Ushers wearing white gloves cordially guide you to a pew. At the back of the Calvary Baptist Chruch, a soundman works the knobs of a P.A. system. An electric bassist, pianist and organist play a coordinated riff. Behind them, the church’s men’s choir is about to reach the summit of another surging, powerful chorus: “What is this, that won’t let me hold my peace? What is this? It won’t let me be ashamed to tell the world that I am born again!”
There’s no need to wait for the choir to break into another song. The message is clear. A simple turn through the pages of the church’s New National Baptist Hymnal just about says it all: “This Hymnal is Dedicated to God.”
Black gospel brings all sorts of words to the minds of music scholars. They’ll tell you this music is distinguished by the elements of “call-and-response, rhythmic vitality, musical density, predilection for duple meters, syncopation, improvisation, and bent-note scales.”
They miss the point by a mile, though. This music is, first and foremost, a mission. And even though the job of Calvary’s choir is to prepare the congregation for the pastor’s upcoming sermon, sometimes the music overshadows the message. That’s especially true for people still harboring a few secular bones in their bodies.
“I think a lot of people come to hear the choir, but I hope they overhear the sermon,” says France A. Davis, pastor of the church. “Whenever I meet ministers and people from other churches they say, ‘Oh, you’re the one who pastors that church with the great choir.’”
To be sure, Calvary’s isn’t the only black gospel choir in Salt Lake City. They are, however, the most prominent. In the ecumenical spirit, they perform at other churches. They’ve also graced special opening ceremonies, scores of art festivals, and even the television set of Touched by An Angel.
If you want to see the choir in their natural element, though, there’s no getting around it: You’re going to have to spend your Sunday morning at church. Calvary offers a menu of inspirational music that rotates monthly. The first and fourth Sundays of each month feature the church’s Inspirational Choir, which incorporates male and female voices. Second Sundays offer the robust sounds of the Men’s Choir, while third Sundays showcase the youth. At most black Baptist churches, a musical education starts young and is part-and-parcel of a religious education.
Pastor Davis points to a wealth of Bible verses supporting the role of music as worship. The first chapter of Luke refers to songs about Mary and John the Baptist. Then there are King David’s Psalms, or “songs,” to the Lord.
“Music is central not only to our beliefs, but to our survival as a people,” Pastor Davis explains. “So it is the church choir that sets the tone and tenor of the worship service. It’s not just the choir’s music, it’s the church’s as well.”
In a larger sense, black gospel music is also America’s music. While blues musicians chronicled the plight and despair of African-Americans living in sharecroppers’ shacks, a more hopeful music took form in black Pentecostal and Baptist churches throughout the South. By paraphrasing and reworking old Protestant hymns, these churches gave birth to the old spirituals. Then, in the 1920s, an accomplished blues and jazz pianist by the name of Thomas A. Dorsey, remarked, “If I could get into the gospel songs the feeling and the pathos and the moans of the blues, that would get me over.”
With those words, and lots of time spent writing songs, Dorsey, hailed today as the “Father of Gospel Music,” made music history. He relocated from rural Georgia to Chicago, took his songs from church to church, toured the Midwest and South and assembled choir after choir. For a time, many ministers refused to let Dorsey and his music inside their doors, but barriers were falling down. In 1930, a jubilee meeting by the predominantly black National Baptist Convention publicly endorsed gospel music.
The music reached a new level of exposure outside the black community when gospel singer Mahalia Jackson was invited to perform at an inauguration party for President John F. Kennedy in 1961.
Outside of mere publicity, black gospel music had already made a lasting impact. Louis Armstrong, who set the rules for all popular music singers to follow, first sang in his church choir. So did Aretha Franklin, Lou Rawls, the Staple Singers, and Motown acts such as the Isley Brothers. After touring with the gospel sextet The Soul Stirrers, Sam Cooke stormed the popular music charts. Sometimes the direction runs just the opposite. A soul-music legend during the ’60s and ’70s, Al Green returned to his gospel roots, studied for the ministry, then opened a Memphis church. Today he’s known as the Rev. Al Green.
One of Calvary’s choirs may yet give the world an incredible talent—someone who first learned music in the church. During a worship service performance, the church’s Inspirational Choir sings with such freedom and confidence they make it look effortless. It would be easy to assume they rarely rehearse—easy, but wrong.
Gospel rehearsals are rigorous affairs. Upwards of a half-hour can be spent perfecting the pitch and enunciation of just one line. No one complains. When you’re singing for the Almighty, the song must be tight.
“I made up my mind a long time ago. I’m not singing for man. I’m singing for God,” says Bessie Thornton, a soprano. “He gave me this voice, and singing is my ministry.”
B. Murphy, a banker who directs the church’s Men’s Choir, feels a special power behind every note he sings. “Secular music doesn’t move anyone,” he explains. “Sure, people dance to it. But it’s not moving. Gospel music can, and does, change lives.”
It’s Laura B. Eady-Popwell, music director over all the choirs, who really expresses the music’s essence. Instructing choir members, she tells them to “join” with each note, rather than attack it. Elaborating on that point, she paraphrases a verse from Ecclesiastes. Like God, music for her is eternal—a force waiting to be felt.
“There’s nothing new under the sun. There is no melody that hasn’t been sung. There’s no beat that hasn’t already been played,” she says. “The music goes on whether you do or not. It’s there for you to reach out and join at any time.”