Gospel song

The 1870s also saw an attempt to broaden the popular appeal of sacred song for ideological reasons; this tendency had its origins in the Sunday School movement and the spread of American religious revivalism, particularly the second wave of fundamentalism which came after the Civil War. Before the Civil War, American sacred songs divided into those sung at the 'fire and brimstone' camp meetings of the earlier fundamentalist revival, and those with 'chaste and popular tunes' for 'family and social worship', as the contents of Thomas Hastings' edition of Sacred Songs published by the American Tract Society in 1842 are described. There were, in addition, collections of songs being published for Sunday School use from the 1830s onward which proved influential. The need for simplicity and directness in these songs for children was an important ingredient of the gospel-hymn style. It was even possible for a child's hymn to end up as a full-blown drawing-room ballad, as happened in Britain with Gounod's setting of Mrs C. F. Alexander's hymn for 'little children' 'There Is a Green Hill Far Away' in 1871. Itinerant preacher Dwight L. Moody (1837—99) led the post-Civil War revivalist movement. It was pervaded by a new mood, which to some extent echoed the new mood of blackface minstrelsy: no more was the atmosphere one of hellfire and hysteria; instead, a mixture of heavy sentiment and stirring songs of hope prevailed. The new style can be seen emerging in hybrid hymns such as 'Oh, You Must Be a Lover of the Lord', a song popular in revival meetings in the American South and Mid-West. It links an Isaac Watts hymn, 'Am I a Soldier of the Cross?', to a rousing camp-style chorus, the whole set to the same music, with no regard for the crude contrast in diction:

Am I a soldier of the cross?
A follower of the Lamb?
And shall I fear to own His cause,
Or blush to speak His name?

Oh, you must be a lover of the Lord,
Oh, you must be a lover of the Lord,
Oh, you must be a lover of the Lord,
Or you can't go to heaven when you die.

The published music of 1866 is credited to J.N.S., who almost certainly was an arranger; it was common practice for publishers to employ house musicians to arrange gospel hymns as separate songs with piano accompaniment. No one knows who the arranger was of the most famous hybrid hymn, 'Battle Hymn of the Republic'. When the sheet music was first published, by Oliver Ditson & Co. of Boston in 1862, it carried the information that Julia Ward Howe's verses had been 'adapted to the favourite melody of "Glory, Hallelujah".' In similar fashion to 'Oh, You Must Be a Lover of the Lord', the poetry is crammed into an unsuitable tune and punctuated at each stanza's end with a trite, repetitive refrain. The tune originally accompanied G. S. Scofield's Methodist hymn 'Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us?' (1858), but became widely known as 'John Brown's Body' in 1861. Songs moved back and forth between sacred and secular versions during this period; another famous song of the Civil War, 'Tramp! 'Tramp! Tramp!' by G. F. Root, gave its melody to the Sunday School hymn 'Jesus Loves the Little Children'.

American ballad composers like G. F. Root and J. P. Webster were now taking an terest in gospel hymns; the latter's 'Sweet By and By' (words by S. F. Bennet) almost equalled his wartime 'Lorena' in popularity. It was originally published in The Signet Ring (1868), a collection of hymns, but was soon made available in a separate sheet-music version. The first large collection of gospel hymns was compiled by Ira D. Sankey (1840-1908), who joined Moody in Chicago in 1870. Sacred Songs and Solos was published by Morgan & Scott in London in 1873, the year Moody and Sankey made their triumphant tour of Britain. In America, Sankey collaborated with another evangelical singer, Philip Paul Bliss (1838—76), to produce Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs, published in New York in 1875. The compositions of Bliss typify the new sentimental style of gospel song. One of his first songs (for which, as so often, he wrote both words and [113/114] music) was 'If Papa Were Only Ready!', a short solo which he sang to the accompaniment of an American reed organ. The song concerns the hopes and fears of little Willie. At this time, the name 'Willie' usually proved fatal for any character in a song, and here is no exception; the song begins, 'I should like to die,' said Willie, 'if my papa could die too.' As well as solos, Bliss wrote fully harmonized hymns, but the songs which are richest in the characteristics of the new gospel style are those which follow the pattern common in minstrel shows of solo verse and harmonized refrain. For example, 'What Shall the Harvest Be?' (words by E. A. Oakley) has many typical features: a melody coloured by sentimental chromaticism and expressive dissonance; a dancelike rhythm; and harmony which embraces the 'modern' vocabulary of the drawing room (passing diminished sevenths, dominant extensions, and pedals). Here is the opening of the verse:

A favourite device used in the choral refrains of gospel songs is that of 'echo voices', usually male voices echoing a phrase sung by female voices. In the present song, the soprano moves through the text at a slower speed than the other voice parts, which might more accurately be called 'anticipating voices'.

Another characteristic of gospel style, seen to some extent in this song, is the tendency to favour parallel movement for the top three voices of a four-part harmonization. The form of'What Shall the Harvest Be?' is more expansive than the norm; it has a twelve-bar verse and sixteen-bar chorus, rather than eight bars [114/115] for each. Besides the evangelical enthusiasm of their texts, it is just this compact- ness of musical form which separates many gospel songs from songs of the minstrel stage, not the use of anything strikingly different in their melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic departments; a comparison of Foster's 'De Camptown Races' and Bliss's 'Look and Live'14 shows how close together on occasion they could come. While being infused with the sentimentality of post-Civil War song, some of the vigour of pre-Givil War minstrelsy also seems to have passed into gospel music. This vigour is apparent in the fondness for questions and exclamations as titles.

The texts relate to the Bible in three main ways: they may illustrate and confirm, as happens in 'What Shall the Harvest Be?', which takes as its departure point 'Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap' (Galatians 6:7); they may use a Biblical quotation as a basis for personal confession, as occurs in 'The Wandering Sheep', which quotes at its head, 'All we like sheep have gone astray' (Isaiah 53:6), and begins, 'I was a wandering sheep, I did not love the fold'; or they may offer individual witness to the truth of a Biblical statement, as does 'The Sands of Time', verse 3 of which testifies to the truth of the assertion 'Thine eyes shall behold the land that is very far off' (Isaiah 33:17):

Amid the shades ofev'ning,
While sinks life's ling'ring sand,
I hail the glory dawning
From Immanuel's land.

It was Bliss and Sankey's desire that their music, and gospel music in general, should reach into every corner of society. As mentioned before, this was born of ideological rather than commercial reasons; they refused, in fact, to take any personal profit out of their editing or songwriting. Revivalism was nothing new to Britain. The Primitive Methodist church had its origins in the first English camp meeting held at Mow Cop on the Staffordshire-Cheshire border by 'Crazy Alonzo' Dow in 1807.15 William Booth began holding services in the open air and in tents from 1864 onwards, although he did not create the Whitechapel Church Mission, and with it the Salvation Army, until 1878. However, Moody and Sankey arrived in Britain in 1873, a year of industrial crisis. The middle class nc doubt welcomed the distraction offered to an increasingly discontent workine class who now had the electoral franchise and had forced the Liberal government to give full legal recognition to trade unions just a few years after an attempt to re-enact the Combination Laws. But even in the most respectable middle-class quarters a fervent religious strain was already to be found. In 1860 Miss Lindsay had a notable success with her setting of Tennyson's 'Too Late!', which in parts reads like a revivalist hymn:

Late, late, so late! and dark the night and chill!
Late, late, so late! But we can enter still!
Too late! too late, ye cannot enter now,
Too late! too late, ye cannot enter now.

The songs of P. P. Bliss certainly found their way into middle-class homes in Britain; some of them were published separately in the Musical Bouquet, in [115/116] arrangements by T. Westrop. In this connection, also, it is worth noting that No. 111 of Sankey's Sacred Songs and Solos, 'Farewell Hymn', is a divine parody of 'Home, Sweet Home!'


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Last modified 14 June 2012