by Katherine Kemp, Christianity Today, 12/6/18.
In the 1920s, Chicago’s first African American congregations were at a crossroads. After decades of investment, the churches and their musicians were proud of their accomplishments as they had “lifted the Negro race” to a position of separate but equal status with their white peers in worship. Worship in these churches largely mirrored worship in white churches in song and liturgy. Black Methodist and Baptist congregations often sang from the same hymnals as their white counterparts. Trained singers in the choirs led the less-literate congregants in the proper rendition of hymns. European anthems were prominent in the senior choir’s repertoire. Restraint was the rule in worship.
This was all about to change. As the Great Migration drew thousands of African Americans to the North, many new residents had little interest in the music of these congregations. Instead, they brought their own songs with lyrics that often drew from the hardships of slavery and Jim Crow and rhythms inspired by African chants and medleys. The metered songs of English composer Isaac Watts, which had served as the inspiration for the revival songs of the Great Awakening, were sung without instrumental accompaniment by Southern emigrants seeking worship in smaller storefront churches where more emotion and common language were welcome.
Gospel music scholar Horace Clarence Boyer summarized this dilemma in the PBS documentary We’ve Come This Far by Faith:
There was the feeling that the more white you acted, the more you would be accepted by white people. There was not that kind of pride about having lived through slavery. … The whole emphasis was ridding every Negro of everything that was Negroid … including the church service ritual. So all of a sudden, now, we get Brahms and Handel. … And here we begin to get a whole conflict between the ways people are going to worship. And many preachers said, “Don’t sing those slave songs altogether.”
… Musical Culture Shock
The 1906 Los Angeles Azusa Street Revival changed the worship practices for many black people. The event initially resulted (temporarily) in an interracial church and became the beginning of the Pentecostal movement, the third major religious denomination of African Americans. The movement encouraged ecstatic worship along with drums, tambourines, and guitars, and as it grew, its upbeat style spread across the country. Those worship practices became embedded in the praise and worship style of the Holiness churches.
The beginning of the 20th century also marked a significant geographic shift for African Americans. Nearly half a million African Americans fed up with Jim Crow atrocities and in search of new opportunities immigrated to the North between 1910 and 1930. They arrived with their religious worship practices intact, an experience characterized by singing, dancing, clapping, and amens. Worship involved the whole body in movement and song.
But as the black population swelled, tensions began to grow between rural and city African Americans, who didn’t always share the same musical tastes...