Library of Congress > Collections > The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America


Five recordings from Library of Congress collections illustrate a smattering of great performances of religious songs.

Sacred music has been a vibrant part of American culture from the earliest sacred oral traditions of indigenous peoples through the written traditions of the first European colonists. With the settlement of the Plymouth, Massachusetts colony in 1620, sacred music played an important role in helping to define the cultural identity of the region of the New World that would become the United States.

The Ainsworth Psalter (musical settings of the Psalms of David translated into English) was brought by the Pilgrims from Europe for use in their religious services. Unsatisfied with the antiquated language of the Ainsworth Psalter, it was only a few decades later that a new version was published titled The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre (1640). This was the first book published in the colonies and was commonly known as the "Bay Psalm Book" because it was published by Stephen Day of Cambridge, Massachusetts, then known as the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The printed music in the Bay Psalm Book, which did not come until the ninth edition (1698), was of European origin. It was not until the publication of William Billings's New England Psalm Singer in 1770, the first publication consisting of sacred music composed entirely by a native-born American, that the European hymn tradition was successfully transformed and assimilated into uniquely American music.

[Store Front Churches. Man in robe with three ladies]. Rogovin, Milton, 1909-2011, photographer. From Rogovin's photo series: Store Front Churches, 1958-1961. Prints and Photographs Division. Gift; Milton Rogovin; 1999; (DLC/PP-1999:085 from LOT 13523-2).

Within the Protestant Christian tradition, American sacred music developed, and continues to develop, in a variety of directions as diverse ethnic groups add their voices to the musical landscape of the United States. In the eighteenth century, the Moravian Church, a renewed branch of the Pre-Reformation Brethren of Unity which had philosophical grounding in the work of fifteenth-century Czech priest Jan Hus, established major settlements in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in 1741 and in Salem, North Carolina in 1766 (present day Winston-Salem). Their music was well-grounded in the grand sacred tradition of the European Baroque period and included instrumental ensembles, most famously the trombone choir, to accompany their services which were spoken and sung in both German and English. As early as 1742, the congregation in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania had a wide variety of stringed and wind instruments as well as an organ and other keyboard instruments just a few years later. The extensive use of musical instruments in Moravian culture was certainly an impetus for Pennsylvania-born Moravian luthier John Antes to make what is probably the first violin to be constructed in the United States in 1759. The diversity of music within the Moravian community led to developments in both sacred and secular music independent of the hymn tradition of New England composers such as William Billings. For example, in addition to his sacred vocal music, Moravian composer Johann Friedrich Peter of Salem, North Carolina, wrote a set of string quintets in 1789 which are the earliest known examples of secular chamber music written in the United States. The Moravians represent just one of many possible examples of how music written for worship and praise can fulfill not only a sacred function, but can also change the cultural direction of society at large.

The United States continued to be a haven for persecuted religious groups long after the Puritans arrived in Massachusetts Bay. An example are the Russian Molokans, a Christian denomination that fled Russia to the United States and elsewhere during the early twentieth century. Rarely recorded, the congregation of the Russian Molokan Church of Potrero Hill, San Francisco, California allowed ethnomusicologist Sidney Robertson Cowell to document their services in 1938. Recordings of the congregation singing scripture in Russian provide examples of a style of Christian singing that was once common. The ancient practice of singing of scripture by whole congregations was revived during the Protestant Reformation, using translations into the common language of the people. (Read more about Russian Molokan immigrants in "Russian American Songs.")

A style of singing psalms and hymns called "shape-note singing" emerged in the southern United States in the early nineteenth century. Related to congregational singing of New England, this style developed features of its own. An article, "Shape-note Singing" is available in this presentation along with a video of a lecture on the topic by David Warren Steel.

African Americans, who began establishing their own churches in the Northeast in the eighteenth century, contributed not only to the music of their own congregations, but to that of Christian Protestants throughout the country. The spirituals and "camp meeting songs" that had been part of the spirituality of slavery days developed into Gospel style singing after emancipation. African American Gospel became the influence for the development of Gospel music used among other ethnic groups, as well as inspiring popular music forms. Essays on African American spirituals and African American Gospel are available in this presentation.

The earliest Catholic settlers in North America were the Spanish settlers of Puerto Rico, Florida, southern California, Texas, northern New Mexico, and southern Colorado. They brought with them many of the religious song traditions of Spain of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. These groups were somewhat isolated from Spain, relying on occasional travel of priests to and from Europe for news from the old world. As territories were lost by Spain in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the priests in the former colonies were recalled and non-Catholic settlers began moving in, and some of the Spanish settlers moved to Mexico or returned to Spain.

Puerto Rico remained part of Spain and continued to remain strongly Catholic even after it became a possession of the United States in 1898. This created further isolation for the land-locked settlements in what is now New Mexico and Colorado. The people there preserved their religious traditions as best they could using plays and pageants to mark religious holidays. The result, in terms of music and song, was that this isolation preserved some of the oldest songs of the Spanish settlers.

Folklorist Juan B. Rael documented songs of the early pageant plays and holidays in New Mexico and Colorado in 1940, seeking out older singers who remembered the songs they had learned before the advent of radio and television. For example, this is a field recording of "María busca a Jesús," in which Mary looks for the lost child Jesus, sung by Ricardo Archuleta.

Spanish-language religious expression is now found throughout the United States, preserved by the many ethnic groups that descended from the Spanish colonies of North and South America and brought by immigrants of many countries. Examples from several of these groups may be found in this presentation.

Jewish settlers came to North America beginning in the Colonial period, beginning with Sephardic Jews who came with Dutch settlers in New York. But the largest wave of Jewish immigration was during the late nineteenth century as Eastern European Jews fled persecution and sought better economic opportunities. As it happened, this wave of immigration brought to the United States some of the most famous cantors of Europe, who performed, taught, and composed sacred songs for synagogues. These included Mordechai Hershman, Josef "Yossele" Rosenblatt, Shloimele Rothstein, and Aryeh Leib Rutman, who made recordings on Victor records, some of which are available in this presentation. They toured the United States, made recordings, and composed, so that their styles of cantorial music became profoundly influential throughout the country.

The style of cantorial singing that was held in the highest regard at the time required a wide vocal range and the ability to sing with great emotion. Before the advent of radio and sound recordings, the opportunity to hear a cantor perform was a source of entertainment as well as religious experience. When the new technologies became available, many cantors took advantage of them. Josef Rosenblatt, rather famously, appeared in the first "talking picture," The Jazz Singer (1927), as himself. In this selection, Josef Rosenblatt sings a song that he composed, "T'ka b'shofar" (Let the trumpet be blown for our freedom), in 1921.

The late eighteenth century brought a modernization of attitudes about women in performance, with a greater freedom for women to perform on the stage, in Yiddish theater for example, and to perform religious songs outside the home and in public settings. Although women could not become cantors until the middle to late twentieth century, in the early twentieth century it was possible for them to perform cantorial songs in some public contexts. For example, this recording of Joseph Feldman and Mildred Manne performing "Adam yesodo me-afar" (Man is made of clay), is an example of a cantorial piece sung as a male-female duet in 1925.

Buddhism is the most common religion in the United States after Christian, Jewish, and non-affiliated groups. It is represented by several denominations that include immigrants from Buddhist countries and Americans have converted to the faith and subsequent generations. Some forms of Buddhism focus on silent meditation, but many use chants as a way of preparing the mind for meditation, often drawn from scripture. There are also songs for rituals and religious holidays, such as the celebration of the Buddha's birthday in the spring. The style of Buddhist singing that may be most familiar to Americans is Tibetan chanting, which includes a distinctive style of throat singing by trained singers who can produce more than one pitch simultaneously. [1]

Today Muslims in the United States include people from many countries, denominations, and language groups. It is not unusual for Muslims of diverse backgrounds to share the same Mosque. Chanting scriptural passages in the original Arabic is a practice that is shared across the Muslim world. In addition to theological reasons for using the original language, this practice allows for Muslims who speak many languages to worship together. There are many other forms of musical expression that vary both among ethnic groups and denominations. Most of the Muslims who arrived in what is now the United States in colonial times were African slaves. Although efforts to convert slaves to Christianity were largely successful, knowledge of this past did inspire Islamic movements among African Americans in the twentieth century. About one quarter of American Muslims today are African American. Muslims, mainly from the Ottoman Empire came to the United States with the wave of immigration from Eastern Europe and the Middle East in the mid- nineteenth century through World War I. Immigration of Muslims from many other parts of the world to the United States greatly increased in the late twentieth century. Available in this presentation is a concert by the Sama Ensemble, most of whom are Persian Americans, performing Sufi Muslim chants and songs in Persian Language (Farsi). In Sufi religious practice, chants, drumming, and dance are used to seek direct experience of God.

For American Indians, Native Alaskans, and Hawaiians before colonization, song and dance were an essential part of religious expression. Song and dance were used in ceremonies, such as marking the seasons of the year, coming of age, death, and healing from illness. Some sacred songs were public and some private, appropriate for members of only one particular group to hear. An example of a part of a creation cycle of the Menominee, "Manabus tells ducks to shut their eyes," sung by Louis Pigeon, was recorded by Francis Densmore in 1925.

In an attempt to "civilize" Indian tribes, President Ulysses Grant instituted a "Peace Policy" in the late 1860s that included an effort to Christianize Indians. This most profoundly influenced the Indians in the "Indian Territory" of present day Oklahoma. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, government-supported Christian missionaries and the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs established boarding schools to educate American Indian and Native Alaskan children in a setting that separated the children from their culture. In 1904 the United States banned the Sun Dance, an important ritual of the tribes of the western plains. In 1921 the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs extended this further, calling for the ban of the Sun Dance "and all similar dances."

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, ethnographers made sound recordings of the songs and stories of various tribes believing that these government policies, education programs, and Christian conversion efforts would soon destroy all trace of America's indigenous cultures. Examples of some of these recordings are available in this presentation. The actual result of conversion attempts was the development of religions that blended the beliefs of the various tribes with Christianity. There was also resistance to conversion and the practice of religious customs in secret. The Seminole, even today, retreat to find privacy in the Everglades to hold their Green Corn dance in the late spring. Some of the songs from this ceremony, documented in 1940, are available in this presentation, including this "Hunting song," sung by John Josh, Richard Osceola, Robert Oceola, and Barfield Johns.

As Europeans established trade with Hawai'i, the Hawaiian people were involved in their own religious reforms, as King Kamehameha I attempted to unite the islands and simplify the complex beliefs that varied from island to island. A year after the death of Kamehameha I, in 1819, Christian missionaries arrived, taking advantage of the changing religious ideas to promote their own faiths. In 1830, the regent Queen Ka'ahumanu, who had converted to Protestant Christianity, was persuaded by missionaries to ban the hula. The hula and its accompanying traditions were largely practiced in secret for a time. Hawaiian Christians developed their own traditions, incorporating many native customs into their practice in order to retain their Hawaiian identity along with their faith.

In 1978 the United States passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, prohibiting bans or interference with the religions of indigenous peoples. Today there is a cultural revitalization of American Indian, Native Alaskan, and Hawaiian customs and language, partly supported by the establishment of native-run schools and colleges. Concerts at the Library of Congress included in this presentation demonstrate the current revival of ceremonial dance and song, such as the Dineh Tah Dancers (Navajo), Wayne Newell and Blanch Sockabasin --Traditional Passamaquoddy Music from Maine, and the Hawaiian ensemble Unukupukupu Halau Hula.

As the population of the United States grows and becomes more diverse, the breadth of sacred music in this country continues to develop. The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 ended the restrictions on immigration that favored Western Europeans. This allowed people of many ethnic and religious groups to enter the United States who would have found it difficult to immigrate under earlier policies. The variety and scope of American music expressing spirituality is growing more diverse as a result. The largest wave of Muslim immigrants came to the United States after 1965, for example, coming from many countries and representing many different denominations. Some examples of sacred music of immigrants of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have been performed at the Library of Congress and are available as webcasts, such as Sreevidhya Chandramouli performing South Indian Hindu music and song and the griot or djeli Bala Kouyate performing Malian music and song.

As scholars and musicians uncover forgotten traditions and new technologies foster the development of increasingly diverse communities, music of worship and praise remains the "tie that binds" likeminded people together.



Next: Spirituals
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Five recordings from Library of Congress collections

  • My good Lord done been here

    Sung by Florida Hampton, recorded in Alabama by John and Ruby Lomax, 1939. An example of a spiritual sung in traditional fashion.

  • Ol' man Satan

    Mary C. Mann of the Georgia Sea Islands sings a spiritual that she said had been handed down in her family for five generations. Recorded by Robert W. Gordon, 1926.

  • "I want to be ready" and "Get on board"

    Performed by the Tuskegee Institute Singers in 1916. This recording provides an example of the choral style of singing spirituals that emerged in African American colleges after emancipation.

  • "Old Ship of Zion,"

    Performed by the Halloway High School Quartet, recorded by John W. Work, III in about 1941. These young men sing this spiritual in a choral style and add a chorus from "Get on board" at the end in Gospel style.

  • "Heav'n, Heav'n,"

    Arranged by Henry Thacker Burleigh and sung by opera contralto Marian Anderson, 1924.

A spiritual is a type of religious folksong that is most closely associated with the enslavement of African people in the American South. The songs proliferated in the last few decades of the eighteenth century leading up to the abolishment of legalized slavery in the 1860s. The African American spiritual (also called the Negro Spiritual) constitutes one of the largest and most significant forms of American folksong.

Famous spirituals include "Swing low, sweet chariot," composed by a Wallis Willis, and "Deep down in my heart." The term "spiritual" is derived from the King James Bible translation of Ephesians 5:19: "Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord." The form has its roots in the informal gatherings of African slaves in "praise houses" and outdoor meetings called "brush arbor meetings," "bush meetings," or "camp meetings" in the eighteenth century. At the meetings, participants would sing, chant, dance and sometimes enter ecstatic trances. Spirituals also stem from the "ring shout," a shuffling circular dance to chanting and handclapping that was common among early plantation slaves. An example of a spiritual sung in this style is "Jesus Leads Me All the Way," sung by Reverend Goodwin and the Zion Methodist Church congregation and recorded by Henrietta Yurchenco in 1970.

In Africa, music had been central to people's lives: Music making permeated important life events and daily activities. However, the white colonists of North America were alarmed by and frowned upon the slaves' African-infused way of worship because they considered it to be idolatrous and wild. As a result, the gatherings were often banned and had to be conducted in a clandestine manner. The African population in the American colonies had initially been introduced to Christianity in the seventeenth century. Uptake of the religion was relatively slow at first. But the slave population was fascinated by Biblical stories containing parallels to their own lives and created spirituals that retold narratives about Biblical figures like Daniel and Moses. As Africanized Christianity took hold of the slave population, spirituals served as a way to express the community's new faith, as well as its sorrows and hopes.

Harriet Tubman

Detail from [Harriet Tubman, full-length portrait, standing with hands on back of a chair]. Lindsley, H. B., photographer. [Between ca. 1860 and 1875]. Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-7816

Spirituals are typically sung in a call and response form, with a leader improvising a line of text and a chorus of singers providing a solid refrain in unison. The vocal style abounded in freeform slides, turns and rhythms that were challenging for early publishers of spirituals to document accurately. Many spirituals, known as "sorrow songs," are intense, slow and melancholic. Songs like "Sometimes I feel like a motherless child," and "Nobody knows the trouble I've seen," describe the slaves' struggles and identification the suffering of Jesus Christ. Other spirituals are more joyful. Known as "jubilees," or "camp meeting songs," they are fast, rhythmic and often syncopated. Examples include "Rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham" and "Fare Ye Well,"

Spirituals are also sometimes regarded as codified protest songs, with songs such as "Steal away to Jesus," composed by Wallis Willis, being seen by some commentators as incitements to escape slavery. Because the Underground Railroad of the mid- nineteenth century used terminology from railroads as a secret language for assisting slaves to freedom, it is often speculated that songs like "I got my ticket" may have been a code for escape. Hard evidence is difficult to come by because assisting slaves to freedom was illegal. A spiritual that was certainly used as a code for escape to freedom was "Go down, Moses," used by Harriet Tubman to identify herself to slaves who might want to flee north. [1]

As Frederick Douglass, a nineteenth century abolitionist author and former slave, wrote in his book My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) of singing spirituals during his years in bondage: "A keen observer might have detected in our repeated singing of 'O Canaan, sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan,' something more than a hope of reaching heaven. We meant to reach the North, and the North was our Canaan."

The publication of collections of spirituals in the 1860s started to arouse a broader interested in spirituals. In the 1870s, the creation of the Jubilee Singers, a chorus consisting of former slaves from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, sparked an international interest in the musical form. The group's extensive touring schedule in the United States and Europe included concert performances of spirituals that were very well received by audiences. While some African Americans at the time associated the spiritual tradition with slavery and were not enthusiastic about continuing it, the Fisk University singers performances persuaded many that it should be continued. Ensembles around the country started to emulate the Jubilee singers, giving birth to a concert hall tradition of performing this music that has remained strong to this day.

The Hampton Singers of Hampton Institute (now Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia) was one of the first ensembles to rival the Jubilee Singers. Founded in 1873, the group earned an international following in the early and mid- twentieth century under the baton of its longtime conductor R. Nathaniel Dett. Dett was known not just for his visionary conducting abilities, but also for his impassioned arrangements of spirituals and original compositions based on spirituals. A cappella arrangements of spirituals for choruses by such noted composers as Moses Hogan, Roland Carter, Jester Hairston, Brazeal Dennard and Wendell Whalum have taken the musical form beyond its traditional folk song roots in the twentieth century.

Jubilee Singers, Fisk University

Detail from Jubilee Singers, Fisk University, Nashville, Tenn.. American Missionary Association , publisher. [between 1870 and 1880]. Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ppmsca-11008. The Fisk University Jubilee Singers helped to raise awareness of African American spirituals through concerts and recordings under the direction of John W. Work, Jr., the first African American to collect and publish spirituals.

The appearance of spirituals on the concert hall stage was further developed by the work of composers like Henry T. Burleigh, who created widely performed piano-voice arrangements of spirituals in the early twentieth century for solo classical singers. Follow the link to view sheet music for "A Balm in Giliad," an example of a spiritual arranged by Burleigh Marian Anderson's 1924 rendition of "Go Down Moses," is taken from an arrangement to Burleigh (select the link to listen to this recording).

Many other composers followed in Burleigh's footsteps. In the 1920s and 1930s, prominent classically trained artists such as Marian Anderson, Roland Hayes and Paul Robeson spotlighted spirituals in their repertoires. The tradition has continued into more recent times with classical stars like Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman frequently performing spirituals in their recitals. While spirituals continue to have a presence in the concert hall, the centrality of the form to the Black church has waned in the twentieth century with the rise in popularity of Gospel music. The Gospel tradition has preserved the lyrics of many spirituals, but the musical forms have changed dramatically as harmonies are added and the tunes arranged to suit new performance styles. For an example of the Gospel Quartet style that arose in the 1940s, listen to this recording of the Golden Jubilee Quartet performing "Oh, Jonah!" In spite of these changes, forms of the traditional spiritual continue to survive in some of the conservative congregations of the South that are either more isolated from modern influences, or that simply choose to preserve the older songs.

Many recordings of these rural spirituals, made between 1933 and 1942, are housed in the American Folklife Center collections at the Library of Congress. The collection includes such gems as "Run old Jeremiah," a ring shout from Jennings, Alabama recorded by J. W. Brown and A. Coleman in 1934, which has a train-like accompaniment of stamping feet; and "Eli you can't stand," a spiritual underpinned by handclapping featuring lead singing by Willis Proctor recorded on St. Simon's Island, Georgia in 1959. Many field recordings of spirituals are available online in this presentation, including the earliest known recording of "Come by here," or as it is often called today, "Kumbahya," sung by H. Wylie and recorded by folklorist Robert Winslow Gordon on a wax cylinder in 1926 (the middle of this recording is inaudible, probably due to deterioration of the cylinder).

The "white spiritual" genre, though far less well recognized than its "negro spiritual" cousin, encompasses the folk hymn, the religious ballad and the camp-meeting spiritual. White spirituals share symbolism, some musical elements and somewhat of a common origin with African American spirituals. In 1943, Willis James made this field recording of the Lincoln Park Singers performing "I'll fly away," which was composed by Albert E. Brumley, a white man. This field recording serves to illustrate the link between Black and white spirituals.

Harry Thacker Burleigh

Detail from [Harry Thacker Burleigh, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing right]. Knight, Thos. Coke, photographer. 1927. Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-114982. Henry "Harry" Thacker Burleigh was a classical composer, arranger, and professional singer who arranged traditional spirituals for orchestra.

The genre of white spirituals came to light in the 1930s when George Pullen Jackson, a professor of German at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, published the book White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands (1933). The book was the first in a series of studies that highlighted the existence of white spirituals in both their oral and published forms, the latter occurring in the shape-note tune books of rural communities.

Black spirituals vary from white spirituals in a variety of ways. Differences include the use of microtonally flatted notes, syncopation and counter-rhythms marked by handclapping in black spiritual performances. Black spiritual singing also stands out for the singers' striking vocal timbre that features shouting, exclamations of the word "Glory!" and raspy and shrill falsetto tones.

Spirituals have played a significant role as vehicles for protest at intermittent points during the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, spirituals as well as Gospel songs supported the efforts of civil rights activists. Many of the "freedom songs" of the period, such as "Oh, Freedom!" and "Eyes on the Prize," were adapted from old spirituals. Both of these songs are performed by the group Reverb in a video of their concert at the Library of Congress in 2007. The movement's torch song, "We Shall Overcome," merged the gospel hymn "I'll Overcome Someday" with the spiritual "I'll Be all right."

Freedom songs based on spirituals have also helped to define struggles for democracy in many other countries around the world including Russia, Eastern Europe, China and South Africa. Some of today's well-known pop artists continue to draw on the spirituals tradition in the creation of new protest songs. Examples include Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" and Billy Bragg's "Sing their souls back home."



  • Caldwell, Hansonia African American Music: Spirituals (third edition. Culver City, California: Ikoro Communications, Inc. 2003)
  • Koskoff, Ellen, Ed. The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Volume 3: The United States and Canada (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 2001) pp 624-629; also pp523-524, pp68-69
  • Hitchcock, H. Wiley and Stanley Sadie The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (London: Macmillan, 1986) pp 284-290
  • The Library of Congress web site contains many examples of digitized recordings and sheet music of spirituals.
  • The Library of Congress web site also houses a special digitized American choral music collection which features arrangements of spirituals by composers like Henry T Burleigh and R Nathaniel Dett.
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African American Gospel


Five recordings from Library of Congress collections

African American Gospel music is a form of euphoric, rhythmic, spiritual music rooted in the solo and responsive church singing of the African American South. Its development coincided with -- and is germane to -- the development of rhythm and blues.

The precursor to black Gospel music is the African American spiritual, which had already been around for well over a century before Gospel music began its rise to popularity starting in the 1930s. Songs written by African American composers in the decades following emancipation that focused on biblical themes and often drew from spirituals were the source for the development of Gospel. An example is “De Gospel Cars,” by the popular composer Sam Lucas.

When many African American communities migrated from rural to urban life during the first half of the twentieth century, they brought their worship culture with them. Echoing the ways of the single-room churches of the agrarian South, the storefront churches of the northern cities became the key setting for the development of Gospel.

Mahalia Jackson

Gospel artist Mahalia Jackson. Carl Van Vechten, Photographer. 1962. Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-120855

During the 1930s, Gospel music emerged from the coalescing of three types of musical activity: a) the hymn style of Charles Albert Tindley (1851-1933) a Philadelphia minister who composed hymns based on negro spirituals, adding instrumental accompaniments, improvisation and "bluesified" third and seventh intervals; b) the minimalist, solo-sung “rural Gospel” tunes that appeared as a counterpart to the rural blues; and c) the uninhibited, exuberant worship style of the Holiness-Pentacostal branch of the Christian church.

The shift from spirituals to Gospel is evident in the recordings of African American religious songs recorded in the 1930s and 1940s. The Holloway High School Quartet of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, recorded by John W. Work, III in 1941, provides an example of a traditional spiritual arranged for four-part harmony in "Old ship of Zion,"  The same group in the same recording session demonstrated the sound of Gospel, as they sang an updated version of an old spiritual, "Daniel saw the stone." 

A key figure in the development of Gospel was Thomas A. Dorsey (1899 -1993). Referred to today as the father of Gospel Music, Dorsey pioneered the form in Chicago. Before devoting his career to the development of Gospel, Dorsey, the son of a Georgia Baptist preacher, was a prolific blues and jazz composer and pianist. The energetic rhythms and primal growls of secular music heavily influenced Dorsey’s sacred composing style.

From its beginnings, Gospel music challenged the existing church establishment. Black religious leaders originally rejected Dorsey’s approach because of its associations with the widely frowned-upon secular music styles of the era such as ragtime, blues, and jazz.

"I know I've got religion," sung by the Golden Jubilee Quartet in 1943, is an example of an old spiritual arranged for Gospel quartet. The use of a rocking beat in Gospel began in the 1940s, as the secular form of what came to be called rhythm and blues was also catching on. An example is  “Death comes a knocking,” performed by the Four Brothers, also recorded by Willis James in 1943.

Thomas Dorsey teamed up with vocalist Mahalia Jackson (1912 – 1972) who, like him, had been exposed during her formative years to the Baptist church and the sounds of blues artists like Bessie Smith (through an aunt’s record collection). Together, Dorsey and Jackson bypassed the establishment and took their new Christian sound to the street corners of Chicago and elsewhere around the country. Jackson sang Dorsey’s songs while the composer hawked copies of his sheet music.

Eventually, Dorsey and Jackson’s vision spread through their alliance with a few likeminded musical pioneers to form of the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, which is still thriving today.

During its early development, Gospel music featured simple piano and organ accompaniment. Male vocal quartets were popular, having emerged under the auspices of African American universities like Fisk and Hampton. Originally these groups sang a cappella  spirituals, but started switching to the Gospel repertoire in the 1930s. In the 1940s, the quartets often added a fifth singer and guitar accompaniment.

The sound of slide guitar sound from Hawaii began to influence many genres of American music shortly after Hawaii became a US territory in 1898. A style of Gospel music, called "sacred steel," emerged. View the concert starring Aubrey Ghent playing the sacred steel lap guitar.

Although singers like Aretha Franklin had introduced Gospel style songs to the pop charts with songs like “Think” in 1968, church-centric Gospel music began to cross over into the mainstream following the release in 1969 of the recording of “O Happy Day” by the Edwin Hawkins Singers, a mixed-gender Gospel chorus based in the San Francisco Bay area. The song, which was based on a mid-eighteenth century English hymn sold more than a million copies in two months (well above average for a Gospel recording) and earned its composer, Edwin Hawkins (born 1943) his first of four Grammy Awards.

Since Hawkins, other artists have emerged, taking Gospel music well beyond the black church. Today’s Gospel songs are more harmonically complex than their traditional counterparts. Prominent names in the contemporary Gospel field include Andrae Crouch, Take 6, The New York Community Choir and the Cultural Heritage Choir.

These days, Gospel songs are performed as solos or by small or large ensembles, and by men and women of all ages. Both blacks and whites sing the repertoire and the instrumentation possibilities are limitless, ranging from synthesizers and drums to full symphony orchestras. Hear, for example, Marion Williams's 1992 recording of "Amazing Grace,"

The genre continues to make an impact on the popular music today. Its influence can be heard in the work of many secular performers, from the folk stylings of Simon and Garfunkel to the soul outpourings of Adele.


  • The African American Civil Rights Movement (Songs of America)
  • African American Song (Songs of America)
  • Blues (Songs of America)
  • Blues as Protest (Songs of America)
  • Now What a Time: Blues, Gospel, and the Fort Valley Music Festivals, 1938-1943.  Consists of approximately one hundred sound recordings, primarily blues and Gospel songs, and related documentation from the folk festival at Fort Valley State College (now Fort Valley State University), Fort Valley, Georgia. The documentation was created by John Wesley Work III in 1941 and by Lewis Jones and Willis Laurence James in March, June, and July 1943. These recording projects were supported by the Library of Congress's Archive of American Folk Song (now the Archive of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center).
  • Darden, Robert. People Get Ready: A New History of Black Gospel Music. Copyright (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004)
  • Hitchcock, H. Wiley and Stanley Sadie. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. (London: Macmillan, 1986) pp 254-261
  • Koskoff, Ellen, Ed. The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Volume 3: The United States and Canada. (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 2001) pp 629-636
  • Songs Related to the Abolition of Slavery (Songs of America)
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Shape Note Singing


Recordings from Library of Congress collections.

  • excerpt from “Speeches about The Sacred Harp

    Paine Denson speaks at the Sacred Harp Singing Convention held at the courthouse in Birmingham, Alabama in 1942.

  • I love Thy Kingdom, Lord

    A hymn composed by Timothy Dwight (1752-1817) who was a Congregationalist minister. It is sung here as a shape-note hymn by an African American group, the Sacred Harp Singers of Ozark, Alabama. Field Recording by John Wesly Work, III.

  • Wondrous Love

    Performed by the Stanford University Choir, California, 1939. This is among the most well-known hymns in the shape-note singing tradition, first published in 1835 in Southern Harmony, then in The Sacred Harp in 1844. Field recording by Sidney Robertson Cowell.

Nineteenth century American song books that used notes in different shapes to aid singers and teach singing came to be known as "shape-note hymnals" and the style of singing from these “shape-note singing.” Christian hymnals using this system were among the most enduring uses of this notation. Among the most popular was The Sacred Harp by B. F. White, first published in Georgia in 1844. As a result of this popularity, the style of singing is also sometimes called “sacred harp.”

Congregations divided up the soprano, alto, tenor, and bass singers in groups forming a square with the conductor at the center. This is called the "hollow square." This was another means of assisting the singers, so that they could stay on pitch by singing with the people in their quarter of the square.

The style of singing from shape-note hymnals was related to seventeenth century styles of singing hymns and psalms, but took on its own character in the nineteenth century. For an example, here is the Stanford University Choir singing "Evening Shade," in 1939. As singers begin to sing, they often first sing the notes, "fa, sol, la, mi," to learn or practice the tune, as in this example, "Jubilee," performed by the Sacred Harp Singers in 1938. Shape-note singing originated in New England, but became extremely popular in the South. Singing was a community and social event as well as a religious gathering. Various church choirs often came together formally or informally to sing outside of church services. While the use of this system of learning and singing hymns declined in the early to mid- twentieth century, there were some communities where it remained strong, and it has enjoyed a revival today, especially in the South.

Original Sacred Harp

Detail from Original sacred harp (Denson revision) / Benjamin Franklin White [hymnal]. Haleyville: Sacred Harp Pub. Co., 1936. This page from the 1936 revised version of B. F. White's Sacred Harp shows the shaped notes used to aid singers. More than a system for writing hymns for choirs, shape-note singing became a style of singing, not only for church services, but also for social events that brought singers together.

Communities that sang from various shape-note hymnals were "rediscovered" by folklorists in the 1930s, including Alan Lomax and George Pullen Jackson, and were recorded in performances at shape-note or Sacred Harp singing conventions and meetings. The American Folklife Center holds more than twenty-five collections that include traditional performances of shape-note hymns collected as early as 1938 by Fisk University professor John W. Work, III in Ozark, Alabama of African Americans singing shape-note repertoire. Six of these examples of African American sacred harp songs are available in this presentation, such as "Glory Shone Around," performed by The Sacred Harp Singers recorded in 1938.

The Colored Sacred Harp, by J. Jackson of Ozark, Alabama was published in 1933, and was one of many hymnals that use the four shape notation, fa sol la mi. These recordings and reprint editions of early hymnals have led to a revival in popularity of shape-note singing among contemporary urban singers across the United States, while the tradition has continued more or less unbroken in the South.


  • Bealle, John, 1997. Public Worship, Private Faith: Sacred Harp and American Folksong. University of Georgia Press.
  • Steel, David Warren, 2010. The Makers of The Sacred Harp. University of Illinois Press.
  • "The Makers of The Sacred Harp." Lecture by David Warren Steel presented at the Library of Congress, October 2010 (webcast).
  • Walker, William, 1835. The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion. A reprint of this shape-note hymnal by The University Press of Kentucky was published in 1993.
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