Merging Gospel and Christmas Music

A re-broadcast of an interview from NPR's Morning Edition about the blending of gospel and Christmas music: Music historian Horace Clarence Boyer talks about the history of the successful merger between the two music genres. Boyer is professor emeritus of music theory and African-American music at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

When you hear a Christmas tune with a gospel undercurrent, it sounds natural, but the combination wasn't always automatic. Three years ago, our friends at "Morning Edition" aired a conversation about the origins of blending the spirits of gospel and Christmas between NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams and music historian Horace Clarence Boyer.

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

Horace Clarence Boyer is professor emeritus of music theory and African-American music at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He's also a gospel singer. Boyer is the author of several books, including "How Sweet The Sound: The Golden Age of Gospel." While gospel and Christmas would seem to be a heavenly match, gospel music was very slow to embrace Christmas themes.

Professor HORACE CLARENCE BOYER (Author): It's around the 1930s that colleges and universities began to sing Negro spirituals which then inspired the gospel people to pick up the Christmas songs, and one of the first was actually a Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a singer from Cotton Plant, Arkansas, who recorded as early as 1939 a gospel version of "Silent Night."

(Soundbite of "Silent Night")

Sister ROSETTA THARPE: (Singing) Silent night. Holy night. All is calm. All is bright.

Prof. BOYER: I must admit that we were also very much indebted to the white church for Christmas carols, so we tended to try to sing them like they did, until someone began to improvise on it. And maybe someone said, `Hmm, not bad.'

(Soundbite of "Glory to the Newborn King")

Ms. MARGARET ALLISON and the Angelic Gospel Singers: (Singing) Give. Give. Oh, what a wonderful sound. Give. Give. The holy speaking loud...

WILLIAMS: So when was that? When did it go from imitating white singers singing Christmas carols to black singers in their own voice adapting it to the gospel style?

Prof. BOYER: We can almost mark the date. In 1950, Margaret Allison and the Angelic Gospel Singers of Philadelphia recorded an original gospel song called "Glory to the Newborn King" and the song just took the black church by storm.

(Soundbite of "Glory to the Newborn King")

Ms. MARGARET ALLISON and the Angelic Gospel Singers: (Singing) ...give light and hope to all. Listen to the angels sing glory, glory, glory, to the newborn king.

Prof. BOYER: "Glory to the Newborn King," as far as we know, is the first composed gospel song. Dorothy didn't write gospel songs. Roberta Martin didn't write gospel songs. Kenneth Morris didn't, and they mean to you the giants and the pioneers, but it was not a subject that they wrote on. And then in 1951 when we get `Glory, glory, glory, to the newborn king,' I mean, it was something. And it is about Christmas. And people said that if we can do this from the Angelic Gospel Singers, then we can do it with other songs.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. ALLISON: (Singing) Sweet little Jesus boy.

Angelic Gospel Singers: (Singing) Jesus boy.

Ms. ALLISON: (Singing) They made you be born in a manger. Sweet little holy child.

Angelic Gospel Singers: (Singing) Holy child.

WILLIAMS: Now, Professor Boyer, the term `gospel' goes back to white gospel, "Bringing in the Sheaves," "Shall We Gather At the River," even "Amazing Grace."

Prof. BOYER: Yes. When we say gospel, we automatically think black gospel when, in fact, white gospel begins in the 1870s with "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" and, later on, "Shall We Gather At the River," and gospel singing, as you know, is a rehearsed, choral, prepared music, and that doesn't come in until the 1930s. But this music is so fascinating. In the first place, it's black music. There's that wonderful melody. There's those blue notes. There's that rhythm that you can't get from your local supermarket. There's that wonderful timbre of the voice crying in the wilderness, and it is so attractive. Now that surpasses white gospel. So almost when you say gospel, one doesn't think the Happy Goodman Family or the Statesmen Quartet.

WILLIAMS: No.

Prof. BOYER: They think Mahalia Jackson or James Cleveland.

WILLIAMS: Professor, I wonder if you could give us another example from the early days of gospel Christmas music that really sets the tone for what's to come later.

Prof. BOYER: "Go Tell It On The Mountain" is perhaps the most popular white Christmas carol, although "Go Tell It On The Mountain" is, in fact, a Negro spiritual. That is to say, it was written during slavery, though we don't know who wrote it. But it was the one song that has been employed the most. It's not a slow song. It's a jubilee. Sort of this: (singing) "Go tell it on the mountain.

(Soundbite of "Go Tell It On The Mountain")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) ...over the hills and everywhere. Go tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ was born.

Prof. BOYER: I mean, you can rock with that. And actually, it is the proper kind of Christmas carol. If you've heard that this new king is born, you certainly don't want to sing a funereal arrangement...

WILLIAMS: No.

Prof. BOYER: ...of anything.

WILLIAMS: Now, Professor Boyer, the other day I was listening to Elvis Presley sing a Christmas carol, and I thought, this sounds like gospel.

(Soundbite of "O Come All Ye Faithful")

Mr. ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) Oh, come let us adore him. Oh, come let us adore him. Oh, come let us adore...

Prof. BOYER: Well, now you know after Elvis moved from Tupelo, he moved into Memphis, and there was a very popular minister in Memphis, the Reverend W. Herbert Brewster. He had a broadcast every Sunday night from his church. I went to interview Dr. Brewster in 1986. He had a poster on his wall of the broadcast, and sitting right in front of all of these black faces were three little white boys. They look about 17 or 18. And I says to him, `Isn't that?' He said, `Yes, that's Elvis Presley.'

WILLIAMS: Oh, my goodness.

Prof. BOYER: He was here every Sunday night to the broadcast from that church. And of course, you know, Elvis always admitted that his soul was in gospel. And when he sang--you know, Cissy Houston, Whitney's mother, was in the background sometimes singing with Sweet Inspirations. He liked that black sound, and he didn't embarrass black singers with his adaptation of their singing.

WILLIAMS: One last question, Dr. Boyer. Do you see this gospel music now, with its relationship to Christmas music, as a growing phenomenon, or you think we've hit the height of it?

Prof. BOYER: With gospel becoming popular music, meaning that it is now dictated, in reality, by the public--the public says that they want to buy this, they want to buy that, and if they don't buy it, you don't make it. The public wants a reaction, a gospel reaction, to St. Patrick's Day. They want a gospel reaction to July 4th. They want a gospel reaction to Thanksgiving. And you're going to get songs which are thematic and they're topical, so that Christmas and Easter along with other national holidays, most of them non-religious, will also get a gospel treatment.

WILLIAMS: Horace Clarence Boyer is professor emeritus of music theory and African-American music at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. His book, "How Sweet The Sound: The Golden Age of Gospel," has just been published in paperback. Juan Williams, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of "Gloria")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Gloria in excelsis deo.

CHIDEYA: We hope that you enjoyed that special rebroadcast from the archives of NPR's "Morning Edition."

(Soundbite of "Gloria")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) ...in excelsis deo.

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