The roots of traditional gospel music lie in the pre-Civil War plantations.
Ethnomusicologists explain that its familiar call-and-response formula came from Africa, its basic meter and melody were adapted from the 19th century hymns sung in mainstream American churches, and its soulful essence mark it as a descendant of the first spirituals sung by Southern slaves.
In its earliest forms, it is musically simple, but as it grew, it matured and broadened, even influencing many newer American secular genres including the blues, county and even rock ’n’ roll.
Our guide to traditional gospel is Lillie Williams, minister of music at Hopewell Baptist Church in Texas City.
Q: Were you raised hearing traditional gospel songs? What were your favorite songs and singers?
A: Yes, I was raised hearing, singing and playing traditional gospel music. James Cleveland was my favorite gospel artist, along with Mahalia Jackson (my mother was a Mahalia Jackson fan). Anything James Cleveland and the Gospel Music Workshop of America recorded I loved, then and still love now.
Q: How were you called to ministry in song? Can you tell the story of your first time up front, singing? What did you sing?
A: I started singing in church when I was only 4 years old with the Senior Choir of Mount Olive Baptist Church in Dickinson with my mother.
At the ripe old age of 7, I started playing for the junior choir. Our repertoire consisted mostly of hymns with a slight gospel feel. We really did not deviate from the written music, but I would listen to the youth, young adult and senior choirs and go home, practice what I had heard to enhance my gospel technique.
When I became 13, I moved to the youth choir, and that is really when we began to sing traditional gospel pieces.
The first song I remember leading was “You Don’t Know How Blessed You Are.”
Q: If someone wanted to learn more about traditional gospel, who would you recommend they listen to and why?
A: I would recommend any of the mass choirs, such as Mississippi Mass or James Cleveland. However, I would like to add there are so many great gospel artists. I think an upcoming musician should listen to as many as they can to fully understand what gospel music represents — the goodness of Jesus Christ, our Savior. It’s about how Jesus is with us through the good and difficult times. Most of the lyrics are straight from the Bible, set to good music with awesome rhythms, orchestration, harmony and melodic lines. One must know the word and feel the Holy Spirit to effectively minister gospel music.
Q: Is there still an audience for traditional gospel music? Are people open to hearing it?
A: I have found it amazing how people are so receptive to traditional gospel music and can relate to the words and music. God has been, and is, so good to me, I want the world to know. I want him to use me as a vessel to send his word forth. I witness to others verbally and musically. I enjoy where God has placed me and I want to give him all the honor and glory.
Rick Cousins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Visit a local coffee shop to hear Christian music in a different context.