How Shall We Sing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land?

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #11 in July 2010]

Imagine it is 1927 and you are a 40 year-old African-American born and raised Baptist in Chicago. One Sunday evening in June, while walking along State Street, you happen upon a storefront Holiness church service in full swing. The sound of worship can barely be contained by the building’s brick facade. Would you be embarrassed by the emotional outpouring within, as women danced rapturously to polyrhythms beaten out by tambourines? Would you feel uncomfortable with the passionate preaching and singing? Or perhaps, as some were, would you be sufficiently captivated to open the door and join the service?

African-American “Old Settlers,” or lifelong Chicagoans, admitted to each of these emotions. Try though they might, conservative church leaders could not stop the spirited hymn singing and folk preaching—the “jazzing” of hymns—from sweeping through the city any more than they could shut off the valve of migrants who bid farewell to the South in record numbers and resettled in the Bronzeville community.

The first Great Northern Drive of African-Americans from the south to northern cities such as Chicago occurred between approximately 1917 and 1930. What drove the migrants northward was freedom for jobs and better schools, and freedom from prejudice, degradation and the constant threat of violence. A by-product of the migration was a clash of cultures in the African-American community that in 10 years’ time shifted the dominant musical expression of the church from Eurocentric classical music to gospel music.

Between 1910 and 1920, Chicago’s Black population swelled from 44,103 to 109,458, with more than 80 percent born outside Illinois.1 Chicago was a choice destination for southern migrants because of its proximity to major rail lines and highways, but also because of the demand for labor in the city’s factories and stockyards.

What the migrants discovered upon settling in Chicago was not necessarily a promised land. True, there was no fear of lynching or Jim Crow laws, and the South Side’s bright lights and array of entertainment delighted the young and young at heart. But there were many difficulties, among them discrimination in housing and employment, and alienation by the white community. More surprisingly, new settlers received a chilly reception from some of the city’s established black residents—the “Old Settlers”—who felt the newcomers’ unsophisticated comportment was detrimental to racial assimilation.

Perhaps no institution was more representative of the difference between the city’s old and new settlers than the mainline African-American Protestant churches, the “Old Landmarks,” which had adopted formal and refined worship services. Trained senior choirs sang anthems, hymns, and oratorios. University-trained ministers preached with educated exactitude. One southern migrant who joined an Old Landmark complained, “I couldn’t sing their way. The songs was proud-like.”2 “Brother Brown,” interviewed for the landmark study Black Metropolis, said, “I haven’t enjoyed a good service since I left the Southland. The meetings down home were soul-stirring.”3 But to middle-class pastors, such as Rev. W. A. Blackwell of Chicago’s Walters AME, the “singing, shouting and talking” representative of the “soul-stirring” service were the “most useless ways of proving Christianity.”4

Feeling like strangers in a strange land, migrants sought churches that satisfied their yearning for the kind of exuberant preaching, congregational singing and allowance for individual emotional expression they enjoyed down south. A growing number of Pentecostal, Holiness, and Spiritual churches in the city fit the bill. They became oases of familiarity, providing the communal worship experience that made the newcomers feel at home.

At the same time, migrants came north to better their condition. This meant that in addition to embracing familiar Southern mores, they sought some level of urbanity. All the more reason they found churches such as All Nations Pentecostal, the Church of the Living God, and the Church of God in Christ appealing. Unlike their mainline Prot-estant counterparts, these churches freely incorporated the sound of the city—notably, jazz instruments—to accompany the zesty singing.

This back-home sound with an urban beat entered the city’s Old Landmarks when in 1931 Dr. J. H. L. Smith of Birmingham, Alabama was called to pastor Ebenezer Baptist Church at 45th and Vincennes Avenue. Smith, a migrant, wanted the congregational music of his Southland to have a role in his church. He asked fellow migrants Thomas Dorsey and Theodore Frye to help him, and in January 1932, Dorsey and Frye produced for Smith and Ebenezer the world’s first gospel chorus. The gospel chorus was so popular, every church wanted one.

The gospel chorus was in many ways a society that migrants could call their own. Further, by encouraging hand-clapping, spontaneous exhortations, and practiced but exuberant singing, the gospel chorus uplifted, rather than disparaged, the migrants’ shared Southern roots. The gospel songs written by Dorsey, Roberta Martin, and Kenneth Morris gave voice to the dispossessed by addressing real joys and sorrows in plain language and simple melodies. Finally, Dorsey’s jazz and blues-influenced piano style, honed through years playing buffet flats and backing blues woman Ma Rainey, brought the city’s bounce to the music.

Gospel music combined back-home sentimentality with a cosmopolitan beat. It received yet another boost of urbanity in 1939 when Morris and Rev. Clarence H. Cobbs introduced the chirping, warbling new Hammond Organ to the First Church of Deliverance worship service. By the mid-1940s, gospel music had supplanted the senior choir’s Eurocentric repertory as the dominant musical expression of the African-American church.

Although the past few decades have witnessed gospel assuming a more contemporary jazz and pop architecture, Chicago churches are still known internationally for their staunch commitment to the original, or traditional, gospel sound. The Great Migration made Chicago the birthplace of gospel music, and the city offers thanksgiving each time a congregation sings a “Dorsey,” revved-up gospel choruses and flatfooted soloists perform a Kenneth Morris classic, and a Hammond B3 and Leslie speaker playfully purr and rumble. These sounds of thanksgiving are odes to countless numbers of southern migrants who carried their religious traditions across the chilly Jordan of the Ohio River and, unpacking them in the promised land of Chicago, forever changed the soul of American popular music. ◊

1.     Wallace D. Best, Passionately Human, No Less Divine: Religion and Culture in Black Chicago, 1915-1952 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 67; Mike Rowe, Chicago Blues: The City and the Music (New York: Da Capo Press, 1975), 29; James R. Grossman, Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989), 6.

2.     Davarian L. Baldwin, Chicago’s New Negroes: Modernity, The Great Migration, and Black Urban Life (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 166; Grossman, 157.

3.     Horace R. Cayton and St. Clair Drake, Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1945), 649.

4.     Baldwin, p. 59.

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