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The roots and golden age of black gospel music

By Jon Sievert

Music has been an integral part of the services of almost every denomination and culture since the birth of religion and the human voice. The earliest music in the Christian Church came from Jewish worship music, which combined elements of singing and speaking. The Old Testament mentions many musical instruments and the musical settings of prayers and hymns of praise.

Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Presentation
The Roots and Golden Age of Black Gospel Music
Sun, May 18, 10:30am
Hotel Posada la Aldea
Ancha de San Antonio 15

Over centuries, religious music has shaped and molded the customs and cultures in which it exists. One of the most powerful forces on U.S. culture over the past two centuries has been black gospel music grounded in the spirituals of enslaved Africans. At this week’s Unitarian Universalist Fellowship service, Jon Sievert will trace the history of this music and its key musicians from its beginnings through its golden age in the mid-1950’s using recorded examples. The Fellowship meets Sundays at 10:30am at Hotel Posada la Aldea at Ancha de San Antonio 15. Attendance is free.

Black gospel music as we know it today developed in the early 20th century with its roots in the blues and the more freewheeling forms of “sanctified” churches that encouraged members to “testify” about their faith by singing, speaking and dancing spontaneously. Some of the earliest recorded examples include sanctified artists such as Arizona Dranes and Blind Willie Johnson, who melded traditional religious themes with blues and barrelhouse techniques to great effect.

The 1930’s brought Thomas A. Dorsey, the “father of gospel music,” a successful blues artist who turned his skills to writing upbeat, blues-influenced religious songs after he had a profound religious experience. He wrote more than 300 gospel songs, including “Peace in the Valley” and “Precious Lord Take My Hand,” and organized and introduced the widespread practice of gospel choirs. He also introduced a young contralto named Mahalia Jackson to the world. That decade also brought us Sister Rosetta Tharpe, gospel music’s first superstar, a powerful singer and great guitar player who introduced the music to middle-class white audiences.

Post-war America brought explosive growth to this music and ushered in the golden age of gospel. Hundreds of great performers emerged in this era, including the Golden Gate Quartet, Clara Ward, the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Swan Silvertones, the Staple Singers, Alberta Walker and the Soul Stirrers, featuring a young Sam Cooke who went on to a successful secular recording career. Their music left an enduring impact on the development of American music and culture, as we know it today.

Jon Sievert was the staff photographer and a writer and editor for Guitar Player, Keyboard, and Frets magazines. He photographed and interviewed some of the greatest musicians of our time in all musical idioms. His images have appeared on more than 100 magazine covers, several hundred album/CD covers, in film and television productions, and in hundreds of books and publications worldwide.

The mission of UUFSMA invites people of all ages and stages of life to visit, join, provide special music to or present. For more information, contact President Arlene Van Note at


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