subgenres that keep the sound alive with new ideas and innovations.
Traditional Gospel Music
With its powerful melodies and passionate lyrics given even more significant force through affecting, emotional vocals, traditional gospel music (also referred to as old-time gospel music) is known for its transcendent possibilities. No wonder its most acclaimed vocalists are among the greatest singers in all music.
First and foremost among these is Mahalia Jackson, often called the Queen of Gospel Song. The granddaughter of formerly enslaved people, she was born in New Orleans in 1911, learning to sing at her Baptist church. By age 17, she moved to Chicago and joined the Greater Salem Baptist Church, where her powerful voice soon got her solos and additional recognition. In 1947, she made her first recordings, with her version of “Move On Up a Little Higher,” selling two million copies nationwide. The following year she performed at New York’s Carnegie Hall, beginning a professional singing career that spanned decades.
While Jackson was known as the Queen of Gospel Song, her younger contemporary, Shirley Caesar, became known as the First Lady of Gospel. First singing professionally when she joined the Caravans gospel group in 1958, Caesar struck out as a solo artist after eight years. Caesar won Dove Awards — the annual award handed out by the Gospel Music Association — for Traditional Black Gospel Album for Sailin’ (1985), Christmasing (1987), and Live…In Chicago (1989), among other awards.
Southern Gospel Music
While similar to traditional gospel music in lyrics and subject matter, southern gospel music is typically sung by a quartet of singers, enabling four-part harmonies and the use of high tenor and baritone, though sometimes groups may be trios, sextets, or other variations. It developed in the early twentieth century and was largely made up of white singers, in contrast to gospel’s originally Black singers. The Speer Family was a prominent early group, with the group’s lineup changing with the passing of different generations.
Today, the Gaither Vocal Band are among the subgenre’s leading performers. While their music will veer into genres like Christian contemporary on occasion, southern gospel is the sound for which they’re best known. Decades later, the Gaither Homecoming recordings and concerts are still going strong and they’ve included several leading gospel artists, including The Gatlins, Jake Hess, The Cathedrals, and Howard and Vestal Goodman.
Progressive southern gospel, a subgenre of the subgenre, employs a rougher, edgier singing style and incorporates modern pop elements alongside bluegrass and country sounds. The Crabb Family, for example, perform traditional southern gospel while including more modern and progressive elements in various songs.
Nigerian Gospel Music
Gospel music is a major cultural force in Nigeria, with roots stretching back to the British colonial period of the late nineteenth century when local church leaders blended missionaries’ choral hymns with native Yoruba tribal rhythms. Nigerian church organist Reverend Josiah Ransome-Kuti recorded this early gospel music in the 1920s, and he is today considered the father of Nigerian gospel music (and is the grandfather of Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti).
Today, Nigerian gospel music is dominated by women like Tope Alabi and Joan Adams. Both of these versatile performers have featured in Nigerian movies and music and mix contemporary beats and styles with more traditional songs to keep the form fresh and alive.
Ghanaian Gospel Music
Like Nigerian gospel music, Ghanaian gospel combines colonial hymns and lyrics with local rhythms and beats to create a rich, new style. The music typically builds off a “Yaa Amponsah” melody (a traditional tune used as a foundation for much of Ghanaian music) then mixes in polyrhythmic percussion beneath powerful vocals attesting to heartfelt religious convictions.
Jamaican Gospel Music
Merge gospel music with an island vibe and you get Jamaican gospel music. Jamaica’s famous reggae beat — most commonly associated with the Rastafarianism of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh — adds a familiar lilt while call-and-response vocals and lush harmonies provide energy and passion. Jamaican gospel music is popular enough to have a live stream and dedicated Kingston-based radio station called “Gospel Ja FM.”
Top Jamaican gospel artists include Jodian Pantry, Minister Kukudoo (noted for his mento-influenced gospel music, an early form of Jamaican folk music), and Prodigal Son. Prodigal Son’s collaboration with Jason Mighty, entitled “Ketch a Fire” offers a good example of the raucous energy and joyful spirit of much Jamaican gospel.
Instrumental Gospel Music
For many fans of the genre, gospel music’s most appealing feature is its force as a form of worship or religious expression. Because music effectively conveys emotion, it’s especially powerful when used to express religious conviction. And because gospel music often features cover versions of old-time standards and classics, listeners might be familiar with the lyrics in a way they typically aren’t with the latest pop release.
Albums filled with instrumental versions of these gospel standards are a great way to sing along with the chorus or to take the lead yourself. You may find yourself thanking the Lord you did.