‘Gospel’ on PBS: The Power of Preaching in Words and Music

‘Gospel’ on PBS: The Power of Preaching in Words and Music February 8, 2024

In an illustration, a gospel performer sits at an organ in front of a stained-glass window.
‘Gospel’/PBS

As outlined in Gospel, a two-night, four-hour miniseries premiering Feb. 12 on PBS, gospel music began in the early decades of the 20th Century, but the idea of singing to the Lord came even before the birth of Jesus.

In the words that begin the Old Testament’s Psalm 100:

Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all ye lands.
Serve the LORD with gladness: come before his presence with singing.

Telling the Story of Jesus Music

In 2021, feature documentary The Jesus Music traced the history of Christian Contemporary Music (CCM), which dates roughly from the 1960s.

But decades before that, starting in the 1920s in Chicago, tributaries of folk spirituals, blues and jazz began flowing into the mighty river that became gospel music.

Gospel is produced by the same team that did The Black Church for PBS in 2021. Coming back together are WETA, scholar/host Henry Louis Gates, Jr.,  and directors Stacey L. Holman and Shayla Harris.

To prime the pump a bit, preceding the Feb. 12-13 airdates of Gospel is a one-hour concert on Friday, Feb. 9, called Gospel Live!: Presented by Henry Louis Gates Jr. (for both shows, check local listings for time and station in your area).

Taped on Oct. 26 at Oasis Church in the Koreatown section of Los Angeles, it’s co-hosted by Erica Campbell and features such artists as John Legend, Anthony Hamilton & The Ton3s, LaTocha, Tauren Wells, Lena Byrd Miles, Mali Music and Sheléa.

Over its four hours, Gospel seeks not to just trace the history of the genre but to also put it in its proper historical and sociological context, including its deep connection to the Civil Rights Movement.

Along with clergymen, singers and scholars, the series features interviews with notable names including Dionne Warwick, Rev. Otis Moss III and professor Michael Eric Dyson.

Great Gospel Ladies

Beginning in an era when female preachers were rare if not outright forbidden, gospel music is built on a foundation of many powerful women.

For example, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, singer and electric-guitar virtuoso. Often called the Godmother of Rock ‘n Roll, she was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.

Of course, there’s the incomparable Mahalia Jackson, subject of a Lifetime biopic called Mahalia in 2021 (which turned out to be a big year for honoring female gospel stars).

The year before that, Lifetime profiled The Clark Sisters: The First Ladies of Gospel, whom Gospel lauds as introducing new rhythms and exciting harmonies into the music starting in the 1970s.

And no history of the genre (or 20th Century popular music in general), would be complete without the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, subject of both a TV profile and a feature-film one, in 2021.

Gospel features clips from Franklin’s legendary live concert at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts in Los Angeles in 1972.

Filmed by Sidney Pollack, it became a hit live recording, but the film — called, like the album, Amazing Grace never came to theaters until, you guessed it, 2021.

Eventually, Gospel gets to the “Reigning Queen of Gospel,” Rev. Shirley Caesar, who has gone from singer to ordained pastor and preacher.

In Gospel, Sacred Meets Secular

As now-retired Baylor University Professor Robert Darden observes in episode one: “It’s the music of Saturday night with the message of Sunday morning.”

From the beginning, the deep religiosity of gospel music has co-existed with the temptations of the secular culture.

One of gospel’s founding fathers, Thomas Dorsey, had a powerful Christian conversion and wrote some of the genre’s most enduring songs. But, early in his career, he played jazz and blues with the charismatic and bawdy Ma Rainey.

Much of both biopics of Aretha Franklin find her trying to navigate the tension between her roots in church and her success in the secular music world.

The crossover between Saturday night and Sunday morning was up front in Praise This!, a 2023 scripted film about a singer (Chloe Bailey) who reluctantly joins an Atlanta singing-and-dancing praise team.

The Gospel of Today

The final episode of Gospel takes the music into the ’90s, with AIDS decimating the ranks of performers — including singer, musician and choir leader Rev. James Cleveland.

It also tackles a common problem across Christianity, namely the alienation of younger generations from traditional worship … and with it, traditional music.

Like CCM, gospel adapts itself to the musical styles of the time. At the end of the 20th Century, that means sounds that echoed Prince, dance music and hip-hop. It also meant competing with the increasingly sex-soaked secular music.

The story moves to such modern artists as songwriter, singer and rapper Kirk Franklin, who blends Christian themes into current music styles, creating what’s called Urban Contemporary gospel.

Episode four also turns to T.D. Jakes, who is not a musician but a megachurch pastor, focusing on when he hands over his pulpit to his daughter Sarah Jakes Roberts. It’s a way of showing how Black megachurches offer huge stages and audiences to gospel music, as it morphs into the contemporary praise-and-worship style.

This leads to criticism that the music no longer reflects the realities of Black life and history, but instead seeks to cross over into the mainstream market.

Like Maverick City Music:

The series ends with a look at the impact of COVID and the social unrest of 2020, which had people seeking connection, but finding it either online or in the open air.

Take a look at the series (available now to watch online at PBS.org, for Passport members):

So, Where Are Catholics In This?

As in The Black Church, which bypassed Black Catholics, and The Jesus Music, which didn’t include any Catholics doing CCM, Gospel talks about a Christian world outside of the Catholic experience.

But in this ancient, global Church, encompassing just about every sort of human, many kinds and styles of music find their way into Catholic worship. That includes gospel music. Granted, Catholics aren’t exactly a force in gospel, but we’re there.

In 2021 (hence the masks), the St. Augustine Gospel Choir of St. Augustine Catholic Church in Washington, D.C., even performed at the White House:

The choir can get a big more energetic in its home parish:

‘Gospel’/PBS

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About Kate O'Hare
Based in Los Angeles, Kate O'Hare is a veteran entertainment journalist, Social Media Content Manager for Family Theater Productions and a rookie screenwriter. You can read more about the author here.
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