Gospel Music and the Birth of Soul

Essential Question

How did Gospel influence American popular music?


Gospel music first emerged from the fusion of West African musical traditions, the experiences of slavery, Christian practices, and the hardships associated with life in the American South. Over time, as the influence of the African-American church grew and the Great Migration transported thousands of African Americans from the South to America’s northern industrial cities, the influence of this musical genre expanded. Ultimately, Gospel’s reach would extend well beyond the religious realm, directly affecting the world of secular music.

In some cases, a mere change of lyrics could transform a Gospel song into a successful work of Pop, wherein the worshipped God (“He”) became the prosaic object of worldly affection (“she”). When Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers recorded “Wonderful,” they declared that “Whenever I need, the Lord will provide/And praise my Lord’s name/I know he’s so wonderful.” Singing initially under the name “Dale Cook” so as not to offend his Gospel listeners, Cooke would propel the same tune to Pop success by singing, “There’s not quite another/Quite as sweet as you/I love my girl, she’s so lovable.”

In other cases, it was the rich vocal harmonies of groups such as the Jordanaires and the Golden Gate Quartet that informed the sound of Pop, exerting an influence on everyone from the Girl Groups of the late 1950s and early 1960s to the hits of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Elvis Presley’s vocal stylings bore the unmistakable influence of the Gospel sound he had heard growing up in the poor neighborhoods of Tupelo and Memphis, where contact with African-American culture was often very direct. And, with the Jordanaires a part of his recording ensemble, white Gospel traditions were woven into the fabric of his music.

In this lesson, students will trace the influence of Gospel music on early Rock and Roll, particularly in R&B’s embrace of such key musical features as the call-and-response and in the uses of complex rhythms. The class will make side-by-side comparisons of Gospel and early Rock and Roll songs, as well as work in groups to chart the overall influence of Gospel on a range of different popular music genres.

View More


Upon completion of this lesson, students will Know (Knowledge):

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • Basic elements of Gospel music, including “call-and-response,” complex rhythms, group singing, and the employment of rhythmic instrumentation
    • Ways in which other musical genres “borrowed” musical elements from Gospel Music to create new sounds
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Make thematic connections between genres of music