Editor's note: In the coming week, the manager of the Evangelical Portal will bring forth some of the more interesting articles from 2009. This piece, by Melinda Weekes, tells the remarkable story of African-American women in the development of Gospel music. Follow the evolution of the genre, and enjoy the lively music, by watching the videos Weekes shares in her articles.
By Melinda Weekes - June 10, 2009
Any gospel music fan is aware of the critical connection between the music and the diverse yet shared tradition of Christian commitment and liturgical sensibility known as the "black religious tradition." Of the genres that hail from this sacred musical lineage - slave hollers, work songs, spirituals, anthems, stylized hymn singing, and more - gospel music is perhaps the most popular.
In part, this has to do with the fact that, unlike other black musical forms, gospel music enjoyed a ready-made, and sometimes reluctant, institutional partner: the seven major historically black denominations that comprise "the black church." In this way, to appreciate gospel music is to appreciate the people of the churches where it was born, cultivated, and still thrives. Herein, we trace some of the pioneering women of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), and witness to the fact that without their musical innovation, leadership, and courage, there would be no gospel music as we know it today.
The first person to play the piano on a gospel recording and introduce a syncopated, ragtime-influenced accompaniment to gospel music, is Texas born Arizona Dranes. Born blind, she graduated from the Institute for the Deaf, Dumb and Blind Colored Youths in 1910, and helped to found a COGIC Church in Oklahoma City around 1920. She recorded for the legendary Okeh Records in 1926 and became a favored singer-pianist in COGIC circles, often playing for its founder, Bishop Charles Mason. Dranes established "I Shall Wear A Crown," "My Soul's a Witness for the Lord," and "Lamb's Blood Has Washed Me Clean" as GOGIC standards. Through her extensive touring and recordings into the 1940s, Dranes influenced generations of keyboardists and singers such as Mahaliah Jackson, Clara Ward, and Rosetta Tharpe.
As a child, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, known as "Little Rosetta Nubin," played guitar for her mother, a COGIC traveling evangelist. Her extraordinary voice was exceeded only by her guitar playing, rare for a girl in the 1920s. It was clear to all who heard her throughout Arkansas, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, and Chicago that Rosetta was a prodigy.
While her affiliation with the church continued - she married a COGIC preacher in the 1930s - Tharpe's performance style was indelibly influenced by the blues and jazz she had heard on the road. In the mid-1930s, Tharpe moved to New York City and made a demonstration tape with gospel tracks recorded with a jazz orchestra. This created an uproar in the church, but a frenzy in the marketplace, and in 1938, she was selected by jazz critic John Hammond to perform in Carnegie Hall, one of a few gospel singers of her time that would accept engagements with jazz stars like Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman, and Count Bassie.
Below photo courtesy of www.theclarksisters.com