In ‘Gospel’ docuseries, Henry Louis Gates Jr. explores Black church’s music, ministers

“Gospel” preview event at Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 26, 2024. Adelle M. Banks/RNS

The interplay between song and sermon — and the importance of both in Black churches — is the focus of a new docuseries created by scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Gospel premieres on PBS stations on Monday and Tuesday (Feb. 12 and 13) and was preceded by a related concert that premiered Feb. 9 on public television.

“Gospel and preaching go hand in hand, flip sides of the manner in which we sound the word of God through these two sublimely majestic art forms,” Gates said in remarks at a late January preview event that showcased clips from two of the four episodes that will air over the two days.

Gates, a Harvard professor known for his Finding Your Roots program and creator of the book and docuseries The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song, noted that gospel emanates from a variety of styles of music — such as the blues, R&B and soul — but as an overall genre has stood the test of time.

“Gospel is the resonant, living repository of our people’s rich spiritual past,” he told an interracial crowd that gathered at Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church to hear him speak, view the clips and listen to musicians perform hits recorded by Walter Hawkins, Richard Smallwood and The Clark Sisters.

“Musical styles come and go. But one style has remained a constant source of strength, courage and wisdom for over a century: gospel music.”

Friday’s hourlong concert program was filmed at Los Angeles’ Oasis Church, where Gates and gospel artist Erica Campbell host artists who perform gospel songs of yesteryear. Mali Music sings “He’s So Wonderful,” originally recorded by Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, and John Legend sings Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Precious Lord,” originally recorded by Mahalia Jackson.

The series itself dwells on both ministers and the ministry of music, with Gates, other scholars and musicians tracing the history of gospel music from the Great Migration, when African Americans carried the sounds of their home churches with them as they left the segregated South in search of better lives up north.

One of those who moved northward was Dorsey, a Georgia native who settled in Chicago and was known for his blues music. Returning back to church circles, he became such a prolific writer, creating traditional Black gospel with a bluesy style, that he was known as the “father of gospel music.”

Gates’ series notes how some of the music was created in times of personal and national mourning. One of Dorsey’s most famous songs was “Precious Lord,” written in 1932 as he mourned the deaths of his wife and infant son. James Cleveland recorded “Peace Be Still” in the weeks after the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

Both songs also demonstrated gospel music’s reach beyond the pews of churches and onto top-selling records. Preachers, too, spread the spoken gospel via records, including the Rev. C.L. Franklin — a Detroit pastor and the father of Aretha Franklin — whose 1953 recording of the sermon “The Eagle Stirreth the Nest” led him to be dubbed “the man with the million-dollar voice.”

Aretha Franklin first sang in the choir and then as a soloist at the New Bethel Baptist Church where her father’s famous sermon was recorded — and later returned to a church setting to record Amazing Grace, an album that remains the best-selling live gospel album.

The union of preaching and song is evident during a moment in Gates’ series depicting the change in expression on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s face — from somber to smiling — as Mahalia Jackson sings “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” before he addresses a rally at a Chicago church.

“A voice like this comes only once in a millennium,” King says in the video, about the woman who also sang shortly before he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Though the series notes how women — often barred from the pulpit — preached through their music, it highlights how Shirley Caesar eventually did both, first through sermonettes at her concerts and later leading a church in North Carolina where she is still a pastor.

“I would take my experiences and I would put it to music because I knew that, just as sure as we’re sitting here, that somebody else was experiencing some of the things that I was or either things that I’d gone through with,” she told Gates. “That’s my kind of gospel.”

Gates said that’s what he loves about the musical genre rooted in Black churches.

“In the end, we all love gospel music, because it is the sound of hope against hope,” he said at Metropolitan AME. “It is the sound of the triumph of the human spirit over tremendously daunting odds. It is the sound of the gloriously rhythmic harmony of a people making a way out of no way.”

Adelle M. Banks

Adelle M. Banks, production editor and a national reporter, joined RNS in 1995. An award-winning journalist, she previously was the Read More

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