Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Another Definition...

From some people who ought to know: the folks at the Center for Black Music Research:

“The term ‘gospel music’ refers to African-American Protestant vocal music that celebrates Christian doctrine in emotive, often dramatic ways. Vocal soloists are the best-known exponents of gospel, but vocal and choral groups of widely varying sizes have also helped to define the style. In gospel, simple melodies are heavily ornamented by blue notes, glissandi, and a dramatic use of a wide vocal range; and the form conducts an ongoing dialogue of influence with blues, jazz, pop, rap and folk styles.”

There are a lot of interesting things about this definition, so I’m going to do some thinking out loud about it. A few thoughts in formation:

I’d agree that traditional and modern gospel music are rooted in African-American culture. When you say “gospel music,” most people probably think of black gospel music. I do. But I’m not completely sure I’d limit the definition quite so tightly. Early sacred music (like that in the compilation Goodbye Babylon, for example) was very folksy and its roots are multiracial (if not exactly interracial). Of course, much of that music predates what we know as “gospel music.” Maybe “sacred music” is more accurate. I wonder, too, if it would be more accurate to say “music rooted in or derived/adapted from the African-American Protestant tradition.”

This definition doesn’t seem to leave any room for (predominately white) Southern gospel. And haven't there been controversies when white artists were nominated for "black gospel" awards? This is a foggy memory, but if anyone in the blogosphere remembers what I mean and can point me to some specific examples let me know (Angelo & Veronica come to mind; I can't remember the specifics, but I recall a lot of conversation and discussion generated as a result). My point being, I think this definition raises some interesting questions: Is "Southern gospel" gospel? Can non-black artists sing gospel? And is it the sound or the message that makes gospel music gospel music? Y'all know how to comment, right? . . .

In any case, I’m wondering what presuppositions guide this definition. I'm wondering, too, if it comes from a primarily anthropological, sociological, historical or commercial perspective.

I also had some thoughts about the “vocal/choral” limitation. It would be interesting to hear a definition that talks more about what gospel music sounds like instrumentally. Last year (?) Light Records released some really nice instrumental albums of gospel music: the Reflections series—albums of instrumental gospel featuring organ, piano, saxophone and guitar. Even if these albums weren’t recordings of well-known gospel songs, I think the discriminating ear can hear the gospel-ish sound in them. In fact, if I remember correctly, one of the major complaints people had with Ray Charles back in the day was that he paired a gospel sound with nonreligious lyrics, right?

I resonated with the “ongoing dialogue of influence” part of the definition. It sounds grand and lyrical to me—and I like the fact that it includes so many musical styles (rap, even!) and describes the influence as a dialogue, a give-and-take. And by mentioning "Christian doctrine" it seems to distinguish itself from music that is "merely" positive, inspirational or uplifting. Interesting!

So, food for thought:
Who can sing/play/perform gospel music?
What does gospel music sound like to you, sans vocals?
How do you hear the “ongoing dialogue of influence” between gospel music and other forms?What are the benefits of defining a genre of music? The drawbacks? Can music or other forms of art really be defined?

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