5 Things You Didn’t Know About Gospel in Harlem

This post is also available in: French

In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin described his Gospel experience in a church of Harlem:

The church was exciting. There is no music like that music, no drama like the drama of the saints rejoicing, the sinners moaning, the tambourines racing, and all those voices coming together and crying Holy unto the Lord – and their cries of “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!” and “Yes, Lord!” and “Praise his name!” and “Preach it brother!” all became equal, wringing wet, singing and dancing, in anguish and rejoicing, at the foot of the altar” (1936)

Gospel music is deeply moving, and erases all differences. We have all heard it, danced to it, sang along… Here are a few facts worth knowing about the history of Gospel in Harlem.

1- “Don’t take it as Gospel”

Photo: David Keith

The word Gospel originally stands for the scriptures that describe the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. You might have heard of the saying “take as Gospel” which means taken straight from the Bible. Interestingly enough, in Gospel music in Harlem, singers often feel free to add or subtract words or entire phrases to the original text. The extra texts serves the rhythm and the melody, and make for songs that are each time a little different, and a lot more personal!

2- What is Black Gospel Music?

Gospel music primarily consists in spirituals, hymns, and gospel texts readings. Yet, there is a wide spectrum of genres that can be found across the country, and also across the neighborhood of Harlem. Actually, during the Harlem Renaissance, one widely held opinion was that Gospel was the sacred counterpart to blues music: just as varied and colorful!

3- Traditional vs. Contemporary

Photo: Harlem Spirituals

The Gospel music that emerged in Harlem in the late 1920’s, in parallel with the popularization of blues, is generally labeled “traditional”, whereas “contemporary Gospel” is for the more modern music similar to Edwin Hawkins’s classic “Oh Happy Day”. Today, both styles can be heard in Harlem churches or modern venues!

4- The Lyrics

Photo: David Keith

While The Gospel (the scriptures) revolves around the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the lyrics of Gospel songs often deal with the singers/songwriter’s personal experiences with Jesus and everyday living, like in Dorsey’s “Precious Lord” (above) which deals with him receiving a telegram that informed him that his wife had died in childbirth.

5- Storefront Churches

1936-Church-of-God-New York Public Library
Photo: New York Public Library/Public Domain

In the 1920’s, out of 140 churches in Harlem, only 54 were located in traditional church structures. The rest were what is called storefront churches (see picture above): in other words, Gospel masses in Harlem took place in spaces that were intended to be shops or boutiques!

Seeing a Gospel concert in Harlem is without a doubt a must-do in New York, and frankly is one of the best attractions of the city. In addition to our Harlem Gospel guided tours in English, Spanish, French, German, and Italian, please check out our Harlem Guide for more info and advice on what to see in Harlem.

For more information and to reserve, click on the links below:

-Sunday Harlem Gospel tour by bus
-Sunday Harlem Gospel tour by bus with brunch
-Wednesday Harlem Gospel tour by bus
-Wednesday Harlem Gospel tour by bus with lunch
-Wednesday visit of Harlem on foot plus Gospel concert

To find out more about the history and the music of Harlem, join us on our Harlem Gospel tour! Also, if you are interested in finding more to do in New York City, search through our complete range of tours, attractions and activities. We can also tailor-make programs specifically to match your desires and budgets. Harlem Spirituals is the ideal one-stop-shop to simplify your planning! Find more information on www.harlemspirituals.com or contact us at info@harlemspirituals.com.

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