How has gospel music impacted U.S. culture? What distinguishes gospel from contemporary Christian music? How did gospel artists like Andrae Crouch and the Winans break racial barriers in popular Christian music? We sit down with Dr. Claudrena N. Harold for insights about the history and impact of gospel music on American and African American culture.
Harold is a history professor and chair of the history department at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. In her latest book, When Sunday Comes: Gospel Music in the Soul and Hip-Hop Eras, Harold takes a deep dive into the history of key artists and developments that shaped gospel music after the civil rights era.
The interview below includes a transcript and video responses from the author. It has been edited for clarity and brevity.
One of the things I noticed right away in When Sunday Comes is that you use the terms “gospel music” and “Christian music,” oftentimes in a single sentence. What are the distinctions of gospel music and Christian music?
What kind of research did you do for this book, in terms of the music you listened to—like, do you have like a lengthy Spotify playlist somewhere? I assume you visited churches, maybe talked to local key businesses.
This book was definitely a labor of love. It is a book that I feel as if I have been researching my entire life. Probably since, you know, my first gospel concert. But it was a book that I was very reluctant to write. My work is on African American history and culture, really, in the 1920s. I had already written books before, I’ve done some film. Music is my sanctuary, it’s my joy, it’s a source of spiritual sustenance, and sometimes as a researcher and a writer, you don’t want to actually bring other people into that space.
I’ve also changed politically. So there are some things that I loved listening to in the 1970s and the 1980s that I listen to now and it kind of makes me cringe. But I was seeing all of this wonderful scholarship about gospel music and so much of it focused on the golden era of gospel music, you know, the 1940s and 50s and 60s, and I grew up in the 1980s loving the music of Commission and the Winans and being really a fanatic. I wanted to see those people talked about with the same passion and scholarly rigor that I saw people talking about Mahalia Jackson and the Dixie Hummingbirds. So I made a decision, I think I made this decision in 2016, that I would write an article on James Cleveland and the Gospel Music Workshop of America, and let’s see how that goes. And it evolved into just the book. So the writing of the book, the researching of the book, it took me in new places, but it also took me to old places. Like I said, I was a fanatic. So I grew up—I’m a collector, too, so I’m a gospel collector. So this is like an Andrae Crouch comic book from the 1970s (holds up a copy of “On the Road with Andrae Crouch”). And most importantly, like I grew up reading, you know, gospel magazines….(Holds up an old CCM magazine with a young BeBe and CeCe Winans on the cover).
In terms of the research, first of all, just getting all of the music and listening to it. For gospel music, that also meant sometimes digging in record crates, digging in record shops and buying the actual album…. So first of all, it was just building and going back to my album base, and then also just reading as much as I could from prominent gospel music magazines. I’m talking about magazines like Totally Gospel that came out of Detroit in the 1980s by T.J. Hemphill, Contemporary Christian Music, but which is also complicated, because it covered Andrae Crouch and really BeBe and CeCe Winans and Take 6, but you were not going to find a detailed article on James Cleveland there.
But also I relied a lot on…on Black newspapers, you know, for the development of gospel music. You know, the Norfolk Journal and Guide and The Chicago Defender, and these Black journalists who treated the music and the musicians with the utmost respect and wrote detailed album reviews and concert reviews. I also relied on Johnson publications, so Ebony and Jet, of course, would have these—I call them annual conversations, you know—has gospel gone too far? So that was extremely important, but then also digging into archives.
Some gospel artists experienced secular or mainstream success, like The Edwin Hawkins Singers with “Oh Happy Day,” which was embraced nationally and internationally. But some Christian communities were not happy with this trend. What were the concerns of people within the church who were resistant to taking gospel secular?
When Sunday Comes mentions that Shirley Caesar ran for public office and won. I think the things she attempted to tackle in her local community were motivated by her beliefs about her Christian faith. Her career shows that gospel was about more than just the music but was a movement, in a sense, to bring uplift and also create real change.
Transitioning to some of the racial dynamics, BeBe and CeCe Winans really broke ground in terms of crossing over, not just into the secular market but also into the White Christian world. You mention in the book that they were hired by televangelist Jim Bakker’s “The PTL Club.” What kind of ground did they break, in terms of overcoming racial barriers. How did it work out when they crossed over into that world?
Their first album crosses over so they’re being played on—well, “PTL” actually puts out an album. It’s hard to find, but there’s a BeBe and CeCe album that became part of their package to donors. Then they signed with Sparrow Records, which doesn’t actually have a lot of Black artists at that time and it bears noting sometimes the Black artists who signed with Sparrow would sometimes complain that they felt as if they were put on the back burner because of BeBe and CeCe Winans….
In terms of RIAA certification, BeBe and CeCe were actually the first Black gospel act since Aretha Franklin’s “Amazing Grace” to go gold. And so they went gold with “Heaven” in 1988, also helped by the appearance of Whitney Houston, who was on that album…. So they crossover, they win a lot of Dove Awards. Then, of course, their 1991 album, “Different Lifestyles,” goes platinum. During that period you also get Take 6, who also have that crossover appeal.
I know this is not show-and-tell (holds up another old CCM magazine), but I think it’s important when you think about [CeCe and BeBe]. Like Black people didn’t get on the cover of is. That’s Andrae Crouch, BeBe and CeCe…. You don’t get that a lot. In fact, in the early ’80s, they used to have what they call the Black issue, they would have one issue in the month…and the cool thing about them [is] that their editorial board addressed these issues. So when I’m trying to learn about this art form, and I’m buying Black gospel magazines, too—and Teresa Hairston is so important in terms of [the Gospel] Score [newsletter], in terms of how that opens things up for me. Then “Totally Gospel” before that…So they (BeBe and CeCe Winans) are crossing over in so many ways. And it’s important because it opens up opportunities, I think, for other folks. Other record companies begin to say, “Okay, this can be profitable.”
What should we appreciate about gospel music, its development, its presence, and so forth? How can diverse Christian communities have a shared understanding about the significance of gospel music?