Religious music in Mississippi emerged from the musical forms that early settlers brought to the state, the dynamic cultural cauldron of the nineteenth-century frontier, the influence of northern urban religious styles, the continuing importance of the rural cultural context, the commercialization of traditional music, and the state’s abiding biracial context. It remains a flourishing community and commercial form today.
Church people in the early nineteenth century sang old British hymns and carols and the evangelical songs of Methodist writers such as Charles Wesley, John Newton, and William Cowper. Camp meetings saw the use of new melodies, and choruses were sometimes added to older songs to engage worshippers. Songs in early Mississippi circulated in shape-note form, whereby the shape of the note indicated its musical pitch—fa was a triangle, sol a circle, la a square, and mi a diamond. This system had previously been popular in New England, but it died out there while becoming pervasive in the South after 1800. Singing schools served as training grounds for shape-note teachers, who spread through the countryside, and tunebooks such as the Sacred Harp (1844) provided a musical repertoire for religious singing, public and private. The book has gone through endless revisions and remains popular in Mississippi.
Black Mississippians attended early camp meetings and sometimes worshipped in biracial churches, with evangelical music entering deeply into black religious culture during the antebellum era, when slaves increasingly embraced Protestantism. In praise sessions held in slave quarters at night or at funerals, African Americans used music to articulate a distinctive religious worldview and nurture a sense of identity. African inheritances emphasizing the importance of body movement while singing promoted preservation of the ring shout, where religion was danced as well as sung. The spirituals provided a singular body of religious songs that influenced black as well as white religious music. After the Civil War the Fisk Jubilee Singers traveled across the nation, helping to popularize spirituals. In the South, campus choirs at Mississippi’s Rust College and other newly formed African American schools followed the Fisk lead.
The late nineteenth century saw the spread into Mississippi of evangelistic music associated with urban revivalism. Gospel music had become defined by the 1870s in the publications of Ira Sankey, song leader for the era’s leading evangelist, Dwight L. Moody. This predominantly northern urban music became part of southern religious traditions when its revival songs were published in shape-note form, enabling rural people to sing the songs. The Ruebush-Kieffer Company of Dayton, Virginia, and the Anthony J. Showalter publishing house in Dalton, Georgia, led the way, with paperback hymnals that were used in country churches but were especially noteworthy for their role in a defining Mississippi religious-musical ritual—the weekend singing conventions that became legendary as “all-day-singings with dinner on the grounds.” The lyrics of southern gospel music were rooted in a biblically based theology that was aware of sinfulness and assured of salvation for believers in Christ and that celebrated the joys of heaven. These often nostalgic and sentimental songs told of country churches, the family hearth, and spiritually nurturing mothers but above all of a comforting Savior, helping to create intimate possibilities for singers to know the love of Jesus. “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” “Washed in the Blood of the Lamb,” and “In the Garden” are good examples. Mississippians sang the new gospel songs as well as traditional church hymns in such denominational hymnals as the Methodist Cokesbury Hymnal (1923) and the Southern Baptist Convention’s Broadman Hymnal (1940).
Pentecostal and Holiness churches became important religious traditions in Mississippi in the early twentieth century and embraced these tunes. These churches began as attempts to restore a Wesleyan piety to the Methodist Church, stressing a religion of the heart that was open to the emotional appeals of stirring music. Pentecostal and Holiness people moved beyond the traditional church piano and organ and embraced tambourines, horns, and electric guitars. They welcomed the shape-note paperback hymnals, and Pentecostal composers wrote such classic gospel songs as “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Great Speckled Bird.” Tupelo’s Elvis Presley grew up a Pentecostal, and his love of gospel music, which deeply influenced his early rock performances, came from that background.
The performance style of much modern black gospel music originated among African American Pentecostals in Memphis in the first decade of the twentieth century. The Church of God in Christ, whose founders included Charles Harrison Mason from Lexington, Mississippi, instituted services with new rhythmic intensity, including clapping of hands, swaying, shaking of heads, and occasional shouted interpolations. Rhythmic music was encouraged in this context. Gospel quartets that subsequently became popular grew partly out of the Fisk Jubilee ensemble singing tradition, sometimes augmented by secular barbershop harmonies from the late nineteenth century, but they also drew from this Pentecostal-Holiness style of music.
Both white and black gospel traditions became commercialized beginning in the early twentieth century. James Vaughan’s publishing company in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, and the Stamps-Baxter Company in Jacksonville, Texas, blanketed the South with paperback hymnals and pioneered other ways to spread gospel music. Both companies used traveling quartet singers and radio to market songbooks, with Vaughan launching WOAN, one of the first broadcasting stations in Tennessee, and Stamps-Baxter sponsoring noon and Sunday broadcasts on Dallas’s KRLD beginning in 1937. The Stamps-Baxter Quartet recorded for Victor Records in 1928 and became enormously successful, leading most white gospel quartets to affiliate with Stamps-Baxter. The Gospel Singers of America was a Mississippi Gulf Coast singing school affiliated with Stamps-Baxter. It was run out of a stately white building by Videt Polk, one of the company’s main composers. Mississippi produced one of the most famous white gospel quartets, the Blackwood Brothers, who were organized in Ackerman in 1934, sang in churches in Choctaw County, and became prominent through radio broadcasts on Kosciusko’s WHEF and Jackson’s WJDX. Spending time during the 1940s in Iowa and California before settling in Memphis in 1950, they helped to nationalize gospel music.
Since the 1930s Mississippians have heard a variety of black gospel styles, such as solo performers in the mold of Mahalia Jackson or Rosetta Tharpe; guitar-accompanied blues-gospel singers; half-spoken, half-sung preacher sermons; local church choirs; and interdenominational church choirs. However, the gospel quartet long dominated religious performance in the state, and Mississippi produced some of the nation’s most successful groups. The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi organized in the 1930s as a quartet of students from the Piney Woods School south of Jackson. Originally known as the Cotton Blossom Singers, the group changed its name in the mid-1940s and adopted a “hard gospel” sound that utilized screams, growls, and thigh-slapping rhythmic accompaniment. Frank Crisler organized the Jackson Southernaires in 1940, and they were among the first gospel groups to diversify their instrumental sound, using bass, drums, keyboard, and guitars. The Canton Spirituals made a name for themselves blending rock and soul in a new gospel sound. Elgie Graham and Willie Johnson began the Pilgrim Jubilees in Houston, Mississippi, in 1944, and they made Billboard’s Top 25 list with such albums as Back to Basics, Family Affair, and I’m Getting Better All the Time.
As with white gospel groups, radio and recordings were crucial to the success of Mississippi’s black gospel performers. The Jackson Southernaires, for example, hosted a Jackson radio show for four decades and had a local television show, Gospel Unlimited, in the 1970s. The Southernaires signed in 1963 with a leading gospel recording company, Duke/Peacock, and the Pilgrim Jubilees recorded on Mashboro Records before moving to Peacock/Songbird, Savoy, and Malaco. Malaco had specialized in blues and rhythm and blues music but released its first gospel record, the Golden Nuggets’ Gospel Train, in 1973. The company’s gospel division, long overseen by Franklin D. Williams, has been crucial to providing recording opportunities for the state’s performers. In 1991 the Williams Brothers from Smithdale founded Blackberry Records, the state’s first recording company run by African Americans.
After World War II gospel groups increasingly reflected secular styles and performed in nonchurch settings, traveling in large buses for concerts at community auditoriums. In 1948 Wally Fowler pioneered the “package show,” where many individual acts performed together. Fowler also popularized the all-night gospel singings in Mississippi and other parts of the South. More recently, Bill and Gloria Gaither have promoted concert and television programs that highlight one particular gospel theme—songs of wonder and amazement at God’s glory. Overlooking denominational theologies, they concentrate on an underlying spirituality that comes out of an evangelical sensibility. The Gaither programs draw from the close ties between white gospel and country music, with the gospel ballad and bluegrass gospel, which often features dobros, banjos, and electric guitars. The Gaithers’ Homecoming concerts often take place in Mississippi’s larger towns and are televised on Mississippi Public Broadcasting.
Mississippi remains a leader in gospel music. Organized by Franklin L. Williams in 1988, the Mississippi Mass Choir has won Billboard’s Gospel Artist of the Year award several times. Songwriter Jimmy Owens of Clarksdale helped pioneer contemporary Christian music. Religious music also survives as a daily and special occasion pastime for many people. Events such as Sacred Harp singings and fifth Sunday singing conventions take place in county courthouses and local churches. Evangelicals continue to value family gospel singing, and religious music is heard on local radio stations across the state.
- James H. Brewer, ed., Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame: Legendary Musicians Whose Art Has Changed the World (2001)
- Bob Darden, People Get Ready! A New History of Black Gospel Music (2005)
- James Downey, in Sense of Place, Mississippi, ed. Peggy W. Prenshaw (1979)
- Anthony Heilbut, The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times (1971)
- James R. Goff, Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel (2002)