During slavery, African-American religions featured a unique and independent gospel music tradition, incorporating Christian lyrics and African music. Black gospel music, also referred to as spirituals, jubilees, and anthems, was banned by most slave owners. The distinct sound of gospel music, heavily influenced by African styles and emphasizing dominant vocals, is still evident in 20th-century Baptist and Methodist denominations.
Music’s ability to be reflective of the society and period in which it is created has long been noted. Though largely religious, the music coming out of the Black churches in North America was no exception. The racism, segregation, and resulting oppression experienced by the Black community began to be expressed explicitly in the lyrics. Interestingly, the gospel songs also held and conveyed secret messages. For example, the song Swing Low, Sweet Chariot referred to the Underground Railroad, a network of secret passageways and safe houses used by abolitionists to help slaves escape.
The African roots of Black gospel music are unmistakable. For example, the “shouts,” based on African tribal dances, involved a singing style called a “moan” in which the singer would hum the tune and improvise musical variations, often while clapping and dancing. The call-and-response chants, common in African tribal music, became popular. A song leader or choir would sing one-line verses, while the congregation responded with the chorus. Only after the Civil War were these gospel songs written down.
By the early 20th century, other styles started to influence gospel music. Blues and jazz music, both of which had derived from early gospel music, returned to influence it by incorporating more syncopation into the music. There was a split in the gospel style. The music in the Methodist and Baptist churches became more sedate and reflected increasing European influences. Churches associated with the Holiness Movement tended to retain the raucous spirit of their gospel roots.
Gospel music remains popular today. While gospel music filled with religious overtones is still present in the church, there is also performance gospel music sung by soloists and quartets. This type of gospel music tends to feature lyrics that are more secular. In Edmonton, the Black Pioneer Heritage Singers, a performance gospel choir, is dedicated to preserving the gospel music that existed in the Black churches of Alberta in the early 20th century. Contemporary gospel music is highlighted by the use of Hammond organs, pianos, drums, and bass guitars.
Coming together to preserve the powerful Gospel Sound that Alberta's orginal Black settlers brought from the Deep South over 100 years ago are The Black Pioneers Heritage Singers. Led by Junetta Jamerson, most members of the group are actual descendents of these early settlers. They deliver a spirit filled sound that is universal in its appeal yet seldom heard outside of the Southern United States. When it comes to authentic home-grown soul, the Heritage Singers deliver like no other.