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  October 30, 2000

Speaker Traces History of
'The Music That Captures the Soul'

After Horace Boyer's rousing lecture on gospel music, two things are clear: Gospel doesn't receive the credit it deserves and Boyer may have missed his calling.

Boyer, a professor emeritus of music theory and African American music at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, traced gospel's evolution during a talk Oct. 20 at the Rome Commons Ballroom.

Like a captivating preacher, he began his talk with statements that a non-believer might have found tough to swallow, and then proceeded to speak, sing and play the facts that proved his point.

"Gospel music is the most arresting music of the last half of the 20th century and is still reigning as we almost reach the end of the first year of this century," Boyer said. "It is not only being sung in liturgical churches.

It is even being used to sell McDonald's hamburgers and Oscar Mayer hotdogs."

His lecture was part of Celebrating Shout and Song, a daylong symposium celebrating the University's acquisition of the Samuel and Ann Charters Archives of Blues and African American Vernacular Music.

Modern gospel music began in 1906, Boyer said, when the woman who later founded the black Pentecostal church spoke in tongues at a revival.

"She resurrected that joyous music that had been sung during slavery," he said.

Racing between a piano, where he performed snippets of songs, a stereo he used to play some of the music he mentioned, and the podium, Boyer noted that slaves sang spirituals in order to give themselves the energy to keep working. Ministers in the early 20th century needed music that would generate the enthusiasm of those older spirituals. Gospel filled this need, but wasn't embraced by everyone.

"When the music first came out, black Baptists and Methodists were so embarrassed," he said. "The Baptists and Methodists said, 'These people have set us back 40 years,' but they kept listening to this sanctified music."

Mainstream religions stayed away from gospel until 1921 when the National Baptist Convention issued a gospel hymnal that introduced many gospel greats. While more denominations were discovering gospel music, its influence was also being felt in other musical disciplines.

"All African American music comes out of the same pot," Boyer said.

Harmonizing male a capella quartets, which have their roots in gospel, evolved to become one of the most important musical ensembles in the black community, he said. As these groups were embraced by and reflected African Americans, black church groups did their best to distance themselves.

"The black church choirs were trying to sing Bach and Handel. They hesitated to sing what they knew," Boyer said. "You were taught to be un-black."

Because black church choirs avoided singing gospel, male quartets dominated the music scene until Mahalia Jackson became popular in the 1950s, Boyer said.

"Mahalia was the epitome of the gospel singer because not only did she have a beautiful voice, but she sang in such a way that you thought she was singing for you," he said.

With Jackson's arrival, gospel went mainstream, Boyer said. Gospel singers began to appear on popular television shows like Dinah Shore and Ed Sullivan, and gospel night clubs sprang up around the country.

"As we entered the middle '60s, black gospel had elevated itself and was on the lips of half the people in the United States," Boyer said.

With gospel music enjoying a new popularity, singers tried adapting the music for choirs.

"The gospel choir was pitiful. Well, they were just alright until James Cleveland did something with them," Boyer said, to looks and laughs from members of UConn's Voices of Freedom choir, who attended and performed during his talk. "By this time, with James Cleveland - the first gospel singer to perform at Carnegie Hall - gospel had taken over the black community. This wasn't an easy thing to do because black intellectuals felt it didn't complement their lifestyles. Gospel, like the blues, was blue-collar music."

By the late 1960s, gospel's appeal broadened even further when Edwin Hawkins' version of "Oh, Happy Day" was sent to white radio stations instead of black gospel stations, Boyer said.

"All of a sudden, black gospel became American popular music," Boyer told the crowd, as he played a recording of Hawkins' top 10 hit.

Gospel has remained popular for the last several decades, with singers like Kirk Franklin becoming stars by fusing it with other musical forms.

And, according to Boyer, gospel's influence will continue to be far-reaching.

"Gospel has influenced every type of music since its time," he said, "and it is the music that captures the soul."

Allison Thompson