from the National Museum of African American Music:

A Review of Gospel: Panel & Watch Party

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

On Monday, February 12th, I had the pleasure of attending an engrossing and stimulating panel discussion at the National Museum of African American Music, sponsored, and curated by WPLN, Nashville’s local news and NPR station. This was a celebratory event of PBS’ new documentary series, Gospel: Where Song and Sermon Meet, written and produced by Henry Louis Gates Jr. The event took place in the Roots Theater of the museum. Among those included on the panel were Partick Dailey, countertenor, professor of voice at Tennessee State University, and the director of W. Cremm singers, and founder of the Nashville Gospel and Sacred Music Coalition; Tim Dillinger, gospel historian, journalist, and author of, “God’s Music is My Life;” Odessa Settles retired neonatal nurse, member of the family group, Settles Connection, and daughter of Walter J Settles of the Fairfield Four; and Dr. G. Preston Wilson Jr., the newly appointed director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. The panel discussion was hosted by LaTonya Turner Riley with Nashville Public Radio.

The W. Crimm singers opened the event with a moving and energetic performance of ‘Oh Happy Day’ and ‘Even Me.’ Patrick Dailey’s soul-stirring countertenor voice rang out as he led the second song. I was overwhelmed by the beauty of his voice. The panel discussion began after the singers took their seats. Throughout the discussion, Tim Dillinger spoke truth to the essence of gospel music and the gospel sound, as well as its place in the current state of the global church. Odessa Settles provided a refreshing perspective on gospel music as a member of a musical legacy and how she uses her gift to spread gospel’s message of leading with love across multiple religions. Dr. G. Preston Wilson Jr. spoke on the significance of gospel music concerning inclusivity in the black church. Patrick Dailey discussed the diversity within the gospel music genre and the complexities of its sound.

This series strives to cover the continuously progressive genre that is gospel music. In the first episode, “The Gospel Train,” Gates briefly describes the spirituals and advances right into Thomas Dorsey’s historical contributions to the genre. He also mentions Mr. Dorsey’s involvement with singer and businesswoman, Sallie Martin. Gates provides appreciable insight into their journey together and separately. In this episode, there is also a conversation about the Baptist Church Convention and its position in the marketplace for recorded gospel music. There are references to the assorted styles of African American preachers and their contributions to the recording of Gospel and black spirituality. After spending a considerable amount of time discussing the professional relationship between Dorsey and Martin, the episode then shifts to the careers of Mahaila Jackson and Rosetta Tharpe.

Episode two, “The Golden Era of Gospel,” Gates mentions the rise of the male quartets in the 1940s. Its looser form of singing, the shout chorus, liberties in music, and the traveling of gospel artists began to rise in this stage of gospel music. The concept of taking ministry outside of the church became the main theme of this episode. Gospel’s ties to Jim Crow led Gates to talk about the career of Mahaila Jackson and how she globalized the gospel music genre. In connection to the sermon aspect, Gates talks about Reverend C.L. Franklin. He introduces the style of preaching that involves ‘hooping.’ This style of preaching was the first example of sermon and song meeting as the title of this series suggests. Artists, composers, and other vital figures mentioned in this episode were Sam Cooke, Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland, The Clara Ward Singers, The Five Blind Boys of Alabama, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Alex Bradford. There is also a great amount of detail given to the relationship between Mahalia Jackson and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The bond between these two historical figures amid the Civil Rights Movement symbolizes the correlation between song and sermon regarding gospel music.

In episode three, “Take the Message Everywhere,” Gates discusses the impact of the Church of God in Christ, family dynasties within the denomination, and the major influence that they have had on the gospel music industry and ministry. This episode centers on how some notable artists took their ministry outside of the church’s four walls. With a significant emphasis on the contributions of the Hawkins family, Andrae Crouch, and The Clark Sisters; the concept of taking elements of secular music and incorporating them into gospel music became more prevalent during this new emerging era in gospel music. There was also dialogue concerning the rise of soul music. By highlighting the career of Aretha Franklin, Gates accentuates the influence that gospel music had on soul music and soul artists. In the aspect of sermon meeting song, and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the attention to prophetic preaching became the next focal point in this episode. The ministry of Dr. Gardner C. Taylor led to the topic of the protest aspect of gospel music. This part of the series ends with a focus on the life and career of Shirley Ceasar. Her mastering of the ‘sermonette,’ which is a short form of preaching or shouting a sermon in song form; highlights the struggle women face in ministry in trying to gain equality with their male counterparts.

In the fourth and final episode, “Gospel’s Second Century,” Gates dives into the current state of gospel music. Beginning in the 90’s, gospel music takes a dramatic turn and completely steps away from the traditional sound. Gospel music starts to become a lucrative part of the entertainment industry.  The commercial triumph of gospel music starts growing and reaching millions through radio, television, and box office success. Artists mentioned to draw attention to this shift in the genre include Yolanda Adams, Donnie McClurkin, and Kirk Franklin. The rise of megachurches was also a point of discussion. The career of T.D. Jakes and his “Woman Thou Art Loosed” brand propelled more non-denominational music and churches. There is a brief section about the style of preaching that was cultivated by the ‘Black Lives Matter’ platform, as well as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The series ends with Gates’ final thoughts on the meaning of gospel music and its implications for black people and black culture in America.

Overall, my experience at this event was a great one. I thought that this series was an exceptional introduction to gospel music. However, more work must be done. Aside from Dorsey’s contributions, I felt that the spirituals from which gospel music derives deserve much more attention. There are so many artists and composers of this genre that are not mentioned enough. Composers such as Hall Johnson, Dr. Bobby Jones, Willie Mae Ford Smith, and Ella Sheppard.  All of whom have been large contributors to the progression of gospel music. I was disappointed to see that Dr. Bobby Jones wasn’t mentioned when speaking on the televised or media aspect of gospel music. Being that Dr. Bobby Jones had the longest-running televised program on one of the biggest platforms for over thirty years. His show, “Bobby Jones Gospel,” was the only show of its kind to showcase local and international gospel artists from all facets of the genre. However, I feel as if Gates does captivate the essence of what gospel music was, is, and is becoming with this series.

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