The Origins of Gospel Music by Robert Marovich’s new Book


The Origins of Gospel Music by Robert Marovich’s new Book

Robert Marovich’s latest book traces gospel music’s origins and honors those who devoted themselves to the gospel by showing how various, and how important, that devotion has been.

Today gospel performers, like Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples, are widely respected not only for their music, but for their association with the civil rights movement and the black liberation struggle. Jackson is even thought to have prodded Martin Luther King, Jr. to launch into his “I Have a Dream” speech. But gospel’s status, and respectability, was not always so secure. In fact, according to Robert M. Marovich’s new study of Chicago gospel, A City Called Heaven, there was a time when gospel was seen as decidedly unrespectable — as a scandal and a disgrace.

In 1920s Chicago, Marovich explains, religious worship was centered in mainline Protestant churches, and the music was decidedly refined. “The community’s preoccupation with classical music training and performance was prompted by not only middleclass upward mobility,” Marovich writes, “but also the expectation that the world would at last recognize that blacks could write, perform, and appreciate classical music.” The inrush of Southern migrants, with a more demonstrative form of worship linked to blues, jazz, and to West African traditions, was greeted with uncertainty. Marovich quotes one Cleveland resident declaring that God “doesn’t want us to be jazz band pilots or jazz babies and be filled with the devil’s spirits. He wants us to be clean and holy and be filled with the Holy ghost.”

The skeptics were eventually won over, of course, and gospel greats like writer Thomas Dorsey and singer and performer Roberta Martin became revered mainstays of Chicago’s African-American religious and musical life. But at the same time, the concern with a certain kind of cleanliness and respectability persisted. Mahalia Jackson, for example, had a number of offers to perform as a vocalist with jazz greats like Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines, but she refused, on the grounds that to sing secular music would be an abandonment of her calling….

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