Characteristics of Black Church Music

A new religious tradition emerged when slaves were brought to America, which blended elements of indigenous West African worship with the Protestant worship traditions of Euro-American whites.  Along with this new form of worship came a new form of music.  This African-American church music expresses both the deeply religious feelings of a passionate people and the profound pain and suffering of a people ravaged by years of enslavement.

As we explore some of the unique characteristics of Black church music, it is important to acknowledge that “Black music” is not a monolithic, homogenous entity: instead, it is made up of countless independent styles and traditions.  That said, many of these musical traditions share common cultural influences, and as such share some general stylistic qualities that are worthy of study and analysis.  It is in this spirit that we discuss the rich musical landscape of Black church music.

Rev. Haynes’s Methodist Church, Eatonville, Florida

Perhaps one of the most notable characteristics of African-American religious music is its vociferous, improvisatory quality.  This quality can be observed in the recording below; here, the Reverend Henry Ward leads a prayer in a chant style, similar to the way a white congregation might intone a psalm.  At the :54 second mark, however, a woman from the congregation chimes in with a response, weaving a florid melisma above the preacher’s chant.  Other voices join in, either adding to the melismatic accompaniment or offering a shouted “Amen!”  Later on, the florid melismas give way to a simple, passionate humming.  The resulting heterophony is both deeply moving and, presumably, entirely improvised.

These musical outbursts are no mere embellishments, but rather are integral parts of the worship experience.  In Shane White’s book, The Sounds of Slavery, he quotes Elizabeth Ross Hite, a former slave, who claims that “you gotta shout and you gotta moan if you wants to be saved” (102).  Indeed, the melismas, hums, and interjected “amens” are just as holy and full of meaning as the Reverend’s chant which they are decorating.

Another hallmark of African-American sacred music is its focus on Old Testament texts, to the near exclusion of the New Testament.  Slaves identified closely with the narrative of Exodus, seeing reflections of themselves in the enslaved Israelites.  Because of their constant yearning to escape captivity, many African-American spirituals use Old Testament language to describe themes of liberation and freedom.

Having examined just a couple of the many unique features of African-American church music, we can begin to understand how fascinating and complex this tradition is.  The collision of Indigenous African worship traditions with white Protestantism, when filtered through the horrors of American chattel slavery, produced a rich and multifaceted musical tradition which can still be observed in Black churches throughout America today.

 

Sources

Lomax, Alan, photographer. Rev. Haynes’s methodist church, Eatonville, Florida. June. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Murphy, Joseph M. Working the Spirit: Ceremonies of the African Diaspora. Boston, MA, Beacon Press, 2003.

Ward, Henry Rev., et al. Prayer. Livingston, Alabama, 1939. Audio. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

White, Shane and Graham J White. The Sounds of Slavery: Discovering African American History through Songs, Sermons, and Speech. Boston, Beacon Press, 2005.

A Time for Singing; Take-home Hymns for the Church Year

Today, the majority of congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America use the most recent book of worship, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, published by Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis in 2006.  Before that time, congregations mostly used the 1978 Lutheran Book of Worship.  20 years prior to the release of LBW, the red Service Book and Hymnal was printed.

In the year 1971, Dale Warland, most famously known for having conducted the Dale Warland Singers in St. Paul until 2004, and Paul Manz, well-known organist in the Minneapolis area, recruited a chamber choir, and small brass ensemble to record 62 hymns representing the entirety of the church year.  Recorded by Lutheran Records, it was distributed by Augsburg Publishing House in Minneapolis.

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As the subtitle suggests, this record was meant for families to play in their own homes as a way of learning hymns and worshipping at home.  Between each track is a 10-second band of silence so as to find each track easily.

The back of the record sleeve indexes the hymns used to outline the church year.  Next to each hymn, there are two numbers.  One represents the page number where the hymn can be found in Augsburg’s The Hymn-of-the-Week Songbook.  The second number, preceded by “SBH” represents the hymn number of its occurrence in the 1958 Service Book and Hymnal.  The inclusion of these referential numbers makes these records an accessible teaching tool.  Those families that want to teach their children about classic hymns, or those that want to worship in their own home, are able to locate each hymn with ease, both on the record, and in their songbook or book of worship.

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Within the record sleeve are paragraphs explaining each of the seasons and high feasts of the church year.  These paragraphs give the listeners and worshippers a little context of how each hymn fits in with the corresponding season or feast.

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I think this is a very fun and effective way of introducing hymns to homes.  Unlike many CDs today, this record is very interactive.  Given the size of these LPs, there is plenty of jacket space to provide very useful and pertinent information.  What makes it more musically appealing is the fact that the musicians are not your average church musicians or church choir.  Paul Manz and Dale Warland have established themselves in the organist and choral worlds as being phenomenal musicians.  There is no information about who the singers are, other than “12 professional singers,” but under the direction of Dale Warland, they are superb.

As a Church Music major, this record makes me want to go out and purchase a turntable and listen to it all the time!