One of the seminal figures in developing the gospel style, Charles Albert Tindley (1851-1933), moved to Philadelphia during the Great Migration of the early twentieth century and became a well-known gospel songwriter. As the region’s African American population grew and black churches flourished, Philadelphia served as home base for many of the music’s biggest stars who settled in the city during the mid-twentieth century “golden age” of gospel.
Gospel music emerged from urban African American churches in the early twentieth century, growing out of longstanding sacred black music traditions. In colonial Philadelphia, African Americans sang sacred songs from their African homelands as well as European-derived psalms and hymns that they infused with African elements. The music became more formalized in the city’s first black churches in the 1790s, particularly Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded in 1794 by Richard Allen (1760-1831). In 1801 Allen published a hymnal for his congregation titled A Collection of Spiritual Songs and Hymns Selected From Various Authors by Richard Allen, African Minister, the first American hymnal compiled for a black congregation. Allen later issued expanded editions of the hymnal, which included primarily traditional Protestant hymns along with some he wrote himself.
While gospel music first developed in urban black churches in the North, its roots lay in the rural South. Prior to the Civil War, the harsh conditions of slavery in the South produced two major African American vocal traditions: the blues and the Negro spiritual—the former secular, the latter sacred. Spirituals, the great body of African American religious folk songs, served as the foundation for gospel.
Following the Civil War, African Americans migrating from the South brought their musical traditions to Northern cities, where the urban environment gave rise to a new kind of worship music, the gospel song. In contrast to spirituals, which were improvisatory folk songs passed down orally, gospel songs were composed, formally structured tunes that incorporated elements of popular music and blues. Their lyrics reflected the new realities of urban black life.
One of the creators of the gospel style, Charles Albert Tindley, moved to Philadelphia during the increasing wave of African American migration from the South at the turn of the twentieth century. Born into a slave family in Maryland and largely self-taught, Tindley became pastor of Bainbridge Street Methodist Episcopal Church (later renamed Calvary Methodist Episcopal Church) in South Philadelphia in 1902. Under his leadership, the congregation expanded significantly and in 1906 moved to its longtime location at Broad and Fitzwater Streets (where it was later renamed Tindely Temple). Tindley wrote gospel hymns, which he began publishing in 1901, the first such songs in the new style to be published. He later issued several gospel hymn collections, published by companies he helped to establish. Through preaching and singing, songwriting, publishing, and radio broadcasts, Tindley became an important figure in gospel music in Philadelphia and beyond. Several of his hymns became gospel standards, including “I’ll Overcome Someday,” which served as the inspiration for the well-known civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” Six of his hymns appeared in Gospel Pearls, a collection published in 1921 that was the first hymnal geared toward African American congregations to use the word gospel in the title.
Tindley sometimes has been called the “Father of Gospel Music,” but most historians give this title to Thomas Dorsey (1899-1993), the Chicago-based pianist and songwriter who originally worked in blues before turning to gospel in the early 1930s. Following in Tindley’s footsteps, Dorsey became a prolific gospel songwriter and promoter. An astute businessman as well as musician, he successfully marketed his songs, founded gospel choirs and conventions, and promoted the career of Mahalia Jackson (1911-72), the most famous gospel singer of the twentieth century. Dorsey and other gospel songwriters of the period, most of whom acknowledged Tindley’s influence, helped to usher in the “golden age” of gospel in the 1940s and 1950s, a time when black congregations across the nation sang gospel music in their worship services and gospel recording artists and performers enjoyed great popularity.