Gospel music deeply rooted in African rhythms

By Murphy Browne Wednesday June 20 2012 in Opinion
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Precious Lord, take my hand

Lead me on, let me stand

I am tired, I am weak, I am worn

Through the storm, through the night

Lead me on to the light

Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

When my way grows drear

Precious Lord linger near

When my life is almost gone

Hear my cry, hear my call

Hold my hand lest I fall

Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

When the darkness appears

And the night draws near

And the day is past and gone

At the river I stand

Guide my feet, hold my hand

Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home


From the gospel song, “Precious Lord Take My Hand” composed by Thomas Andrew Dorsey in 1932.


Thomas Andrew Dorsey, born on July 1, 1899 in Villa Rica, Georgia, was an African-American composer and musician who is considered the father of gospel music. He wrote his most famous song “Precious Lord Take My Hand” after his wife and infant son transitioned in 1932. The trauma of losing his wife and baby steered Dorsey towards writing gospel music instead of the secular music he had written and played (mostly in bars and clubs on Chicago’s South Side) since his teenage years using the name “Georgia Tom.”


Although Dorsey is considered the father of gospel music, the genre has been defined as “American religious musical form that owes much of its origin to the Christian conversion of West Africans enslaved in the American South. Gospel music partly evolved from the songs slaves sang on plantations, notably work songs.”


Gospel music, therefore, would have existed before Dorsey’s birth in 1899. However, Dorsey did contribute much to popularizing gospel music and is one of the well-known names of gospel music which include such stalwarts as Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland, The Mighty Clouds of Joy, The Dixie Hummingbirds and The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi.


Even though gospel music can be defined as African American Christian religious music, it is deeply rooted in African rhythms and can be traced back to the enslaved Africans labouring on southern plantations, expressing their sorrow at being forced to work from “sunup to sundown” to enrich White slave holders. The rhythms travelled with the Africans who were forcibly removed from various places on the African continent, displaced and scattered throughout the Americas.


Gospel is derived from the experience of the African Diaspora in the Americas. Some writers have identified that music as a part of every aspect of African life and that this was transported to the Americas. The musical traditions from the African continent that came to this New World via the enslavement of Africans encompass various areas of Africa.


Gospel became popular outside of the African American community and in some cases has been redefined. Gospel and African rhythms influenced blues, jazz, soul and rock music. During the Civil Rights movement, African-inspired music was used to encourage flagging spirits, to inspire those who were weary, scared or discouraged. Fannie Lou Hamer, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., and other leaders of the movement had their favourite inspirational songs which came from the music that in some cases went all the way back to slavery.


African-Americans used music during slavery for various reasons including planning their escape from slavery. Similar to gospel music, its forerunner, “the spirituals”, used coded language to aid those brave souls who were willing to risk life and limb for their freedom. The enslaved Africans used coded language while singing seemingly innocuous religious songs while they planned their escape. The White slave holders who heard the singing never had a clue that their seemingly docile and downtrodden “property” were intelligent human beings dissatisfied with their lot and planning their escape. When the Africans sang of going home they were not singing of dying and going to a heavenly home but instead home was a code word for a safe haven where they would be free from slavery. In some cases, that “home” was a free state in the U.S. where slavery had been abolished (slavery was abolished in Vermont in 1777) and in other cases enslaved Africans went as far north as Canada (identified in spirituals as Canaan) in their bid for freedom.


Enslaved Africans singing “Steal Away to Jesus” were also singing of escape from slavery. Other popular spirituals with coded language were “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”, “Wade in the water” and “The Gospel Train”. It has been written that the most famous “conductor” on the Underground Railroad had a signature song which was “Go Down Moses”. Harriet Tubman was an African-American woman who escaped slavery and returned to the area where she had been enslaved to help others escape. She was so successful that the White slave holders put a bounty on her head of the reportedly hefty sum (for that time) of $40,000 to be paid to anyone for her capture. Enslaved Africans held Tubman in high esteem and named her “Moses” after the saviour of an enslaved people they had heard of or read about in the Bible.


The singing of “Go Down Moses” apparently meant that Tubman was in the area and her freedom train was on the move so that anyone who had the courage to get on the Underground Railroad with conductor Tubman was welcome. It has been written that Tubman made 19 trips into slave country and rescued upwards of 300 enslaved Africans.


The most recent incarnation of African music in the U.S. is hip-hop and it, surprisingly, has been compared to the spirituals because of its coded language. In the 2005 book, “The Hip-Hop Church: Connecting With the Movement Shaping Our Culture”, by Efrem Smith, Phil Jackson and Bakari Kitwana, the authors write: “Coded language in hip-hop is used to explore life without outsiders being able to understand or exploit the message. Hip-hop’s use of coded language is prompted by the same need that underlay coded language in Negro spirituals: the need to camouflage. Thus hip-hop has its own language that is distinctive to the culture it is speaking to, and it keeps the dominant community out while seeking to advance hip-hop culture.”


Although some of hip-hop could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered inspirational, there are some conscious performers including Arrested Development, Common, Dead Prez, KRS-One, Mos Def, Poor Righteous Teachers and Talib Kweli. Interestingly enough, when Dorsey began composing and singing his music, he was vilified by the established church and now his music is accepted and valued.




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