Gospel music may refer either to the religious music that first came out of African-American churches in the 1930’s or, more loosely, to both black gospel music and to the religious music composed and sung by white southern Christian artists. While the separation between the two styles was never absolute — both drew from the Methodist hymnal and artists in one tradition sometimes sang songs belonging to the other — the sharp division between black and white America, particularly black and white churches, kept the two apart. While those divisions have lessened slightly in the past fifty years, the two traditions are still distinct.
In both traditions, some performers, such as Mahalia Jackson have limited themselves to appearing in religious contexts only, while others, such as the Golden Gate Quartet and Clara Ward, have performed gospel music in secular settings, even night clubs. Many performers, such as the Jordanaires, Al Green, and Solomon Burke have performed both secular and religious music. It is common for such performers to include gospel songs in otherwise secular performances, although the opposite almost never happens.
Although predominantly an American phenomenon Gospel music has spread throughout the world including to Australia with choirs such as The Elementals and Jonah & The Whalers and festivals such as the Australian Gospel Music Festival. Norway is home to the popular Oslo Gospel Choir.
Origins (1920s – 1940s)
What most people would identify today as ” — African-American religious music based on large church choirs, featuring virtuoso soloists —” began very differently eighty years ago. The gospel music that Thomas A. Dorsey, Sallie Martin, Dr. Mattie Moss Clark, Willie Mae Ford Smith and other pioneers popularized had its roots in the more freewheeling forms of religious devotion of “Sanctified” or “Holiness” churches — sometimes called “holy rollers” by other denominations — who encouraged individual church members to “testify,” speaking or singing spontaneously about their faith and experience of the Holy Ghost and Getting Happy, sometimes while dancing in celebration.
In the 1920s Sanctified artists, such as Arizona Dranes, many of whom were also traveling preachers, started making records in a style that melded traditional religious themes with barrelhouse, blues and boogie woogie techniques and brought jazz instruments, such as drums and horns, into the church. It is also important to note that gospel music is not just a form of music. It is an intricate part of the religious experience for many church-goers.