Musicologists and journalists have often provided conflicting definitions of the term “gospel music.” Early African-American gospel was a blend of nineteenth-century hymns, spirituals, field songs, ragtime, and blues, while the religious music performed by white artists—an obvious antecedent to what would be labeled Southern gospel—incorporated folk, traditional hymns, and singing convention standards. Today’s Christian music is often categorized by genre, reflecting the social, racial, ideological, and generational diversity of the Christian community. This diversity is shown in a contrast of pervading traditions, varied approaches to lyric writing, and stylistic exchanges between the sacred and secular. Throughout the evolution of gospel music, Arkansas has remained at the forefront, producing noteworthy pioneers of yesterday and molding trendsetters of today.
Several key figures in gospel music were born or based in Arkansas. While the music of some of these pioneers often transcended race, socio-economic status, and denominational differences, commercial gospel music as a whole has seemingly taken divergent paths depending on the race of its performers and their respective audiences. Black gospel has influenced secular popular music and rock and roll, while Southern gospel is regarded as a cousin to mainstream country music. Rhythm and blues artists often incorporate black gospel’s “call and response” technique, and Southern gospel and country performers frequently garner support from the same fan base. Regardless of the direction it has taken, however, gospel music remains rooted in evangelical Protestantism.
In the development of early gospel music, the role of the Hartford Music Company and its roster of important songwriters, namely E. M. Bartlett and Albert E. Brumley, cannot be underestimated. Bartlett penned such timeless standards as “Everybody Will Be Happy over There” and “Victory in Jesus,” while Brumley, Bartlett’s protégé, arguably became the most recognized name in Southern gospel. His compositions—including “I’ll Fly Away,” “Turn Your Radio On,” “I’ll Meet You in the Morning,” and “Jesus, Hold My Hand”—appear as well regarded in traditional gospel circles today as they were before sound recordings replaced singing convention songbooks, the primary medium in which early gospel music was mass marketed. Early black gospel recordings of Bartlett and Brumley songs show their widespread appeal.
Roberta Martin influenced black gospel music in much the same way as Bartlett and Brumley popularized gospel music among a predominantly white constituency. The Helena (Phillips County) native made her mark in Chicago, Illinois, where so many successful black gospel careers were launched. Martin’s publishing house was a dominant force, and her groundbreaking group, the Roberta Martin Singers, helped pave the way during black gospel’s golden age of the 1940s and 1950s for younger gospel artists who performed in the turbulent decades to follow.
Regarded as a rock and roll pioneer, "Sister Rosetta" Tharpe of Cotton Plant (Woodruff County) indelibly transformed gospel music, rising to prominence with “Rock Me,” a version of Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Hide Me in Thy Bosom.” As part of John Hammond’s From Spirituals to Swing concert in 1938, Tharpe influenced a wide range of secular and gospel artists, all the while stirring controversy over her decision to straddle the line between gospel and blues/jazz. Her music also bridged racial divides, particularly within music industry circles. Having already performed on the Grand Ole Opry stage in 1949, Tharpe made history once again in 1952 by recording Cleavant Derricks’s “Have a Little Talk with Jesus” with country singer Red Foley. In addition to appearing with such white gospel artists as the Jordanaires and Sons of Song, Tharpe performed gospel music for some of the first integrated audiences in the American South.
Since the days of Bartlett, Brumley, Martin, and Tharpe, artists with Arkansas connections have represented the state well in a variety of gospel music genres. Songs by Twila Paris, who took Christian music by storm in the 1990s, have become an integral part of Sunday morning worship across the country. The all-female contemporary Christian group Point of Grace, which was founded by four Ouachita Baptist University students in 1991 and went on to sell millions of records and score multiple number-one hits, continues to uplift and motivate younger worshipers. The rousing soul gospel of Smokie Norful resonates from urban megachurches to small-town storefront congregations. Joanne Cash, sister to country music legend Johnny Cash, performs a rich repertoire of country gospel. The award-winning trio the Martins offers tight family harmony and progressive Southern gospel fare.
Also worth noting is the number of largely secular Arkansas recording artists who have enjoyed critical and commercial success in gospel music. The most significant of these are soul singer Al Green and country music icon Johnny Cash. Green, best known for such rhythm and blues hits as “Let’s Stay Together,” returned to his gospel roots in the 1980s, netting eight Grammy Awards and performing with Patti LaBelle in the 1982 Broadway revival of the gospel musical Your Arms Too Short to Box with God: A Soaring Celebration in Song and Dance. In 1979, Cash independently released the double gospel album A Believer Sings the Truth, eventually garnering support from Columbia Records after the album hit number forty-three on the Country Music Top 50. There were several Rosetta Tharpe standards on the album, including “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” for which Cash seemingly ad-libbed (“Everywhere it seems so strange / People down here stealin’ airplanes” and “Well, we say that we want peace / But we’re killin’ each other like beasts”) in apparent response to recent hijackings and the Vietnam War. Other mainstream artists from Arkansas who have attained noteworthy record sales, chart success, or major industry awards in Christian music include country stars Glen Campbell, Barbara Fairchild, Tracy Lawrence, and Collin Raye, whose thought-provoking single “What If Jesus Comes Back Like That” preceded his gospel/inspirational album by more than a decade.
In spite of the successes enjoyed by today’s soloists, gospel music is widely associated with group performance, whether in the form of a mass choir, mixed group, or all-male quartet. While the popularity of old-fashioned singing conventions has waned, various forms of gospel music remain integral to the modern communal worship experience.
Today, gospel music is thriving in Arkansas. Though the hugely popular Sundown to Sunup Gospel Sing was relocated from Springdale (Washington and Benton counties) to Missouri, where it is known as the Albert E. Brumley Memorial Gospel Sing, other popular events, such as Old Folks’ Singing in Tull (Grant County), remain. Furthermore, long-held traditions are being preserved due to the persistence of institutions like the Brockwell Gospel Music School and Jeffress/Phillips Music Company, the state’s only remaining seven-shape gospel publisher. Meanwhile, new generations of singers, songwriters, and musicians continue Arkansas’s long, distinguished record of excellence in the field of Christian music.
For additional information:
Blevins, Brooks. “Where Everything New Is Old Again: Southern Gospel Singing Schools.” Southern Cultures 22 (Winter 2016): 135–149.
Boyer, Horace Clarence. How Sweet the Sound: The Golden Age of Gospel. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.
Deller, David. “The Songbook Gospel Movement in Arkansas: E. M. Bartlett and the Hartford Music Company.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 60 (Autumn 2001): 284–300.
Goff, James R., Jr. Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
Heilbut, Tony. The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1971.
McNeil, W. K., ed. Encyclopedia of American Gospel Music. New York: Routledge, 2005.
Wald, Gayle F. Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Boston: Beacon Press, 2007.
Wilson, Charles Reagan, and William Ferris, eds. Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.