WTTW Chicago: The Birth of Gospel Music in Chicago

“For generations, Black music has been one of the foundational sources for liberation, survival, salvation, and entertainment. Gospel music has been one of the most integral and sacred forms of that music. It birthed a generation of storytellers, influential musicians, and agents of social change, such as Mahalia Jackson, Shirley Caesar, Kirk Franklin, and many others. The origins of gospel music lie in the transatlantic slave trade, as African musical traditions blended with new forms born out of the horrors of slavery. The rich lineage of gospel music began in earnest as a young man named Thomas Dorsey came to Chicago during the Great Migration. His own spiritual rebirth at Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago created a form of music that married blues influences with religious themes. Dorsey’s legacy ushered in a generation of Black artists who broke new ground by turning their voices of joy and pain into something powerful.

The Great Migration and Thomas Dorsey’s Creation of Gospel Music
“In 1915, Black Southerners began to move north and west in the Great Migration in search of work, a chance for a better life, and to escape the Jim Crow laws of the South. Chicago, having an established Black community, was considered ‘the promised land.’ The influential, Black-owned Chicago Defender newspaper promoted that idea, publishing stories about Southerners who had succeeded in Chicago, as well as job postings, housing listings, and travel tips. Between 1915 and 1940, the city’s Black population doubled.

“During Dorsey’s first years in Chicago, he worked at a steel mill while burnishing a reputation as the “whispering piano player,” quietly playing background music for small venues and ‘rent parties’ – parties in which a hat was passed around to help tenants pay the rent.

“After Dorsey married Nettie Harper in 1925, he suffered a nervous breakdown. For three years, he was unable to perform, write, or play the piano, due to what many believed was severe depression. After his recovery and the sudden death of a friend, he once more turned back to his faith and poured his sorrow into a song he wrote called ‘If You See My Savior.’ He infused the techniques he knew from the blues into a somber and spiritual tune, leading to the creation of what he called “gospel blues.”

“‘He knew all the blues licks and chords, and he takes that music, he takes those chords and those sounds, which are very African, and then he places on top of it lyrics that speak of the gospel,’ Moss said.

“While he had created a transformative style of music, many of the older church leaders vehemently dismissed his innovations. The Stroll, a vibrant stretch of clubs and nightlife in Bronzeville, was often bustling with music deemed unfit by ministers.

“But Dorsey kept composing. He co-founded the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, sharing his music with congregations around the country. He began working with a group of women singers, including a young woman named Mahalia Jackson. His music grew in popularity, particularly in small storefront churches and among a younger generation of churchgoers. In 1931, a new pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church invited Dorsey to organize a gospel chorus.

“When pastor Dr. Junius C. Austin of Pilgrim Baptist Church witnessed the enthusiasm of the congregation at Ebenezer, he invited Dorsey to create a gospel choir and serve as the director at his church, which was one of the city’s largest Black congregations at the time. From there, gospel music spread.

“‘In the Chicago Defender, every week in 1932, you start to see churches announce, ‘We’re building a gospel chorus,’” Marovich said.

“Dorsey’s legacy would carry over into another generation – and Mahalia Jackson helped carry it. Jackson took gospel music from religious settings to the commercial realm and popularized it. She also became involved with the civil rights movement after meeting Dr. Martin Luther King at the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. In 1963, Dr. King invited Jackson to sing before his I Have A Dream speech at the March on Washington, cementing gospel music’s place in the civil rights movement.” (The Birth of Gospel Music in Chicago, Chicago Stories, WTTW Chicago)

Read the full story at WTTW Chicago

The Birth of Gospel Music in Chicago, Chicago Stories, WTTW Chicago, 2023

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