Help me learn the basics of the Black Gospel tradition
November 24, 2007 9:19 PM   Subscribe

Growing up a white boy in a white Oklahoma church, we always had some small influence of the Gospel tradition, but always sanitized for the white tradition of our past. But when I listen to the old Black spirituals, it affects me like nothing in the Baptist church I grew up with: a sense of the spiritual and the passion that I never felt in my choirs. But where should I start to learn the basics?
posted by fishmasta to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
At the source. Go to a black church and drink it in. Hallelujah brother.
posted by caddis at 9:31 PM on November 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm not a gospel listener, but the call and response aspect of Black Gospel intrigues me.
posted by bonobo at 10:05 PM on November 24, 2007

If you're looking for traditional/"old-school" spirituals, your best bet is to find a smaller church with an older congregation, particularly in the Baptist, C.O.G.I.C. or A.M.E. denominations. A good portion of predominately black churches, especially larger ones, have switched to a more contemporary repertoire. However, the "spirit" and passion that you mention are still there, even though the songs are different.

From your question, I gather that you want to be an active participant (vs. a passive observer), as in, actually joining the choir. If this is the case, you might find a larger church to be more accepting.
posted by chara at 10:12 PM on November 24, 2007

Best answer: You're in Los Angeles and you've never gone to Agape? If it's just that sort of deep-soul experience you're looking to start with, you can't get much better. Their choir raises the roof, and the crowd is the most diverse I've ever seen - refugees from the black Baptist church, skinny white indie-rockers, gay couples, alt.spiritualists of all stripes. I can't help but think you'd feel welcome to check it out and see if it gives you a bit of what you're looking for.
posted by mykescipark at 10:56 PM on November 24, 2007

If I were looking for passion and spirit in black church music I would find a small C.O.G.I.C. congregation.
posted by rdr at 1:57 AM on November 25, 2007

Best answer: This may or may not be of interest and probably far more back to basics than you're looking for but a few years ago a music professor at Yale called Willie Ruff proposed the idea that the Gospel tradition had it's roots in the Psalm singing of Scotland.

THE church elder’s reaction was one of utter disbelief. Shaking his head emphatically, he couldn’t take in what the distinguished professor from Yale University was telling him.

"No," insisted Jim McRae, an elder of the small congregation of Clearwater in Florida. "This way of worshipping comes from our slave past. It grew out of the slave experience, when we came from Africa."

But Willie Ruff, an Afro-American professor of music at Yale, was adamant - he had traced the origins of gospel music to Scotland.

The distinctive psalm singing had not been brought to America’s Deep South by African slaves but by Scottish émigrés who worked as their masters and overseers, according to his painstaking research.

Ruff, 71, a renowned jazz musician who played with Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie, is convinced the Florida congregation’s method of praise - called ‘presenting the line’, in which the psalms are called out and the congregation sings a response - came from the Hebrides.


While this leaves Hebridean Scots like myself uncomfortable with our predecessor's past, it is an interesting if unproven connection between our two musical traditions.

In Presbyterian Free Church's across Lewis you can here some of the finest examples of spiritual Free Heterophony in the world, where the psalms are sung a cappella (without musical accompaniment), and led by a precentor (literally ‘one who sings beforehand’). In Gaelic psalm singing, the precentor leads the praise by commencing the tune, which he sings along with the congregation for two lines of a four-line stanza. On the third line, the precentor sings the line solo, which is then repeated by the congregation; this occurs for each line until the end of the item of praise. The result is a unique musical event, full of the traditions of Celtic religious culture, and deeply moving in its praise of God.

While a very different entity from the often joyous expressiveness of Baptist Gospel (we have decades or miserable weather and even more miserable bible preachers to thank for that) it is some of the most moving and spiritual sounds I have ever heard. Listening to this type of music swells my heart, gives goosebumps to my arms and can bring tears to my eyes.

Something in it reminds me of flocking or swarming birds for some reason. Anyway here are some examples for you to listen to:

Psalm 133 [mp3]

Psalm 16 5-7 [mp3]

Psalm 16 6-9 [mp3]

Good luck with your pursuit of the singing that moves you.
posted by brautigan at 5:13 AM on November 25, 2007 [6 favorites]

Some more good listening:

Amazing Grace - Wintley Phipps.

Changed. This is a tiny bit more contemporary, but it brought me to tears when I first saw it and still gives me goosebumps to this day.

I nth the suggestion to find a church to visit, you can also kill a day or two on youtube.
posted by SoulOnIce at 6:56 AM on November 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

brautigan's post beats mine for sheer information (and links to awesome music) ... but I do love Agape. :-) Hope to see you there...
posted by mykescipark at 6:57 AM on November 25, 2007

Mahalia Jackson's Gospels, Spirituals & Hymns and Volume 2.
posted by kirkaracha at 8:13 AM on November 25, 2007

Also, Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech is a gospel sermon, including call-and-response.
posted by kirkaracha at 8:26 AM on November 25, 2007

(Wow, great links, brautigan.)

If you would like to check out some additional historical background, I recommend poking around the Library of Congress' giant repository of recordings. For example, here's a whole bunch of music from the folk festival at Fort Valley State College in GA, recorded in 1938-43. There are also various southern field recordings that might be of interest. For non-audio stuff, you can search here for "gospel."
posted by veronica sawyer at 12:35 PM on November 25, 2007

Seconding just going to an African-American church. I drop in on African-American churches whenever I can get a break from my congregation, and I have never, ever, in any church of any size been made to feel anything but welcome, like I had been away for too long and had just come home out of the cold.
posted by 4ster at 5:43 PM on November 25, 2007

Brautigan should put that on the blue. Can I get an amen?
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:40 PM on November 25, 2007

Brautigan should put that on the blue. Can I get an amen?

I had intended to at some point but this question popped up and it got dropped here. If it's not bad form I'll maybe work it up a bit more and go Blue too.
posted by brautigan at 8:03 PM on November 25, 2007

I'm a huge fan of the Yazoo album How Can I Keep From Singing? Vol. 1. It's a great introduction to pre-40s gospel music. Most of it's black gospel, but there's some white gospel on the album that might really surprise you.
posted by buriedpaul at 4:06 PM on November 26, 2007

Any excuse to check out the Smithsonian Folkways CDs Old Regular Baptists: Lined-Out Hymnody from Southeastern Kentucky and Songs of the Old Regular Baptists, Vol. 2 is a good one. Earth-shaking stuff.
posted by Kinbote at 7:24 AM on January 11, 2008

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