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 2

A surprisingly similar account of his own approach was given by singer Ray Charles in 1970 - a century after Sankey: "I've tried to find songs I can get feeling out of. I must please myself first before I sing a song in public. The song must strike me in some way in my heart." What seems clear is that both Sankey and Charles were expressing the dynamics of a tradition of popular singing in which personal feeling and experience, rather than the systematic musical training, influence both what and how songs are sung. This tradition is a long and rich one and is mainly associated with folk musics, either sacred or secular. However, with Ira Sankey, the tradition became a vocation - the new vocation of a professional gospel singer.

Sankey was actually not the first person to make a living from singing gospel music. That position must be credited to Philip Phillips, the popular religious singer after whom Sankey modelled much of his own approach. Phillips travelled around the world presenting his "services of song", selling his musical publications and enjoying considerable notoriety. Yet by Phillips' death in 1895, his fame and music seem to have been quickly forgotten. Perhaps this was because he was not closely linked to any organisation or movement - religiously or musically. Perhaps it was also because he had been totally overshadowed by Sankey by 1875. Between 9th March and 11th July of that year, Moody and Sankey were concluding two years of meetings in the British Isles with the great London campaign. During this period, Moody held 85 meetings and spoke to over two and a half million people. Sankey also sang for the meetings and was as much a "drawing card" as was Moody the preacher; by then his singing had become legendary.

While performing, Sankey would often wait until every sound had died away in the vast audiences before he began. One newspaper recorded: "it seems that he is the only one present in the vast building." Others commented that the silence sometimes seemed oppressive and when Sankey finished singing, it sounded like the rustling of leaves in a forest when stirred by a wind. Sankey could easily hold an audience of 20,000 spellbound as he shared the gospel message with his hearers.

His voice was clear, melodious and powerful with every word clearly enunciated. This emphasis on communicating the message at all costs was probably the most characteristic feature of his style. Often he would preface his solos with a brief story that would set the musical stage. While singing, he would sometimes pause at the ends of phrases, allowing the impact of the message to sink into the hearts of his listeners. He also employed rubato in his singing - rushing one phrase or stretching another - when the words suggested it. His voice might also break with a dramatic sob best described as "full of tears". He was the consummate soloist, communicating his personal message of salvation to individual hearts within the vast throngs that hung on his every note. These were by no means conscious techniques or musical gimmicks designed to arouse an emotional response but were simply the outpourings of a soul who had personally experienced the good news of the gospel and passionately desired to share it with others.

Moody and Sankey returned to the United States in 1875 and continued revival meetings (with differing degrees of intensity) for two more decades. Throughout his life Sankey remained the undisputed leader of gospel music. He published widely, composed songs (including the music for his biggest mega-hit "The Ninety And Nine"), and even made recordings on cylinders which sold along with his gospel music collections. He and Moody became the model for all succeeding evangelists who thereafter went about two by two, preacher and singer, preaching the word in sermon and song. Sankey's very name became a generic description for the style of music called Gospel Song. Under his influence, a flourishing gospel music industry developed which included composing, publishing, music distribution, recording and, of course, performing. This gospel song industry provided much of the model and influence for what would become the multi-million dollar gospel music industry of the twentieth century.

On Sunday afternoon, 28 October 1990, 1500 people crowded the Scottish Rite Cathedral of New Castle, Pennsylvania -Sankey's home town. They gathered to celebrate the sesquicentennial of Ira Sankey's birth.

Thirty choirs from around the States combined to present a retrospective of "Sankey songs". The final three songs were presented by a group of predominantly African-American choristers which included children and youth of the Ira D Sankey Memorial Youth Centre. The first two selections were sung as Sankey must have heard them; but the last song was rendered in a decidedly black manner. Most amazing was how easily the music was transformed into the style of contemporary gospel music so popular today. Although Sankey might have been initially a bit perplexed at the novel incarnation, he would have approved, no doubt, of his musical ability to inspire fresh and meaningful ways of spreading the good news or gospel.

The current world of gospel music boasts a rich and varied tapestry of traditions and styles. The elements that have contributed to it are equally rich and varied. Certainly one of the most important and influential of these elements has been gospel hymnody as personified by its most notable spokesman Ira D Sankey. As recognition of that role and influence on Gospel music, the Gospel Music Association inducted Ira Sankey into its Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1979/80.

This article first appeared, in its entirety, in the July 1991 edition of Rejoice magazine, published by the Centre for the Study of Southern Culture, The University of Mississippi, and is used by permission. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About Mel R Wilhoit
Mel R Wilhoit is an American academic who has written for numerous specialist publications.

Showing page 3 of 3

1 2 3

Be the first to comment on this article

We welcome your opinions but libellous and abusive comments are not allowed.

We are committed to protecting your privacy. By clicking 'Send comment' you consent to Cross Rhythms storing and processing your personal data. For more information about how we care for your data please see our privacy policy.