Penn State laureate notes music's role in Black History Month

February 18, 2010

By Tony Leach, 2009-10 Penn State Laureate

It's February! Communities across America, schools, colleges, universities, television and radio stations, artistic organizations, lawyers, doctors, economists and politicians are celebrating aspects of African-American culture with emphasis on black history. Under this theme our reflective discussions, moments of inspiration and hope for the future are framed by the contributions of men and women of color whose journey in the Americas began as slaves but whose triumph may now be revealed through those things that African-Americans have contributed to the fabric of American culture. The music of Black America is rich in vocal and instrumental genres beginning with the spirituals, work songs and field yells of a culture that responded to the social, political and economic conditions in which people found themselves.

The music of the black church has been the backbone of our creative expression. The authors, soloists and ultimate reason for this response remain unknown to contemporary society because the music emerged from the oral tradition of African-Americans. We sang, moaned, cried out to God and anyone who would hear us as slaves and free blacks assembled for worship or worked on plantations. Songs such as "O Freedom," "Go Down Moses," "Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round," "Over My Head I Hear Music in the Air" and "I Got A Robe" probably provided a temporary sense of release and relief as blacks sang about that "better day" that would surely come once they were free from bondage.

Music in the black church was and remains a participatory experience that involves the entire body. Singing and dance are the same response for many African Americans even in a worship setting. The "ring shout" tradition emerged during the period of slavery and, though interpreted by some as a frenzied expression, it was a unique and engaging response of African-Americans at a time when they were limited in their daily routine and sought that temporary emotional release through song. In "Lift Every Voice and Sing II," published in 1993, music educator/musicologist Clarence Boyer wrote, "All African American folk sacred singing is accompanied by a rhythmic movement of the body. Not only does such movement provide greater rhythmic accentuation in the singing, but frees the body from tension and other 'weights' that would interfere with worshipping. Clapping hands, patting the feet, swaying, nodding the head, raising the arms upward and shouting ('holy' dancing) are all common activities during traditional worship services. These activities should not be affected but should flow from the body as the singer releases unnecessary inhibitions and becomes more involved in the singing and worship."

Normal musical fare for African-American congregations during the 19th and early 20th centuries included spirituals, hymns, anthems in the European choral tradition and camp meeting songs used during revivals and other outreach events. Two significant events occurred within our culture that literally transformed the rhythm and pulse of a music that had served congregations well since the African Methodist Episcopal Church was organized at the beginning of the 19th century. Ragtime, a musical idiom that emphasized shifting syncopation in its rhythmic intensity, provided a wonderful background for the eventual development of jazz at the beginning of the 20th century. Traditional gospel music, which accompanied worship in the Pentecostal church that had its roots in the revival and camp meeting movements during the turn of the 20th century, blended the repetitive lyric of the spiritual with a new pulse that often involved percussion instruments and vocal improvisation.

The musical framework for black churches was forever changed as the Church of God in Christ made its way into African-American culture in urban settings. Rev. Charles Tindley (1851-1933) made significant contributions to the early development of traditional gospel music through publishing hymns and gospel songs that were a part of the compilation titled "The Gospel Pearls," and survive today in church denominational hymnals such as "The National Baptist Hymnal," "The New National Baptist Hymnal," "The African American Heritage Hymnal" and "Lift Every Voice and Sing II." Songs composed by Tindley such as "Leave It There," "We'll Understand It Better By and By" and "I'll Overcome Someday" have become anchors in the congregational song tradition of many black churches. Tindley Temple United Methodist Church in Philadelphia remains today as a testament to Rev. Tindley's pastoral and musical influence within the black community.

Pennsylvanians who have made more recent contributions in African-American sacred music include the following (in no particular order):

Clara Ward and the Ward Singers, composer and performers
Rev. Rosie Wallace, evangelist, composer and singer
Rev. Gabriel Hardeman, evangelist and composer
Carol Antrom, composer
Clayton White, composer
Verolga Nix, composer
The Philadelphia Chapter of the Gospel Music Workshop of America
The Harrisburg Chapter of the Gospel Music Workshop of America
The Pittsburgh Gospel Choir, affiliate of the River City Brass
Echoes of Glory (Gospel Radio Program based in Harrisburg, Pa.), George Toby Young, host
The Capital Area Music Association, Harrisburg, Pa.
The Gospel Choir, J. P. McKaskey High School, Lancaster, Pa.
The Girard Academy High School Gospel Choir, Philadelphia, Pa.
Patti LaBelle, performing artist
The Savettes, Philadelphia, Pa.
Urbane, Pocono Mountain School District
Donald Dumpson, director of music Bright Hope Baptist Church, Philadelphia, Pa.
Essence of Joy, Penn State

The sacred music of African-Americans has made a vital impact on the musical culture of American society. Whether in churches, community organizations, school communities or in the hands of well-known performing artists, its influence cannot be denied. As February observances in Black History provide opportunities for Americans to remember, celebrate and champion contributions of blacks to our culture, also remember that we have living heroes amongst us who are moving trends forward while keeping the flame alive.

  • Anthony Leach

    IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated November 18, 2010