Abyssinian Gospel Church Senior Choir
Director of Music Howard T. Dodson, 1953
The Schomburg Collection
“As the gospel fever spread to epidemic proportions, traditional Harlem churches began to add a gospel or ‘inspirational’ choir to supplement their classically oriented groups.”
By the time Harlem resident Langston Hughes published his book Black Magic: A Pictorial History of the African American in Entertainment in 1967, gospel music had moved from the church to such commercial venues as cabarets and theaters. In a chapter entitled “Crosses and Cadillacs,” he noted that the hymn, “I cannot bear my burden alone” had been replaced by “Lord help me get my cross to my Cadillac.”
Gospel music has come a long way from its humble beginnings in the early songs of Thomas A. Dorsey (1899-1988), who is considered the “Father of Gospel Music.” This hybrid form mixed the sacred with the secular—Negro spirituals and the blues. It should be remembered that Dorsey, under the name of Georgia Tom, was once the pianist for “Ma” Rainey and other legendary blues singers.
It took many years before the traditional churches of Harlem would allow gospel music to be incorporated into their services. The phrase “Let us make a joyful noise unto the Lord” did not include these new songs which incited loud outbursts of joy or sorrow from the congregation. Consequently, worshippers had to seek out “Sanctified” churches, housed mostly in storefronts or tents.
As the gospel fever spread to epidemic proportions, traditional Harlem churches began to add a gospel or “inspirational” choir to supplement their classically oriented groups. Gospel choirs usually sang at regular services only one Sunday each month. Soon, many gospel singers went professional and secured lucrative recording contracts and often crossed over into the R&B and pop world.
Largely responsible for building audiences for gospel music in Harlem and elsewhere were recordings on so-called “race” labels, distributed in many Black communities. Mahalia Jackson’s recording of “Move on up a Little Higher” became the first gospel song to sell more than a million copies. When the powers that be saw the sales potential of this music, it quickly moved into the mainstream.
An early pioneer in bringing gospel music to radio in Harlem and its immediate vicinity was Joe Bostic, whose program “Gospel Train” was broadcast on Sunday mornings on WLIB. The series “Gospel TV Time” reached millions of homes through television. Many can remember those jam-packed live concerts promising a Battle of Song in churches and theaters large and small.
It was left to that long-time devotee of Gospel music—Langston Hughes—to create a brand new theatrical art form called the gospel song-play. After beginning with church pageants, he came up with “Black Nativity,” directed by Vinnette Carroll and starring Alex Bradford and Marion Williams. It was an instant sensation world-wide and became a model for such hit shows as “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
Currently, Vy Higginson is presenting such wondrous gospel-inspired musicals as “Mama, I Want to Sing” and a string of other successful productions. She has recently set up a Gospel for Teens program in Harlem under the auspices of the Mama Foundation for the Arts. Artistic consultant for this ambitious effort is
Dr. Emily “Cissi” Houston.
In an effort to attract young people to its services, James Stovall, Executive and Artistic Director of the United Palace Theater at Broadway and 175th Street, has been a major force in providing a forum for gospel hip-hop. The Christ United Church is sponsoring a Youth Rap Group on Sundays in its Educational Annex, and other churches are beginning similar programs.
BY RAOUL ABDUL
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
Preaching, sweating, and moaning the gospel
Roll Jordan roll...
—Excerpts from group poem by Frederick Douglass Academy II students and artist/educator M. Scott Johnson