Essays – Secularisation & The Evolution of 20th Century Popular Music

Secularisation & The Evolution of 20th Century Popular Music

by Redmond Smith

Ephesians (Paul: 5-19): “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.”

From “The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Ephesians”, the tenth book of The New Testament; frequently referenced in any conversation regarding music of a Christian nature, this passage appears to be the source of the term “spiritual”. Due to inconsistencies throughout The Bible, the difference between a “spiritual”, now a distinctly American term which at that time would generally have been referred to as an “ode”, and a “hymn” is muddy at best.

Aniol (2019) observes that notably, ‘all three Greek terms are used interchangeably in the titles of psalms in the Greek translation of the OT (LXX). Furthermore, the terms are used interchangeably even within the rest of the NT. For example, while Paul typically uses the term “psalm” to refer to OT psalms, in several places he uses the term to refer to Christian hymns (1 Cor 14:26, Jas 5:13). Likewise, the reference to a “hymn” in Matthew 26:30 and Mark 14:26 was most likely a psalm, and John calls the “new” songs of Revelation 5 and 15 “odes”’.

Antonín Dvořák, a Czech composer who served as the Director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York between 1892 and 1895, was introduced by one of his students, composer Harry Burleigh, to African American spirituals. We can find an interesting perspective on the origins of this music in an article he wrote which ponders the potential development of a uniquely American sound.

While discussing the melodies that he’d heard throughout the country, Dvořák stated that ‘the most potent as well as the most beautiful among them, according to my estimation, are certain of the so-called plantation melodies and slave songs, all of which are distinguished by unusual and subtle harmonies, the like of which I have found in no other songs but those of old Scotland and Ireland. The point has been urged that many of these touching songs, like those of Foster, have not been composed by the Negroes themselves, but are the work of white men, while others did not originate on the plantations, but were imported from Africa. It seems to me that this matters but little. One might as well condemn the Hungarian Rhapsody because Liszt could not speak Hungarian. The important thing is that the inspiration for such music should come from the right source, and that the music itself should be a true expression of the people’s real feelings’.

This passage suggests that the American “spirituals” were born out of a melding of the African rhythms and melodies brought by evangelized slaves, with the folk songs of Scottish and Irish immigrants. A quote from The Library of Congress seems to suggest that the term “spiritual” is essentially used to describe hymns sung by African American slaves specifically; ‘A spiritual is a type of religious folksong that is most closely associated with the enslavement of African people in the American South. The songs proliferated in the last few decades of the eighteenth century leading up to the abolishment of legalized slavery in the 1860s. The African American spiritual (also called the Negro Spiritual) constitutes one of the largest and most significant forms of American folksong’.

This follows a long history of Christian groups breaking away from the rather rigid demands of traditional Orthodox churches, where the only songs sung would be those from The Book of Psalms, to create new songs of worship that resonated more personally with them.

As noted by the editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, ‘In the West, St. Hilary of Poitiers composed a book of hymn texts around 360AD. Not much later St. Ambrose of Milan instituted the congregational singing of psalms and hymns, partly as a counter to the hymns of the Arians, who were in doctrinal conflict with orthodox Christianity. In poetic form (iambic octosyllables in four-line stanzas), those early hymns—apparently sung to simple, possibly folk melodies—were derived from Christian Latin poetry of the period’.

Randye Jones (2007, p. 3) notes that after the abolishment of slavery in the US in 1865, most former slaves distanced themselves from the spiritual songs of their ancestors, regarding them as the soundtrack to their captivity. However, sometime during the 1870’s a group of black students from the newly founded Fisk University of Nashville, Tennessee began touring the country as The Fisk Jubilee Singers, performing old spiritual songs to raise money for their school, which had been struggling financially. They went on to tour across Europe and even performed in front of Royalty. So popular was this fresh new music that collections of “plantation songs” were published in order to meet public demand. This group was possibly the first to prove without any doubt that their music not only provided spiritual sustenance, but also considerable commercial viability. However, it would be another eighty years before gospel came back to Europe.

The evolution of gospel music, another term loosely distinguished from spirituals, is difficult to accurately track due to the lack of records. In a video published by Lincoln Centre’s Jazz Academy (2018), pianist Eric Reed explains that gospel music evolved from spirituals in the black churches of the south US during the late 19th century. It is distinguished by its simplified melodies, leaving more space for improvisation, less traditional/more relatable vernacular, extended chords on top of triads, and swung rhythms in free time, resulting in a more joyous energy.

Although the phrase “gospel” had become frequently used in some southern churches to describe contemporary spiritual music, it wasn’t until 1921 that it was put into formal use and widely adopted by the population. Walker (2019) explains how the National Baptist Convention, then a forty-year-old organization, decided to publish a hymn book that would better suit the tastes of modern black Americans. ‘Embracing the change that was occurring in Black music and Black life since the turn of the century, the Sunday School Publishing Board of the National Baptist Convention U.S.A. decided to publish a hymnal containing spirituals, hymns and examples of the newer music being created for churches by composers like Charles Albert Tindley. The name of the book was “Gospel Pearls”. With sections entitled “Worship and Devotion,” “Revivals” and “Spirituals” it sought to address “an urgent demand for real inspiring and adaptable music in all of our Sunday Schools, Churches, Conventions, and other religious gatherings.” Because of its success across denominations, people begin to refer to the new music as “Gospels,” “Gospel Hymns” and “Gospel Music”’.

Although many song books featuring hymns aimed at black churches had been published in the one-hundred-or-so years prior to its release, Gospel Pearls was the first to use the word “gospel”, meaning “the good news”, as a name for the music. As noted by Malone (2010), Gospel Pearls ‘was created under the direction of Willa Townsend and contained 164 songs, including works by white gospellers like Sankey, Bradbury, Bliss, Crosby and Rodeheaver, but also works by black writers like Charles Tindley, Lucie Campbell, and, notably, Thomas A. Dorsey… Tindley is recognized as one of the founding fathers of American gospel music, but it was Dorsey who would have the biggest impact on this musical form. Songs written in Dorsey’s musical style were called “dorseys” and were a combination of Christian praise and rhythm and blues and jazz music stylings’.

Thomas A. Dorsey

It makes sense that Dorsey’s songs would have been particularly exciting for people at the time; he was twenty-two years old when Gospel Pearls was published, far younger than most of the other composers whose works were featured. Having been born around thirty miles west of Atlanta in Villa Rica, Georgia in 1899, Dorsey grew up learning to play Blues and Jazz music on the piano. In 1916, at the age of seventeen, Dorsey moved to Chicago to study at the College of Composition and Arranging. It was here that he was inspired to dedicate his life to the gospel.

Walton (2009, p. 34) explains how Dorsey reacted to his first experience of a sermon delivered by the Reverend A. W. Nix. This Sunday morning would dramatically alter the trajectory of gospel music, and indirectly that of all popular music across the globe. ‘Thomas Dorsey, the legendary “father of gospel music”, credited Nix’s embellished rendition of “I Do, Don’t You?” with spurring his own spiritual conversion at the National Baptist Convention in Chicago in 1921. Recalling it, Dorsey later stated that “my heart was inspired to become a great singer and worker in the Kingdom of the Lord – and impress people just as this great singer [Nix] did that Sunday morning”’.

Dorsey would go on to compose his first gospel song, “If I don’t get there”, that same year. This was the only “Dorsey” included in Gospel Pearls. He still performed blues, jazz and hokum music until 1930, when he decided to dedicate himself completely to the gospel. It was in 1932, after his wife Nettie died in childbirth and his newborn son a day later, that he wrote “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”, possibly the most well-known gospel song to this day, and certainly among the most recorded.

Although Dorsey possessed an undeniable talent for song writing and a relentless determination to spread the gospel, his business savvy was less impressive. When Sallie Martin, a singer from Georgia, met Dorsey at a choir audition in Chicago in 1929, she was immediately taken with his style, and endeavoured to help him spread his blues infused gospel. Although Dorsey was unimpressed by Martin’s voice, she proved herself to be a charismatic and powerful stage presence in services they performed around Chicago, and in 1932, after Nettie’s death, they began touring across the country together. Harris (1994, p.257) quotes Dorsey as saying: ‘We met singers and contacted ministers to offer our programmes all over the country. We were favourites in New York, Washington, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia… and many other cities where folk were hungry for gospel singing’. Dorsey is also quoted as saying, ‘Sallie can’t sing a lick, but she can get over anywhere in the world’.

Mahalia Jackson

In 1929 Dorsey met a young Mahalia Jackson, who had recently moved to Chicago from her home city of New Orleans, Louisiana. Dorsey was immediately impressed upon hearing her sing and took the role of her mentor for the next nine years. When Martin, who was sixteen years Jackson’s senior, left Dorsey to establish her own publishing company in the late 1930’s, he chose Mahalia to replace her on his tours. Jackson soon became a well renowned soloist in gospel circles; Malone and Wilson (2009, p. 255) explain that in 1937, through the connections of Dorsey, she signed a recording contract with Decca Records, becoming the first gospel singer on their roster. She recorded four tracks with Decca, all of which sold poorly, and she was soon released from the label.

She continued touring with Dorsey until 1946, when she decided to take another recording opportunity with Apollo Records in New York. She recorded numerous tracks during her eight year stay with the label, but it was the 1947 release of “Move on up a Little Higher” that made her an overnight sensation. The initial release sold over two million copies, propelling gospel music into the mainstream charts. Brown (2007, p. 66) wrote that ‘after a rousing performance at the National Baptist Convention in 1950, her Apollo recording of “I Can Put My Trust In Jesus” would win her a prominent French award and lead to a European tour. In 1952, she would become the first gospel artist to sing in Europe since the Fisk Jubilee Singers eighty years earlier. When she returned to America, her career would never be the same’.

Jackson’s conviction and dedication to the gospel was likely a contributing factor in her rise to legendary status; she never recorded a secular song or sang in a theatre, and since the late 1940’s has been widely regarded as “the Queen of gospel music”. In 1954 she signed with Columbia Records, and that same year signed a deal with CBS Radio to host her own 20-episode radio programme, “The Mahalia Jackson Show”, which was broadcasted across Chicago, and of course played strictly Christian music.

Around the same time as Jackson’s rise to stardom, another, slightly less spiritually devoted, gospel singer was making her voice heard on the mainstream charts too. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was born in Arkansas in 1915 and raised in The Church of God in Christ, for whom her mother was a travelling preacher. By the age of six Tharpe, who would use her mother’s maiden name until her first marriage at nineteen years old, was performing alongside her mother in churches across the south, and according to Malone and Wilson (2009, p. 368) was billed as ‘Little Rosetta Nubin, the pint-sized singing and guitar playing miracle’.

In the mid 1920’s Tharpe and her mother settled in Chicago, where they continued working for The Church of God in Christ and performing gospel and old spiritual songs at other churches around the country. Now living in the centre of America’s, and by the extension the world’s, great modern music melting pot, Tharpe was exposed to the sounds of Delta blues and New Orleans jazz; thus began her interest in what many would consider a more “secular” style of playing. In 1938, at the age of twenty-three, Tharpe, who was now a well-renowned name in black churches around the US, left her first husband and moved with her mother to New York City, where she signed a recording deal with Decca Records.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Tharpe, unlike Jackson, Dorsey, and the majority of her church-going contemporaries, had no reservations in playing at the plethora of nightclubs New York had to offer, and was soon being pursued by some of the biggest big bands of the day. As observed in her 2011 BBC biographical documentary (Claudia Assef, 2017), ‘She was offered a spot at the prestigious Cotton Club, singing to an upmarket white audience. But the songs she was given by the men in charge made no mention of God; just pleasing her man’. Roxie Moore, a friend of Tharpe’s featured in the documentary, says ‘Oh, she was criticised and ostracized, I mean the church people just… thought that she had just gone way off’.

In 1939 Tharpe released her debut LP on Decca Records. Entitled The Lonesome Road, it featured accompaniment from Lucky Millinder’s jazz orchestra. Welky and Keckhaver (2013, p. 203) note that her versions of Dorsey’s “This Train” and “Hide Me in Thy Bosom”, re-named “Rock Me”, were smash hits. The former may have been particularly insulting to many of her Christian fanbase, as what had originally been a thankful ode to God, Tharpe had seemingly turned into an ode to her husband. Any mention of the Lord, Jesus or the holy spirit was omitted, and the line “rock me in the cradle of thy love” was changed to “rock me in the cradle of our love”, a subtle yet radical departure from the intent of Dorsey’s hymn. Writer Anthony Heilbut, interviewed for Tharpe’s 2011 BBC bio-documentary, recalled that ‘when she came to the chorus, when she sang “rock me”, and growled “rock”, it sounded to many people like… an invitation. And not to the alter’.

Despite the heated controversy of her early recording career, Tharpe would eventually win back the favour of her Christian fanbase when she returned to her gospel roots, releasing albums such as “Gospel Songs”, “Blessed Assurance” and “Spirituals in Rhythm”. Her immeasurable influence upon the most popular artists of the 20th century has been vital to the development of “western” pop music.

In the same 2011 bio-documentary, Gordon Stoker from The Jordanaires, a quartet who had provided backing vocals for both Tharpe and Presley years later, recalled that, ‘She did incredible picking. That’s what really attracted Elvis was her picking, and he liked her singing too, but he liked that picking first because it was so different’. George Klein, DJ and friend of Presley’s, said in his interview, ‘The thing that gospel/spiritual music brought to popular music was feeling. Gospel/spiritual music put the guts, and the feeling, and the real soul into it… people like Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and those guys, Buddy Holly if you will, they saw that, and they adapted to that, and that really was the essence of Rock’n’Roll’. During his 1992 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech (Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, 2012), Johnny Cash said the following about Tharpe’s influence on him, ‘It was at the home of the blues record shop where I bought my first recording of Sister Rosetta Tharpe singing those great gospel songs; I can still see Sister Rosetta playing that stellar guitar… some of the earlier songs that I wrote were influenced by people like Sister Rosetta Tharpe…’.

In 1957, during Britain’s jazz and blues boom of the 50’s and early 60’s, Chris Barber invited Tharpe to join his jazz band on a nationwide tour. She accepted the offer; her now dated music had been losing favour in America, where younger, more outrageous acts such as Presley and Little Richard were now thriving. But British audiences, who’d been desperate to see an authentic, real-deal black gospel singer, were thrilled by her. She returned in 1963 with Muddy Waters and others to tour the country again, and in 1964 played the fabled show at Wilbraham Road Train Station in Manchester. [Check out Article: Blues & Gospel Train]

Salford University’s Dr Chris Lee (Long, 2014) said in a BBC interview, ‘what many people don’t know is that a minibus came from London to that show and in it were Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Keith Richards and Brian Jones. They came all that way just to watch the concert’. Johnnie Hamp, then the producer at Granada TV (the company who broadcasted the show), spoke about musicians who’d personally told him about how it influenced them, ‘Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones… the list goes on. You have to remember that Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy, Sister Rosetta – they were icons to us’. These authentic blues and gospel tours of the 50’s and 60’s were certainly the stimulus for the blues-rock craze that swept over Britain in the mid-late 60’s.

Rock’n’roll, r&b, soul, funk, hip-hop, metal; almost any form of western pop music can trace its roots back to the brave and progressive artists who forged a new music from within the walls of black churches, and from their ancestors who risked their lives to praise the Lord in the manner they felt was right, in covert bush meetings held on plantations across the southern USA.


© Copyright 2020 Redmond Smith



Paul: 5-19, Holy Bible. New International Edition.

Aniol, S. (2019) What are Psalms, Hymns, & Spiritual Songs in The Bible?. Available at: (Accessed: 8th May 2020)

Dvořák, A. (1895) ‘Music in America’, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 90, pp. 429-434. Available at: (Accessed: 8th May 2020)

Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica (2019) Hymn. Available at: (Accessed: 8th May 2020)

Library of Congress (no date) African American Spirituals. Available at: (Accessed: 8th May 2020)

Jones, R. (2007) The Gospel Truth About the Negro Spiritual. Available at: (Accessed 8th May 2020)

Jazz at Lincoln Centre’s Jazz Academy (2018) The Roots of Gospel Music, Part 1. Available at: (Accessed: 8th May 2020)

Walker, D, E. (2019) Timeline: The Roots and Growth of Gospel Music in Los Angeles. Available at: (Accessed 16th May 2020)

Malone, D. (2010) Gospel Pearls. Available at: (Accessed: 17th May 2020)

Walton, J. L. (2009) Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism. New York University Press.

Harris, M. W. (1994) The Rise of Gospel Blues: The Music of Thomas Andrew Dorsey in the Urban Church. Oxford University Press.

Malone, B. C. and Wilson, C. R. (2009) The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 12: Music. University of North Carolina Press.

Brown, M. M. (2007) The Evolution of Gospel Music. Lulu Press.

Claudia Assef (2017) The Godmother of Rock’n’Roll – Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Available at: (Accessed: 20th May 2020)

Welky, A. and Keckhaver, M. (2013) Encyclopedia of Arkansas Music. University of Arkansas Press.

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (2012) Lyle Lovett Inducts Johnny Cash into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Available at: (Accessed: 20th May 2020)

Long, C (2014) Muddy Waters and Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s ‘mind-blowing’ station show. Available at: (Accessed: 20th May 2020)


Redmond Smith Biography

Ever since I first saw John Lee Hooker play Boom Boom in The Blues Brothers at around 8 years old I remember having a fascination in blues music. Growing up around Surrey and South-West London I often heard stories of local heroes such as Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton; at 11 my parents bought me my first guitar, and so began what I have since learnt is a never-ending quest. After leaving school I got my BTEC diploma in music from Richmond College, and am now scraping through my 2nd year on a BA course in Professional Musicianship at BIMM London.

12th June 2020


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