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Making a joyful noise

30 November 2010

Steve Tomkins on a history of gospel


An Illustrated History of Gospel: Gospel music from the early spirituals to contemporary urban
Steve Turner
Lion £18
Church Times Bookshop £16.20

WHEN the music magazine Rolling Stone published its list of “The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time”, it included blues, jazz, and country musicians among the rock stars, but not one gospel singer. And yet, as Steve Turner points out, one third of the people on the list “either sang in gospel groups as teenagers or were profoundly affected by gospel”. Lovers of contemporary music who have followed it back to its sources have tended to discover everything apart from gospel. Going on about God all the time seems to be a barrier.

Turner’s book (Features, 26 November) does a great deal to rectify that. Generously illustrated, it tells the story of the emergence of gospel music from slave spirituals and revivalism, its explosive success, its conflicts and colourful characters, and how it fed and crossbred with other music, up to today’s holy hip-hop.

There are great interviews, with gospel stars such as Thomas Dorsey, and with those who grew up with it and rejected it, such as Ray Charles. It offers a springboard into the music whose exuberance and flair, as Turner says of the Dixie Hummingbirds, “could make the sinner envy the saved”.

Dr Steve Tomkins is the author of The Clapham Sect (Lion, 2010).

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