Traditions In Their Art
African-American Gospel Music
Singing gospel to tell about God
People sing for lots of reasons. Sometimes people sing because they’re happy, and sometimes because they’re sad or worried. Sometimes people sing because they want to honor a particular person or tell the story of an event. The Queens of Harmony sing gospel songs for all those reasons and more.
Gospel music uses the idea that music can be a kind of prayer, and that singing is a great way to tell people about God. The word “gospel” comes from the word “good” or “god” mixed with the word “spell” or “tell.” Together, they make “gospel”—a telling about God.
The lyrics in gospel songs tell about Christian ideas and beliefs, like how the singer wants to get to heaven or how God helped a person. The singing in gospel music is filled with emotions, and the singers really tell their feelings about their religion.
Ella explained that the Queens of Harmony have to feel the music in order to really sing the song. “You gotta have the soul. You have to have the want. You got to have the soul to do it because singing the way we sing, it’s gotta be felt. You have to feel it. You can’t just do it.”
Everyone who sings gospel music sings it because they love the music. Another reason is because gospel singers feel so strongly about their beliefs that they want to share them with other people. Singing gospel is a fun and powerful way to do that.
Where did gospel come from?
Singers and musicians are creative people who like to try new ideas. That’s how gospel music started. Singers and musicians borrowed from lots of different types of African, African-American, European and American music, like field hollers, lining out, spirituals, jubilee songs, and the blues. The result was gospel music.
Former slaves began to leave the south after the Civil War. They moved to northern cities over the next 100 years, just a few at first and then more and more. These African Americans grew up in the south singing religious music. When they moved north to places like Detroit, Chicago and Milwaukee, they brought that music with them. The new places they were in plus the old styles of music helped them create a new type of religious music—gospel music.
Gospel music got very popular in the 1920s and 1930s. In the 1950s, some gospel choirs started using instruments like electric organ, guitar and drums. By the 1970s, gospel groups used string and brass instruments too. Only a few gospel groups perform today without any instruments, like the Queens.
Gospel singing is a family tradition for the Queens of Harmony. It’s also a tradition that they brought to Milwaukee from the southern United States. Each of the Queens grew up in churches and families that sang a lot of gospel. Jessie came from Arkansas and learned a cappella gospel at her church. Ella came from Mississippi and learned how to sing from her father, who played piano and sang in a jubilee gospel quartet. Dorothy learned to sing “tone” from her Aunt Ivory in Alabama.
Singing to “Keep our heritage up”
The Queens of Harmony sing old gospel songs and new ones too. The oldest songs come from eighteenth century English hymns, especially hymns written by Dr. Isaac Watts. Other old songs are ones that have been passed orally from generation to generation, like “Wade in the Water” or “It’s Me, Oh Lord.”
The Queens could choose to sing only the new gospel songs, but they want to sing the old ones too. They want to keep the African-American gospel tradition alive. Ella explained, “You know, you get away from the old way too far, pretty soon you forget from where you came.”
In Your Community
Would you like to see and hear a live gospel performance? Look in your yellow
pages and see if any local Baptist churches are in your area or ask your
classmates if they attend a church where gospel is sung. If you live in
Milwaukee, you're in luck, because there are many gospel groups that perform
each week. If you live in a town without a local gospel group, check out your
town's music shop. Try looking for recordings of gospel music. See if you can
find some of the songs the Queens sing.
“Once you have your mind and your voice set, you’re gonna follow that road, the one that you’re leading on.”
— Joyce Johnson