4 Gospel Music and Country Music

Spiritual and Gospel Music

Black and white image of people outside a wooden building in dresses and suites.
Figure 4.1 an African-American church gathering

Spirituals are religious folk songs developed by African-American people from both the European-American and African-American musical traditions that developed from the middle-18th century through the 19th. With the blues they form the roots of gospel music. They were originally not written down, but rather passed down from memory. They did not include multiple voice parts the way hymns did, and the primary melody wasn’t necessarily the same every time.

Improvisation was an important element of the spiritual with singers sliding around and embellishing the notes of an established melody. The lead singer would improvise while other singers stayed in the background, and this became common in gospel music of the 20th century. The music ranged from slow and melancholic to fast and energetic.


Women standing and singing mostly in white dresses.
Figure 4.2 Church choir ca 1920 by Doris Ulmann

In the early 20th century, African American gospel music developed out of the traditions of the Spiritual and the Blues including the call-and-response tradition of west Africa, and the European musical traditions of formal structure, harmonies, regular beat patterns, and the use of instruments like the guitar and the piano. Gospel music was an important element, along with the blues and country music, in the development of rhythm and blues and rock and roll.

Once slavery was abolished, African Americans began building their own churches and developing their own style of church music. The call-and-response tradition was often used in these churches. The preacher would do the ‘calling’ and the congregation would respond back. The vocal style in gospel began to develop very distinct characteristics steeped in improvisation. Vocal devices such as “turns” (also known as melismas, a type of embellishment) involved sliding around the notes of the melody, adding variety and improvisation in a dramatic way. Lyrically, gospel uses sacred, religious text often directly influenced by the Christian Bible or the Gospels themselves (Gospels are the parts of the bible that tell the story of the life of Jesus Christ). The style of gospel singing remains influential to this day, beyond Gospel music itself.

Gospel groups began to emerge as popular performing and recording artists, often appearing in the form of 4 to 5 singers (usually with one leader and the others backing) sometimes with instrumental accompaniment.

Listening Examples 4.1

To demonstrate what I mean by “embellishing a melody”, I play the hymn “Amazing Grace” with embellishments in the melody.

The Soul Stirrers

The Soul Stirrers were a gospel group that began recording in 1936 and had an important influence on other gospel groups. The falsetto lead singing of the Soul Stirrers was unique at the time. Also influential was the use polyrhythms and improvisation on the text of their gospel renditions. The group featured a rotating cast of members. Singers like Sam Cooke got their start as lead singer of the Soul Stirrers. Listen to how Sam Cooke’s vocal delivery in the example found in Ch. 4.1 Listening Examples resembles that of many modern singers in popular music in the way he uses improvisational devices to embellish the melody.

Mahalia Jackson

Mahalia Jackson in a white dress with a brooch of flowers singing into a microphone.
Figure 4.3 Mahalia Jackson

Mahalia Jackson – (1911–1972) is called the Queen of Gospel. Born and raised in New Orleans, she grew up singing gospel in church and listening to classic blues singers like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. Because of her religious family, she had to listen to the blues in secret because of the secular subject matter. Jackson moved to Chicago at age 16 and began singing gospel professionally, touring with Thomas A. Dorsey, a famous gospel composer. Her music infused elements of classic blues singers into gospel including the pentatonic scale, “blue notes”, and powerful, gutsy vocals.Jackson became famous through her 1947 recording of “Move on Up a Little Higher” featured in Ch. 4.1 Listening Examples. The two different listening examples of “Didn’t it Rain” showcase two very different versions of the improvisation-based approach of gospel in Ch. 4.1 Listening Examples.

Large Group Gospel Music

Groups of four to five singers remained the most popular, but full choir-sized ensembles began to gain popularity. Thomas A. Dorsey began this style in the early 1930’s, but was popularized by Edwin Hawkins during the 1960’s. The Edwin Hawkins Singers used a large choir accompanied by a rhythm section consisting of keyboards, bass and drums.

On “Oh Happy Day” (1969, featured in Ch. 4 Listening Examples) soloist Dorothy Morrison uses the vocal devices of gospel to great effect. Call and response is used extensively in the song. The gospel vocal embellishments used by Morrison stand out from the choir because the choir must sing in a more straight-ahead style to stay together musically as a group.

Doo Wop

Four brothers in suits and bowties standing and singing into a mic.
Figure 4.4 The Mills Brothers

Doo-Wop developed directly from gospel music, but used mostly secular topics like love and relationships rather than religious subject matter. This practice goes back as early as the twenties. Doo-Wop groups usually had a lead singer accompanied by a small group of singers. These backup singers often sang ‘nonsense’ syllables (from which the name “doo-wop” derives), or repeated a few words from the lead line.

Different groups had different features/characteristics. Groups like the Mills Brothers sang sophisticated jazz inspired four-part harmony and instrumental effects, while groups like the Ink Spots featured a high tenor lead singer and allowed their bass singer to take the lyrics at times.

Country Music

Country music has its roots in American folk music styles and was formed as a more commercial genre to capitalize on the popularity of said folk styles. Many early rock and roll musicians began as country musicians. The origins of country music come from hillbilly music, named after the large number of British settlers in the mountainous regions of the eastern and southern United States. They brought European dance music such as jigs and waltzes, as well as hymns and ballads. Fiddles, guitars, dulcimers, piano, and banjos were commonplace among these settlers.

With the growth in popularity of the radio as well as the developments in recording in the twenties, this folk music began to broadcast to the rest of the country. The WSM Barn Dance (later to become the Grand Ole Opry), first broadcast in 1926, featured live performances of rural dance music.

Characteristics of Country Music

*Some of these characteristics can be found in the videos below, Listening Examples 4.3

Steady Beat – Beats are regular with the band playing exactly on time. The beats are always patterned in 2, 3 or 4 beats per bar. Notice the lack of polyrhythm/syncopation as compared to ragtime or blues.

Harmony – Simple and straightforward

Form – Most often the music follows a repeating pattern of eight-bar periods, each composed of two four-bar phrases.

Bass Line –The bass often plays on the first and third beat in a 4 beat pattern. This regular pattern is known as two-beat bass.

Lyrics – Often tell stories or reflect the singer’s feelings, and are meant to be the focus of the music.

Vocals – Will often have a nasal quality and a southern accent.

Pedal/Lap Steel Guitars – One of the most distinctive instruments in Country music is the Pedal Steel guitar and the more simplified version, the lap steel guitar. These instruments use a type of steel bar slide, somewhat similar to bottlenecks, to play chords and melodies in a sliding fashion.

Listening Examples 4.3

I demonstrate a two-beat bass pattern. Watch the thumb of my right hand as it is playing the two note bass line on beats 1 and 3 of a four beat pattern.

Bellingham musician Christopher Stainback demonstrates lap steel guitar with an original composition. Notice how the instrument is laid flat with the strings facing upward. The right hand uses finger picks to pluck the strings while the left hand uses a steel bar slide to slide across the strings.

Popularization of country music: Radio, WSM and the Grand Ole Opry

Black and white image of people dancing in what looks like a barn in floral dresses and overalls with plaid shirts.
Figure 4.5 WSM Barn Dance ca. 1940

As we’ve discussed, country music began as a rural musical style. In the 1920s, this music was described as “hillbilly music”. The music underwent a remarkable transition, evolving into a national musical style by the 1930s, during the great depression, largely due to the growth of radio and a particular station that happened upon hillbilly music. By 1925, radio was out of its infancy and becoming more widespread almost daily. As technology developed, ever more powerful radio transmitters were being built, reaching people further and further away from cities into rural America. In Nashville, Tennessee, in 1925, the National Life and Accident Insurance Company, under the direction of Edwin Craig, developed its own radio station with the call sign WSM. Craig had a passionate interest in radio, and believed that National Life could better advertise their company through radio. Owning a radio station would mean advertising to whoever was listening at any given time, which could be thousands or more. After some heavy leg work, Craig convinced his superiors at National Life to go through with the development of a company-owned station. The station began transmitting on October 5, 1925.

Craig had brought aboard popular radio-personality George Hays, best known at the time for his National Barn Dance, a radio program of “hillbilly music” transmitting out of Chicago and reaching much of the American Midwest. With Hay a well known and likable on-air personality, WSM was immediately on a path to popularity, and Hay’s background with Hillbilly music would create a direct connection to the musical direction of WSM before long. While day programming was primarily news, evenings were often oriented around music or other forms of entertainment. The early music programs featured a variety of artists and styles including pop or swing orchestras such as the Andrew Jackson Hotel Orchestra, or gospel groups such as the Fisk Jubilee Singers. The crucial broadcast came on November 28, 1925 when George Hay invited a country fiddler named Uncle Jimmy Thompson to play for an hour on a Saturday night. According to Craig Havighurst, “His old time fiddling struck a chord. Telegrams, calls, and letters poured in from rural Tennessee and beyond, cheering and begging for more of the same” (Havighurst, p. 25). At this point, WSM began moving toward country music as it’s primary focus, but there were internal debates about the merits of the music itself, some feeling it wasn’t sophisticated enough for a powerful and professional radio station. Nonetheless, within a number of years, the Grand Ole Opry was born and WSM was the most important delegate of what became known as country music to the rest of the country.

Color photograph of a red and white transmitter near a white house on a blue sky day.
Figure 4.6 WSM Transmitter by Garrett A. Wollman

By the early 1930s, WSM had a 5,000 watt, clear channel signal reaching remarkable distances, and they were receiving letters from Honolulu New Zealand, and Northern Ontario (Havighurst, p. 41). A short time later, WSM was cleared to construct a new 50,000 watt transmitter that would reach even more listeners. Around the same time, George Hay began to engineer an particular image for the performers of hillbilly music at WSM. He “took notion that an “authentic” hillbilly music ought to feature musicians who looked like authentic hillbillies. He put them in floppy hats and overalls, loose work shirts, and bandannas around the neck. Even band names were being changed to reflect the hillbilly character such as Fruit Jar Drinkers or the Possum Hunters (Havighurst, p. 74). While the image would continue to evolve, the seeds for country attire were planted by George Hay then and there. Meanwhile, the music itself was still being presented Saturday evenings and these broadcasts were typically live with studio audiences. Soon, the demand for tickets pushed WSM to move their Saturday evening music presentations to larger and larger venues. By the mid-1930s the broadcasts were being held in the Dixie Tabernacle which held around 3,000 people, and many of the attendees were in fact out-of-towners no doubt hoping to witness the stars they’d only heard on the radio. These Saturday WSM broadcast concerts became known as the Grand Ole Opry, still popular to this day.

By the time of the great depression (1929-1939) country music seemed to reflect the economic hardship the average American faced. Artists themselves utilized radio to earn a living through the economic downturn. Some proved effective at selling products  (from laxatives to farm equipment) over the air, others like the Carter Family worked across the border in Mexico, where American radio law didn’t apply, using ultra-powerful transmitters of 500,000 watts to reach most of the United States, and some like Gene Autry were popular enough to star in movies (Havighurst, p. 85).

Jimmy Rogers

Black and white photo of Jimmie Rodgers wearing a white suit and hat.
Figure 4.7 Jimmie Rodgers

Jimmie Rodgers – (1897–1933) called the “Father of Country Music”. His distinctive vocal style was called “Blue Yodeling”. Yodeling is a nimble alternation between high and low notes, while the blue refers to Rodger’s use of the twelve-bar blues form. Rogers broke away from tradition by writing new songs instead of sticking mainly to traditional songs, establishing a new tradition for the singers that would follow, such as Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. In “Blue Yodel No. 1” found in Listening Examples 4.4 below, notice the use of two-beat bass in Rodgers thumb, and how the rhythm is even and steady. This steady beat is common throughout much of the country music that came after and provides, in it’s lack of syncopation, a core musical distinction from blues, jazz, ragtime, and gospel.

The Carter Family

Black and white photographic image of the Carter Family. One person is holding a guitar. One looks to be holding an accordion.
Figure 4.8 The Carter Family 1927

The Carter Family was an influential folk trio that began recording in the 1920’s, influencing countless folk and country musicians. The Carter family was made up of cousins Sara and Maybelle Carter, as well as Sara’s husband A.P. Carter. Sara sang most of the lead vocals, Maybelle provided backup vocals and played accompaniment on guitar, and A.P. provided occasional backup vocals. A.P. was also responsible for collecting and arranging their song repertoire, as they mostly adapted older songs in the American folk tradition including hymns and songs resembling the music of Tin Pan Alley. One of the most influential aspects of the group lies in the guitar technique of Maybelle Carter. Her playing showcased an advance finger-picking approach where she simultaneously played bass lines, chords, and melodies all at the same time, essentially handling the work of an instrumental trio on one guitar. The group first recorded in 1927 in Bristol, Tennessee at an audition for a new record company. These sessions, later known as the Bristol Sessions, resulted in enormous success for the trio and they sold many records. The original group broke up when A.P. And Sara Carter divorced in 1944.

Hank Williams

Black and white photographic image of Hank Williams wearing a light colored suit and a hat. There is a microphone that reads "WMS" in front of him. He is holding a guitar.
Figure 4.9 Hank Williams

Hank Williams – (1923–1953) Had a number one hit on the country charts with “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” (1952, featured in Ch. 4.2 Listening Examples). He wrote many other songs which were successful in his lifetime and have endured as classics of country music; his songs have been rerecorded countless times by country artists since his death. Williams’ lyrics are characterized by their personal nature as well as their wit and humor. His voice had the classic nasal quality that would serve as a model for many future country singers. Williams struggled alcohol and drug addiction, which led to his untimely death at age 29.

Below: Notice the wit and humor in the otherwise depressing lyrics for Williams’ song “I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive”

Now you’re lookin’ at a man that’s gettin’ kinda mad
I had lot’s of luck but it’s all been bad
No matter how I struggle and strive
I’ll never get out of this world alive

My fishin’ pole’s broke, the creek is full of sand
My woman run away with another man
No matter how I struggle and strive
I’ll never get out of this world alive

A distant uncle passed away and left me quite a batch
And I was living high until that fatal day
A lawyer proved I wasn’t born
I was only hatched

Ev’rything’s agin’ me and it’s got me down
If I jumped in the river, I would prob’ly drown
No matter how I struggle and strive
I’ll never get out of this world alive

These shabby shoes I’m wearin’ all the time
Are full of holes and nails
And brother if I stepped on a worn out dime
I bet a nickel, I could tell you if it was heads or tails

I’m not gonna worry wrinkles in my brow
‘Cause nothin’s ever gonna be alright nohow
No matter how I struggle and strive
I’ll never get out of this world alive

Johnny Cash

Color image of Johnny Cash with a guitar and microphone.
Figure 4.10 Johnny Cash, 1964

Johnny Cash – (1932–2003) Country artist that was successful in country and other fields of popular music. His early career included gospel and rockabilly, but he became famous as one of the most influential musicians in country music.

Cash achieved great crossover success with many of his country hits also reaching the pop charts. Such hits include “Cry Cry Cry” (1955), “I Walk the Line” and “Folsom Prison Blues (1956), and “Boy Named Sue (1969). He was not afraid to work with musicians of vastly different genres and successfully covered a Nine Inch Nails song (“Hurt”) late in his career.

George Jones

Color image of George Jones with a guitar and microphone.
Figure 4.11 George Jones

George Jones – (1931-2013) Was an influential singer/songwriter in country music. Jones wrote and sang many songs of a personal nature, reflecting his own troubled life and difficulties in his relationships with others. The timbre of Jones’ voice was pure, and his range was such that he could sing quite low as well as high, and many of his melodies traverse a wide range of pitch.

Jones career began playing music publicly in his teens after leaving home. His biggest influence was Hank Williams, providing him with the inspiration to write his own music. In the 1950s he joined the Grand Ol’ Opry. Jones’ first No. 1 hit was “White Lightnin'” in 1959, but trouble with alcohol began around this time and would plague him throughout his career. In 1962 he scored one of his biggest hits, “She Thinks I Still Care”. The song features an AABA form and lyrics that say one thing but seem to mean the opposite (featured in Ch. 4.2 Listening Examples).

Through the later 1960s into the 1970s, Jones’ struggled with alcoholism and would miss concert dates, recording sessions, and proved all-around unreliable. By the 1980s, however, he was able to make a comeback and quit drinking (with the exception of a few brief relapses) and continued a successful career until his death in 2013. Jones is considered by many to be one of the most important and influential performers in country music history.

Listening Examples 4.4

Jimmie Rodgers: Notice the clear, storytelling lyrics that Rodgers is using in “I’m in the Jailhouse Now”. Also, though it may be difficult to hear, Rodgers is incorporating two-beat bass which creates a simple yet strong rhythmic foundation.  Listen for a familiar song form in the lyrical scheme in A video document of Jimmie Rodgers performing “Blue Yodel No. 1”.

Carter Family: I demonstrate “Wildwood Flower” in a way that approximates Maybelle Carter’s sound by incorporating the melody of the song, interspersing it with chords and bass lines. The sound of strings ringing with a melody playing at the same time creates a rich, full musical texture. I play three variations on the main theme.

Hank Williams:

Johnny Cash:

George Jones: “The Grand Tour”, like many songs in the country traditions, tells a story of heartbreak. Jones sings from the perspective of a man whose wife has left him, taking the listener on a “tour” of his now empty house, telling a tale of the idyllic life he once had. Melodically, Jones traverses a wide range of pitch, occasionally dipping deep into his low, bass range. The song is set at a slow tempo, allowing room for an expansive vocal melody.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Popular Music by Todd Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book