Photo Caption: “The Old Plantation (Slaves Dancing on a South Carolina Plantation)” [ca. 1785-1795]. Attributed to John Rose, Beaufort County, SC. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Williamsburg, VA.
One of the largest and most significant forms of American folksongs, the Negro spiritual, has a long history in America, but how do these religious songs relate to the music heard in the Black church today? “American Black Journal” continues its “Black Church in Detroit” series with a look at the history of Negro spirituals and gospel music, and the influence these two genres have had on contemporary artists.
“Black gospel music is an offset of the Negro spiritual. One of the main differences between the two is that we are not exactly aware of the composers,” said Dr. Brandon Waddles, a composer, arranger, choir director and music instructor at Wayne State University. “However, there are known composers of famous gospel songs.”
Producer AJ Walker talks with Waddles about how Negro spirituals uplifted enslaved Africans brought to this country and how it served as a universal language that helped lead them to freedom. Plus, they discuss R&B singers, past and present, whose musical roots stemmed from the Black Church.
[Music Lyrics]: I will open up my heart / to everyone I see.
AJ Walker: Can you talk to me about the connection between gospel and the Negro spiritual?
Dr. Brandon Waddles, Composer, Arranger, Choir Director, & Wayne State University Music Instructor: Yes, absolutely. Gospel music, Black gospel music is an offset of the Negro spiritual. One of the main differences between the two, is that we are not exactly aware of the composers of, “Wade in the Water” or “Joshua at the Battle of Jericho” or “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel“. However, there are known composers of famous gospel songs like, “Oh Happy Day“, Edwin Hawkins or “Total Praise“, Richard Smallwood. And so, while there are certainly similarities between the two, there are certainly differences between. But both are certainly influential to the culture and the fabric of American music and America in general.
AJ Walker: I feel like another connection between gospel and the Negro spiritual is the way it uplifted people and kind of gave them hope, because I feel like a lot of people, you know, you feel hopeful when you hear gospel music and Negro spirituals.
Dr. Brandon Waddles: Absolutely. The Negro spiritual was so important to these enslaved Africans, who as scripture would foretell, were brought into the strange land, having been asked to sing a new song. We understand that many of these enslaved Africans came to the Americas with different dialects, different languages that they spoke.
Music has always been a universal language and coded therein, within these songs, were messages. Not only messages of hope, but messages that would lead these enslaved Africans to freedom. “Follow the Drinking Gourd“, they were following the constellation. “Deep River, My Home is Over Jordan“, Jordan River scripturally is, of course, referring to in their context, the Mississippi, it was their way to freedom.
If you think about jazz, and blues, and certainly Black gospel music, songs like “Precious Lord“, written by the father of gospel music, Thomas Dorsey, were written to express the despair and the tragedy of having lost not only his wife and his child in a car accident, but it certainly expressed the hope of a savior that would lead him through those troubling times.
[Music Lyrics]: Precious Lord / Take my hand / lead me on / Let me stand / I am tired.
Dr. Brandon Waddles: And so, both of those genres, these truly Black American genres, speak to both the reality of the situation, but also the hope of a present future.
AJ Walker: I know I’ve heard people say in the past that, the music today is not the same and it just is not as emotional as it has been, you know, in times past. And when I think about a lot of the R&B artists today, not all of them come from a gospel background. So, when you compare to rhythm and blues singers of past, most of them had their roots in the church. Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, those people, and then today, people are– they just saying it doesn’t feel the same.
Dr. Brandon Waddles: So many of the legendary R&B and soul singers that you named like Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Ray Charles, Anita Baker and all of those, not only were they influenced by the sounds of gospel, but they were influenced by the preaching of the gospel, too. Aretha Franklin talks about how her father, the very legendary Reverend C.L. Franklin, influenced the way that she sang, by virtue of the way that he preached.
[Rev. C.L Franklin sermon]: “I believe that they have taken away my Lord. I believe the world is concerned about that.”.
Dr. Brandon Waddles: And so, the cadence in his “hoop” influenced her soul efforts in her vocalism. James Brown talks about the way that he moved across the stage. We talk about James Brown as the Godfather of Soul and certainly influencing the dancing of Michael Jackson and Chris Brown, he learned those by just sitting around in church and watching the pastor move across the pulpit as they were getting to the height of their sermon.
And so, if there’s anything missing, it’s not even so much they’re missing the sounds of the gospel singing, they’re just missing the entire lived experience of the communion, the theatricality, sometimes, the performative aspects of the Black church. There’s nothing like Black church people getting together on a Sunday. All of these genres, from the blues, to gospel, to jazz, are still heavily, heavily utilizing elements of the Negro spiritual, which of course are connected to African culture and tradition.
Dr. Brandon Waddles: The idea of the storyteller, the griot in African American culture, this idea of community engagement within music, the idea that music is going to be part of almost every great life event. And that happens with gospel, it happens with jazz, it happens with rhythm and blues, it happens later with rock ‘n’ roll, it happens, of course, with hip hop and rap.
And I know that we try and steer clear of trying to make a connection between the two, but there is no hip hop and rap without the Negro spiritual, without the storyteller, without the call and response. There are certainly elements of hip hop and R&B that have, hip hop and rap and R&B that have found their way into gospel.
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Watch American Black Journal on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 9:30 a.m. on Detroit Public TV, WTVS-Channel 56.