Meet The Black Composers And Singers Who Revolutionized Gospel Music

Meet The Black Composers And Singers Who Revolutionized Gospel Music

These composers and singers of the faith championed a musical style that crosses denominations and transcends race: black gospel music.
Christine Weerts
By

Rev. Charles Albert Tindley knew firsthand about the “raging storms of life” and “trials dark on every hand.” Tindley was born in 1851, the son of a slave and a free woman. His mother died when he was four, and he was sent to live with his mother’s sister for fear he would be sold into slavery if he stayed with his father.

Tindley knew about the world tossing him “like a ship on the sea,” as he was hired out to work from an early age and got no formal schooling. He taught himself to read from scraps of newspapers. When he was 17, he married Daisy Henry, and in 1875, they moved to Philadelphia, where he got a job as a janitor at Calvary Methodist Episcopal Church. The young couple knew about being “destitute of the things that life demands, want of food and shelter.”

The Hymns of Charles Tindley

Tindley was a man of faith and a hard worker. He continued his studies, asking friends at the local synagogue for help learning Hebrew, and taking Greek by correspondence with Boston Theological School. He was later ordained in the United Methodist Church with high academic scores despite no college degree.

After serving in several parishes, in 1902, Tindley was appointed pastor at Calvary Methodist, the same church where he had worked as janitor. It had 130 members when he took over. The mixed-race congregation grew to more than 12,000 under his leadership, the largest congregation in the region. He gave away between 500 and 600 meals each evening and allowed the homeless to get hot baths and clothes in the church basement. Tindley Temple United Methodist Church is still active today and honors his memory.

Tindley was known as a powerful preacher but also as a hymn writer, whose songs of life’s storms pointed to the “stiller of the storms,” Jesus. Sometimes called the “grandfather of black gospel music,” Tindley’s hymns combined a soulful understanding of life’s troubles with Christ’s saving promise in a musical style more common to spirituals and blues. His hymn “I’ll Overcome Someday” was the inspiration for the protest song “We Shall Overcome.”

Today, many of his hymns are published in Methodist and Baptist hymnals. Two of the most well-known are “By and By” and “Stand by Me.” The Five Blind Boys of Alabama, five-time Grammy winners, were founded at the state school for the blind in Talladega, Alabama, in 1939. They were inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2003, have sung for three presidents, and here sing Tindley’s “Stand by Me.”

Tindley’s deep faith and his heartfelt, soul-stirring words and melodies inspired many, including a composer and musician in Chicago, Thomas Dorsey.

Thomas Dorsey, the Father of Black Gospel Music

Dorsey, known as the “father of black gospel music,” learned religion from his Baptist minister father and piano from his music teacher mother in Villa Rica, Georgia, where he was born July 1, 1899. After his family moved to Atlanta when he was 11, Dorsey struggled in school and found a haven listening to local black musicians.

After World War I, the Dorseys relocated to Chicago, where they joined Pilgrim Baptist Church. Thomas dropped out of school and began playing piano in speakeasies, later leading Ma Rainey’s jazz band. He and slide guitarist Hudson Whittaker recorded the 1928 hit “It’s Tight Like That,” eventually selling 7 million copies.

Pilgrim Baptist Church.

But Dorsey’s world came crashing down in 1931 when his wife, Nettie Harper, died giving birth to their first child, Thomas Andrew Jr., who died a day later. In his devastating grief, he wrote “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” a gospel hymn so powerful it became a favorite of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was inducted into the Christian Music Hall of Fame in 2007, and was included in the “Songs of the Century” list by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Dorsey often worked alongside Mahalia Jackson, known as the “queen of gospel.” Born in poverty in New Orleans in 1911, Jackson grew up singing in church. At the age of 12, she was baptized by the pastor of Mount Moriah Baptist Church in the Mississippi River. She later moved to Chicago, where she met Dorsey in 1939, and they began touring.

Jackson sang to raise money for the civil rights movement, and in 1950, she became the first gospel singer to perform at Carnegie Hall. Jackson said she hoped her music could “break down some of the hate and fear that divide the white and black people in this country.” “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” became her signature song, which she sang at King’s funeral.

“I sing God’s music because it makes me feel free,” Jackson once said about her choice of gospel, adding, “It gives me hope. With the blues, when you finish, you still have the blues.”

Dorsey wrote hymns that drew on his background in blues, featuring syncopated notes in an eight-bar blues structure, but his words spoke of despair overcome by faith and hope in the Lord. He established the first black gospel publishing company, Dorsey’s House of Music, in 1932, and founded the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, still in existence. In March 1982, he was the first black person elected to the Gospel Music Association’s Living Hall of Fame, and in August 1982, the Thomas A. Dorsey Archives were opened at Fisk University.

Summing up his life’s music, Dorsey said it has been “from God, for God, and for his people.”

As with Tindley, many of Dorsey’s hymns were published in hymnals and songbooks as early as the 1930s, crossing denominations and transcending race. White publishers such as Stamps-Baxter and R.E. Winsett, among the top publishers of singing convention songbooks, included these songs by black writers in their widely distributed books.

Cleavant Derricks and His Signature Gospel Music

“The same songs that ministered to impoverished blacks enduring discrimination in the Jim Crow South spoke to the hearts of disadvantaged whites whose lot seemed similarly dismal due to hardships spurned on by the Great Depression and the World War II years,” wrote Don Butler, who chartered the Nashville-based Gospel Music Association.

One of those songs, “Just a Little Talk with Jesus,” published in 1937, “has probably been sung more than any convention by more quartets than any other. The Oak Ridge Boys used to sing it at every one of their programs,” Butler wrote.

The hymn was written by Rev. Cleavant Derricks, born May 13, 1910, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Derricks studied at Cadek Conservatory of Music in Chattanooga and American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville. He was a pastor and choir director at several black Baptist churches and is the father of twin actor sons Cleavant Derricks and Clinton Derricks-Carroll, born in 1953.

“Like Dorsey and Tindley, Derricks would write songs that addressed daily hardships, praised a loving, sustaining God and spoke of the heavenly reward believers would gain following their labour on earth,” Butler wrote.

Like many songwriters of the time, Derricks was compensated for his songs with a small quantity of free songbooks. Just before he died, a record producer found out Derricks had never received a dime for his hymns. He contacted a licensing service and got them to pay royalties for six years, a total of $14,000. Clearly, Derricks wrote for his love of the Lord, knowing he could tell him “all about our troubles” and he would “hear our faintest cry and answer by and by.”

Derricks was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1984, and many artists, both black and white, perform his songs.

The Fairfield Four, founded at Fairfield Baptist Church in Nashville in 1921, recorded their first album in 1946, perform a cappella, and are known for revitalizing and preserving the oldest style of traditional spiritual and gospel singing. Best known for their appearance on the soundtrack and on screen in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” The Fairfield Four’s album “Still Rockin’ My Soul,” released in 2015, won the Best Roots Gospel Album. The group sings Derrick’s signature song, “Just a Little Talk with Jesus.”

Christine Weerts, author of "Heroes of Faith: Rosa Young," directs the senior choir at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Autauga County, Ala., founded in 1922 through the ministry of African American missionary Rosa J. Young. She has degrees in music (BA) and religion (MA) and is a freelance writer.

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