Ira D Sankey: Gospel Roots - Remembering the Father of Gospel Music Part 2

Monday 1st February 1993

Mel R Wilhoit continues his history of the founding father of the Christian music 'industry', IRA D SANKEY.

Continued from page 1

At first influenced by the "better music boys" such as Mason, Thomas Hastings and George Webb, who desired an American music based on European models, Root finally concluded that "it was not until I went more among the people of the country that I saw these things in a truer light and respected myself and was thankful when I could write something that all the people would sing."

As an exponent of "people's songs", Root was of immense influence. His training institutes for music teachers had a profound impact on what type of music was considered appropriate to be used in American school classrooms. It should be remembered that Root employed Bradbury as one of his institute teachers at which a young Sankey attended. In addition Root had joined his brother E T and partner C M Cady in a Chicago publishing firm that gave encouragement and direction to the novice songwriter Philip P Bliss. The unifying element here is that most nineteenth century important popular music, whether for home, church or school, spoke a common and widely understood musical and textual language.

In religious music, this common language was most clearly evident in the gospel songs Sankey had popularized. But gospel hymnody wasn't content to remain within the confines of the commercially popular style of music for the home, church and school. Its immense popularity soon infected other musics of vastly differing backgrounds and styles. By the turn of the century, gospel hymnody had already significantly influenced many of the genres which contribute to present day gospel music.

One of these areas was shape note hymnody. Particularly within the seven-shape tune book tradition, gospel hymnody influenced both the style and content of what was published and sung. Three influential Southerners active in both gospel hymnody and shape-note music were Asa B Everett, R M Mclntosh and A J Showalter. They are perhaps typical of many who combined musical elements of both the gospel and hymn style - with its penchant for fully diatonic major melodies in the soprano voice supported by a harmonic practice based on European classical models - and the older shape-note tradition reflecting a strong sense of modality both melodically and harmonically. Thus, Everett's hexatonic tune "Footsteps", Mclntosh's arrangement of the minor mode "Promised Land" as a major setting and Showalter's primarily pentatonic tune "Leaning On The Everlasting Arms" became the precursors for a current Southern gospel style that more likely embraces A E Brumley's "I'll Fly Away" or Eugene M Bartlett, Sr's "Victory In Jesus". With additional contributions from J D Vaughn, Jesse Baxter, Jr, and V 0 Stamps, Southern gospel music developed much of the profile that presently characterizes the genre. It is a style that undoubtedly combines the compositional practices of urban gospel hymnody, stemming from Sankey, with performance practices more reminiscent of the folk tradition of Southern shape-note music. Although the printed page looks very much like a direct descendant of Sankey, as a living musical tradition it varied considerably. (Perhaps somewhat ironically, while current mainstream gospel hymnody has long since shed the worst of its maudlin texts about dying children and grey haired mothers, Southern gospel music yet abounds with concerns like "Will The Circle Be Unbroken?".)

Another important genre of modern gospel music is African-American religious music usually called black gospel. Although the style has been variously influenced by the spiritual, jazz and rhythm and blues, perhaps the most prominent and consistent musical factor has been the style of music and singing associated with the Pentecostal/Holiness Church tradition. This tradition finds much of its roots in the Azusa Street Revivals which occurred from about 1906 to 1909 in Los Angeles. These Holy Spirit-led meetings were generally characterized by exuberant, unrestrained preaching and singing as well as healings and speaking in tongues. They were also marked by a racially integrated audience made up largely of the lower socio-economic classes. Congregational singing was based in the gospel song tradition of Sankey and Bliss but its performance practically was decidedly more akin to the camp meetings of a century before. Hand-clapping, bodily movement, shouts and ornamentation of the melody or supporting harmonies stigmatised the music and its adherents as definitely outside the realm of "respectable" religious music - even by gospel hymn standards.

During the first decades of the century, the Holiness movement made impressive gains among many groups who felt alienated from the more formalised and "cold" mainstream religious bodies. African Americans naturally made up a large segment of the movement's new followers, as many of their churches seemed to be more a copy of 'white folks' religion' than anything that addressed black needs and expressions in worship.

African Americans quickly adopted what was becoming a new genre of religious music - a style of church music which not only allowed but even encouraged the powerful expression of personal feelings and experience. In the black community this new "holy-roller" style existed alongside the more traditional gospel song and often intermingled with it, producing a hybrid that also looked much like gospel hymnody on the printed page but generally sounded more like music of the Pentecostal/Holiness tradition. Over the next 75 years this hybrid gospel song style cross pollinated with additional influences (including ragtime and jazz, the blues and various folk traditions like ring shouts) to produce the rich heritage which presently characterizes much of what is called black gospel music.

In his book 'Protest And Praise: Sacred Music Of Black Religion', John Michael Spencer sees the history of African American gospel music as reflecting three periods. The first was the Pre-Gospel Era (1900 to 1930) and is represented by Charles Price Jones, founding bishop of the Church Of Christ Holiness US, and Charles A Tindley ("We'll Understand It Better Bye And Bye" and "Leave It There"). Spencer suggests the Golden Age Of Gospel (1930 to 1969) was dominated by Baptists and is represented by Thomas A Dorsey ("Precious Lord Take My Hand" and "Peace In The Valley") and James Cleveland; while the Modem Gospel Era (1969 to the present) is strongly influenced by Pentecostal artists such as Andrae Crouch ("The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power" and "Through It All").

Perhaps representative of the white, urban gospel song-become-black gospel music process is "O Happy Day". Although the text and original tune predate gospel hymnody, the song found a ready reception in nineteenth century revivalism. Sankey and Bliss included the song (words only) in the first volume of their 'Gospel Hymns And Spiritual Songs' series (1875), and it continues to be sung by congregations that embrace traditional gospel hymnody. In addition, it seemed to provide the elements common to many gospel songs which made them perfect candidates for performance as black gospel music. Despite the claims of Edwin Hawkins - who helped make the song a US top ten secular hit in 1969 - that "it's not the style that makes it gospel, it's the message" - the song clearly is gospel, in the sense of black gospel, precisely because of its performance practice or style.

While numerous elements of Hawkins' arrangement of "O Happy Day" do not find root in the gospel hymnody of the Sankey tradition (hand clapping, percussion instruments, "vamping" via repeated chord progressions over which the soloist improvises), other features provide a strong link with gospel hymnody. Perhaps the most important is the keyboard accompaniment.

Although pianos were as inconspicuous in the family parlour a century ago as VCRs are in the modern home, they were almost wholly absent from the church sanctuary. Music making there was accompanied by either pipe organ or smaller pump organ/melodeon. Early in the twentieth century, the revival song leader Carlie Alexander - an offspring of the Sankey tradition - began to employ the piano in his vast song services. His pianist was a young Australian, Charles Alexander, who applied a style of accompaniment to gospel songs that was idiomatic to the instrument. Where the organ could sustain longer notes of a song indefinitely, the tone of the piano decayed immediately after a note was struck. The resulting new style on the piano was a technique of "filling" or arpeggiation on longer notes designed to keep the rhythmic feeling alive as well as support the singing by providing ample tone. The simple four-part voicing of the hymnal or songbook was filled-out with octaves in the left hand while the right played full chords.

Of critical importance here was the piano's acceptance in revivalism, for the music and methods of revivalism simply carried over into the regular worship practices of many churches. Once the piano had proved itself acceptable - from a musical, economic and spiritual perspective - it was but a short time until it was widely adopted in countless churches that practised a revivalist theology. Once the piano itself became accepted, a wide variety of accompaniment styles began to develop in black and white congregations ranging from Beethoven to parlour piano to ragtime to stride piano of the Harlem school. The door to the piano's acceptance in church was its superior ability for accompanying gospel songs; from there it was a varied yet direct path to styles ranging from Southern gospel to Rudy Atwood to the black gospel of "O Happy Day".

One of the most important developments in the history of gospel music was the transition from a practice generally associated with congregational singing - whether shape-note or African-American traditions to a choral/ensemble/solo-based music. As a result, modern gospel music (including Contemporary Christian Music a la Amy Grant) is characterized by the role of specialists or "stars". It is performer's music where new songs or new developments in the style result from the performances of popular soloists or ensembles rather than from widespread congregational practice. Yet, even here, Sankey set the stage and provided the model.

Although Sankey is often thought of as a writer of gospel songs, he was in fact primarily a singer of gospel songs. It was that aspect of his ministry that often raised concern among some listeners accustomed only to hearing religious music sung by congregations. Also disturbing to some was Sankey's manner of singing which resembled more the style of popular singers rather than the operatic or "technically correct" approach. He was not a trained singer, but he had a voice that moved the hearts of people when he sang. Much of his impact can be attributed to his method: "As to my singing, there is no art or conscious design to it. I never touch a song that does not speak to me in every word and phrase. Before I sing, I must feel, and the hymn must be of such kind that I know I can send home what I feel into the hearts of those who listen."

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