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Gospel music is deeply rooted in the rich traditions of the African-American church. During the late 1800s, African-American churches in the southern United States started fusing various styles of music into their worship services, including African-American spirituals, hymns, and sacred songs. Such music was primarily sung at church and accompanied by hand-clapping and foot-stomping.
At the heart of the gospel music tradition was the use of a choir. The church choir consisted of a group of volunteer singers from the church congregation. Choir members could easily be distinguished from the rest of the congregation because they normally dressed in uniforms, which were choir robes. This might be something you remember from various films like The Blues Brothers, Sister Act 2, or Norbit. The types of music sung by the gospel choir followed the call-and-response format similar to that used in traditional hymns and sacred songs.
The traditional structure of gospel music changed in the late 1930s when Thomas A. Dorsey, who became known as the ‘Father of Gospel Music,’ began working for Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago, Illinois. Dorsey was a former jazz pianist and composer who had worked with famous players such as Ma Rainey and Hudson Tamp Red Whitaker. Dorsey created a new style of gospel music called gospel blues, which infused his study of blues and jazz with traditional gospel music. It was initially rejected; however, by the end of the 1930s, gospel blues won over acceptance as the new form of traditional gospel.
Gospel music continued to evolve throughout the late 1930s. There are four distinct styles of gospel music including, but not limited to, quartet style, traditional gospel, contemporary gospel, and praise and worship.
The gospel quartet style is one in which a small number of male vocalists sing music together with tight harmonies. The major difference between traditional and contemporary gospel styles is that while traditional gospel usually features a more basic sound suited for singing by a choir, contemporary gospel places more emphasis on solo artists. Most contemporary artists rarely sing with a choir. Praise and worship is a combination of both contemporary and traditional gospel styles, in that a praise leader has a small group of singers to help lead the congregation into singing gospel music.