Origins and Influences
of Gospel

Mahalia Jackson

Mahalia Jackson
Nothing but the Blues by Lawrence Cohn

Power of the Gospel
Ben Harper

It will make a weak man mighty
it will make a mighty man fall
it will fill your heart and hands
or leave you with nothing at all
it's the eyes for the blind
and legs for the lame
it is love for hate
and pride for shame . . .

In the hour of richness
in the hour of need
for all the creation
comes from the gospel seed
now you may leave tomorrow
and you may leave today
but you've got to have the gospel
when you start on your way.

Gospel combines a hybrid of styles ranging from West African folk songs to Protestant hymns, ragtime, revivalist chants of the Great Awakening, slave songs and spirituals of the late 19th century. Although spiritual music existed long before formal composition and university-based jubilee groups, during the late 19th century, Charles A. Tindley first combined the music with the performance, creating gospel.

A 1939 photo of Thomas Dorsey Boarding a train.

A 1939 photo of Thomas Dorsey Boarding a train.
Nothing but the Blues by Lawrence Cohn

Thus, gospel is more than a kind of music. In Yoruba culture, "making the god" referred to a divine spirit inhabiting the body of a believer. Today, believers are possessed by the belief in Jesus, effecting both the voice and the body. The son of a Georgia preacher, Thomas Dorsey brought gospel music to its climax. After working with blues musicians such as Ma Rainey and Tampa Red (Hudson Whitaker), and recording "It's Tight Like That" during the hokum craze of the 1920s, Dorsey experienced a personal crisis and consequent period of clinical depression, causing him to undergo a religious conversion.

From 1932 to 1993, Dorsey devoted himself to writing and arranging gospel music. Before his death, he had written more than 500 songs, including "Remember Me," "The Old Ship of Zion," "Peace in the Valley," "Today," and "I'm Going to Live the Life I Sing About in My Song." While blues music evokes the voice of the black community talking to itself, gospel portrays the conversation between men and God, or Jesus Christ. In 1927, Reverend Sister Mary M. Nelson recorded "The Royal Telephone," illustrating such a conversation between a devout Christian reaching the royal throne of Christ :

Telephone to Glory, oh, what joy divine.
You can feel the current ridin' on the line.

When you call the number, be sure you get the throne.
Then you can talk with Jesus on the royal telephone . . .

Well, if your line is grounded and connection true.
Have been lost in Jesus, tell you what to do.
Prayer, faith and promise, mends a broken wire.
Till your soul is burnin' with the Pentecostal fire.

The two denominations most acknowledged for gospel music are Baptist and Pentecostalist, or Church of God in Christ. As Alan Young writes, "the heart of gospel lies not in concert chambers or recording studios but in churches, local auditoriums and religious homes." Thus, many blues, soul, and rhythm and blues artists owe their careers to the influence of gospel. Although gospel never was marketed as successfully as the blues (Mahalia Jackson was an exception), mainstream and popular music still feels its impact. According to Young, Lou Rawls, Dionne Warwick and Wilson Pickett all left gospel choirs for secular careers. Likewise, Aretha Franklin started singing gospel as a child in her father's Detroit church. Linda Hopkins, Sam Cooke, Al Green, Otis Redding and Ben Harper also incorporate gospel influences into their music.



Southern Church

Southern Minister

Northern Church

Migrants Reaction


Gospel and the Blues