Updated: Apr 11, 2020
by Dr. Barry Johnson
This will be an ongoing set of observations in a series that will examine the church choir. We will present several installments, in which I will examine categories or specific choirs, such as the youth choir, mass or adult choir, and male chorus. I will also explore the types of devotional services and the components of the choir’s contribution to the worship service.
In the past few months, I have chronicled the importance of the choir in the music department of the church. In this narrative, we will examine one such adult choir, the “Gospel Choir,” which is sometimes called the Pastor’s Choir. We will celebrate it here as the Gospel Choir because of the tradition of the name and its role in the history of Gospel Music.
Prior to examining the current role of the Gospel Choir in our churches, we must understand that this choir was the first named group to break from traditional church choirs. The history of the Gospel Choir is immersed in the term gospel, meaning the “good news” through music. The term gospel has been around since the period of John Willison, who published his One Hundred Gospel Hymns (Edinburg 1747), through African American composers, whose restructured hymns formed the basis of that which became gospel music. In the book, A Change is Gonna’ Come (Dr. Barry Johnson, AuthorHouse Publications, 2008) I chronicled the rise of what we now know as “gospel” music, highlighting that of Charles Albert Tinley (1851-1933) and the Father of Gospel Music, Thomas Dorsey (1899-1993). When Dorsey, a former bluesman, was converted, he made Chicago his headquarters, which allowed the city to rightfully claim her place as the Capitol of Gospel.
In 1930, one of Dorsey’s selections was performed at the National Baptist Convention, and it was so popular that it “took the masses by storm.” Although many traditionalists would declare the music radical, the younger people embraced it; and gospel music would be forever a part of the convention. In 1931, Dorsey and Theodore Frye (1899-1963) organized the world’s first gospel chorus at Chicago’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. In the same year, Frye and Magnolia Lewis Butts formed the Chicago Gospel Choral Union, Inc. In 1932, Dorsey and gospel singer Sallie Martin co-founded an auxiliary to the convention, the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, Inc., which met annually at the convention and assembled regionally throughout the year to offer workshops and platforms for this new style of music. In the same year, Dorsey founded the Dorsey House of Music, the first publishing house dedicated to the sale of music by black composers.
In subsequent years, the Golden Age of Gospel was born, as artists, such as Sallie Martin, Clara Ward, and James Cleveland, would increase its popularity and bequeath this style of gospel music to the churches, many of which had initially rejected it. Additionally, the movement spawned private or community gospel groups and choirs not officially connected to the church; nonetheless, the Gospel Choir emerged as a permanent fixture of the church. The name Gospel Choir naturally followed the progression of the style of music and reflected that which was performed. It is difficult to see these (now older) “team players” as church innovators; but they were the young “rebels” of their time, embracing this music as their own, just as they had the music of the streets. They contributed to the growth of the style, which gave birth to the Contemporary Period of Gospel Music.
Throughout the 1930s and 40s, gospel music spread through sheet music, recordings, and group performances. However, between the 1950s and 60s, booming technological advances in radio and record sales brought gospel music into a period of phenomenal growth. Its popularity soared, due to available dissemination and media player affordability, i.e., phonographs and transistor radios. Additionally, Black radio increased, as these stations held dedicated gospel segments featuring gospel DJs and personalities. This helped drive sales of gospel music and allowed groups to professionally tour, deriving an income from their records and performances. As money became a staple of gospel music, the music industry began to treat these artists similarly with their popular secular counterparts.
Throughout its history – due to its eventual commercial appeal, recordings, workshops, conventions, and live performances) – the Gospel Choir became a division of the church music department that other traditional choirs (such as the Senior Choir) could not fathom. Moreover, church Gospel Choirs began to record and become prominent in the genre, causing other churches to reciprocate, which created a sense of church pride. The rise and dominance of the Gospel Choir has since influenced many entities of church worship, i.e., the direction of the services, the interest of young musicians, and the contribution of musician salaries. However, the title “Gospel Choir” has somewhat fallen through the cracks, as more contemporary names of modern gospel choirs have become Temple or Chapel Choirs.
Next month, we will continue to examine the Gospel Choir and the continued need for its presence in the church.