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How can we hear activism in gospel music?

By Ian Young

Some might associate gospel music with church and worship. Others might think of virtuosic singers like Mahalia Jackson. Still others might view gospel as a vibrant form of activism. After all, gospel music challenged establishments when it emerged in the 1920s and as it gained popularity through the 20th century. Many early gospel songs were adaptations of African-American spirituals which emphasized themes of perseverance, resistance, and deliverance. These themes endured in gospel music as the genre evolved and incorporated the sounds of the blues. Although some conservative religious leaders initially resisted gospel music for its similarity to secular styles, it quickly became an established genre in Black churches. As churches mobilized initiatives to serve the neighborhood, gospel sounds became entwined with community action. The careers of Pittsburgh leaders Frankie Mae and Charles Henry Pace show how gospel could be used, and even composed, to serve activism.

In 1938, about two years after Frankie and Charles Pace moved to Pittsburgh, the couple established the Pace Gospel Choral Union, a choir that had around 200 members at its peak. The choral union did not belong to any one church, but instead sang at different churches weekly and attracted large crowds. While Frankie focused her efforts on local leadership and activism, Charles devoted his time to music, writing over 100 gospel songs that the choral union performed.

 

Though the couple worked in seemingly separate areas, Frankie and Charles’ work had overlapping effects. Frankie was deeply involved in community initiatives, and used gospel concerts as a means to raise funds for causes, such as the rebuilding of Rodman Street Baptist Church after it burned down. Charles’ music, meanwhile, encouraged neighbors to unite in worship. Pittsburgh Reverend Cornell E. Talley noted the ways that Charles’ music lifted the community, writing in 1948, “Even though depressed because of economic instability, with this dynamic personality we lifted our voices and shouted in harmonious rhythm ‘I sing because I’m happy. I sing because I’m free.’[...] Any man who can get people to singing in days of darkness, has made a contribution, the value of which only God can compute.”

My Lord, What A Morning
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Charles Henry Pace, arrangement of “My Lord What a Morning,” performed by the Pace Jubilee Singers (1926)

Listening to the music itself, is it possible that the sounds of gospel lend themselves well to community activism? Listen to this recording of Charles Henry Pace’s song “My Lord What a Morning,” recorded by the Pace Jubilee Singers in 1926. First, you’ll hear how the song spotlights a leader and a congregation, using a call-and-response structure between soloist and choir. Perhaps the music mimics the ways that one activist leader, such as Frankie Pace, can move a community to action through persuasive speech. Next, after the soloist voices her appeal, notice how the tempo slows when the choir enters. The singers seem to be taking time to listen and match each other’s tone, in the same way that communities must establish mutual understanding and harmonious communication before agreeing on action. Finally, the lyrics themselves convey a sense of activism. The soloist calls out "You’ll hear the trumpet sound, to wake all nations underground,” suggesting that those feeling invisible and marginalized or those feeling tired and weary should awaken and be called to action by the sounding horn. Notice also that the singer’s melody rises like a trumpet call on the words "to wake," imitating the way the horn awakens the nation. 

Frankie Pace used gospel as a tool for her work while Charles Pace created gospel music that was ultimately employed for Hill activism. This raises the question: 

Is gospel music effective for activism because of the music itself, or because of the way the music is used?
Select an option

Thanks for your feedback!

SOURCES

Burch, Katie. “Pennsylvania Center for the Book.” pabook.libraries.psu.edu, 2022. Accessed 3 May 2024. 

Library of Congress. “African American Gospel.” The Library of Congress, 2015. Accessed 3 May 2024.  

 

Maultsby, Portia K. “History of Traditional Gospel.” Timeline of African American Music, 2021. Accessed 3 May 2024.

Maultsby, Portia K. “History of Rural Gospel.” Timeline of African American Music, 2021. Accessed 3 May 2024.

Program Notes for A Gospel Music Tribute to Charles and Frankie Pace. Dr. Herbert V. R. P. Jones, The Heritage Gospel Chorale of Pittsburgh, Dr. Alton Merrell, Anton DeFade, James Johnson. March 25th, 2023, Ebenezer Baptist Church.  

Wardarski, Jessie. “Pioneer of Gospel Music Rediscovered in Pittsburgh Archives.” 90.5 WESA, March 23, 2023. 

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