What Are Some Similarities Between Gospel & Blues Music

At first glance, it would seem that the musical genres of gospel and blues have little in common. Gospel calls to mind spiritual joy and hope in a higher power, whereas blues is rooted in the secular world of pain and heartache that lacks a divine outlet. But on closer inspection, blues and gospel music have some similarities that bridge the two genres.

Blues music had its origins during the 1800s in the deep South of the United States when slaves began singing while working out in the plantation fields. The slaves developed a call and response technique passed down from their African heritage, where a phrase or lyric is repeated, then another phrase or lyric is uttered in response. Call and response was also used instrumentally, where a performer would sing a line, and an instrument would play in response. Modern blues became popular in southern states like Mississippi and New Orleans, but is generally considered to have flourished in Chicago, and is distinguished by its heavy use of electric guitar and bass drums.

Gospel music developed from blues as slaves became Christians and transformed their plaintive blues into a more spiritual, yearning style that derived comfort from celebration of the divine. Unlike the blues, modern gospel music is often sung without accompanying instruments or features the use of a piano, organ or horn section.

Thomas A. Dorsey, born in Georgia in 1899, is considered the progenitor of blues gospel, a musical style that blended spiritual singing with blues guitar and piano rhythms. The hallmarks of blues gospel are the use of blues guitar styles such as the ragtime finger-pick and the knife-wielding slide technique. Dorsey, the son of a Baptist minister, was influenced by blues pianists when his family moved to Chicago. In the 1920s and 1930s, he transformed the musical style of the old-school churches with songs and compositions that borrowed liberally from the blues. Dorsey remained in a committed gospel musician, but his willingness to challenge the deep-rooted traditions that separated blues and gospel revolutionized both musical genres.

Several notable performers were trained in gospel music church choirs early in their careers, then crossed over into blues. Some remained gospel singers, but their music was influenced by blues traditions. Blind Willie Johnson, born in 1897, is one example. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Johnson sang spiritual songs, but his legendary slide guitar playing was an appropriation of traditional blues, even if his lyrical content remained spiritual. Another example is Sam Cooke, who rose to fame in the 1950s and early 1960s. Cooke, the son of a Baptist minister, started out singing gospel in his father's church in Chicago during the early late 1940s, when blues was becoming a cultural force. As he matured, Cooke melded gospel and blues with popular music, creating a new genre dubbed "soul" music, and remains influential 45 years after his death.

Approved by Jesse Anderson