Gospel music did not reach mainstream audiences until the mid 20th century. But by that time the genre had already deep roots in southern history. By most critical accounts what has come to be known as Gospel music grew from the musical spirituals sung by black slaves. Of course this early spiritual music also lent itself to the blues style another early 20th century development.
Spirituals moved into organized religion where African American congregations utilized it as a charismatic form for worship and praise. Today’s gospel choirs often win accolades for their devotion to talent and as such have produced some of the world’s best vocalists. Mainstream gospel singers have included Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland, and even Elvis Presley. Presley stayed true to his gospel roots even in his rock and roll heyday. And during his career he continued to record gospel standards that had been influential in his musical style.
By definition gospel music is another form of Christian music and contemporary Christian artists often overlap with Gospel. Contemporary country grew also from a rich history of spiritual music, most of it sung by whites, which underscores the historical split in the genre. Because southern religion has by most standards remained segregated, black and white gospel styles have emerged.
In most respects the gospel style is as much one of intensity as it is of glorification. Traditionally gospel choirs are known for their passionate fervor; it has inspired whole congregations and provided avenues of direct prayer and praise. Where other Christian denominations have remained stoically devoted to spoken prayer and sermons only broken by an occasional hymn, gospel is itself a part of the prayer and worship. Today’s R&B and soul sounds may in large part be attributed to gospel inflections and artists like Aretha Franklin and Mary J. Blige. But as much as gospel has influenced contemporary urban styles and producers have attempted to corral it for its marketability, the traditional genre remains strictly devotional and celebratory.
Bobby Jones Gospel show, a standard of BET television programming, showcases the hottest gospel acts to a large weekly audience. The Mighty Clouds of Joy, the Tri-City Singers, and the Harlem Gospel Choir are all popular contemporary acts.